“To the best of my knowledge, when you go to a restaurant-supply store to look at chairs, there is an idea of quick turn, medium turn, and slow turn” that influences the sort of chair you will buy.
“They have estimates about how long people will sit in them before they’ll just leave. You don’t have to say anything to them — they’ll just go away. It’s not a science, but the suppliers have a fairly good idea. They do surveys, and they have hundreds of people sit in them and see when the people get up. Generally, if the back is more upright, you won’t last as long. Also, if the seat is shallower — you don’t have enough support. If you are opening an inexpensive café and want a quick turn, you might opt for stiff, straight-backed, shallow-seat metal chairs. They’ll be attractive, but not conducive to long chats over postprandial coffee. If you’re outfitting the latest challenger to the gastronomic throne, you may look for something more hospitable.”
It is tempting to dismiss such a story as another urban legend, possibly born of a stiff back and sore backside following a less than dazzling meal at a cheap diner. But the storyteller here is Charles Matson, a man who has given more attention and thought to the matter of dining out than anyone I have ever met. The matter of chairs and their comfort-to-time ratio falls well within the realm of subjects about which he may be expected to possess sound knowledge.
Dining out has this in common with several other activities (such as driving): everybody does them, and so everybody assumes that they know how to do them. You call to make a reservation, you go to the restaurant at the appointed time, you sit, you order, you eat, you pay, you leave. The process requires no special skill or great effort — indeed, part of the purpose for going out at all is to reduce the amount of skill and effort required to enjoy a good meal. But just as some drivers are more aware of their surroundings and the factors influencing the safety and comfort of their journeys, there is at least one diner whose detailed sense of the restaurant experience affords him what he considers to be a greater degree of pleasure in his repast.
I first noticed Charles’s particular attention to this subject a few years ago, shortly before Valentine’s Day. He asked after my plans; I told him that my wife and I would, as usual, be enjoying a late dinner at home after the children had gone to bed. He complimented me on my good sense for not going out and wondered at the desperation that must be being felt by so many poor slobs as they scrambled for last-minute reservations.
How lucky they would have been to count Charles among their friends. In early January, or possibly late December, of the year previous, he had made Valentine’s Day reservations at several high-end restaurants around town. Then, as the lovers’ day approached, he was able to ask his date for the evening, in an offhanded sort of way, where she was interested in dining. Odds were, since he knew her tastes, she would name one of the places he had phoned a month earlier. He had the reservation in hand, his lady fair had her choice of establishments, and to top it off, he was in a position to play savior to some of his less farsighted friends. Rather than cancel his spare reservations, he farmed them out, thus granting prime restaurants and seating times to fellows who might have otherwise spent the better part of the evening waiting for a ten o’clock seating and the dulled attentions of an exhausted waiter at their second- or third-choice eateries.
Charles’s study of the matter has led to the development of an unwritten dining code, which he summarizes thusly: “Basically, when I get things, I get them done my way. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right way, but it’s the way I want it. I’m the customer, and that’s what I intend to get.” A brash attitude, perhaps, but it is not born of simple arrogance. It has been earned through experience and tempered by an understanding of the party on the other side of the power struggle — the restaurant. (Charles himself has worked either in or around the business for years.) Nor does it ignore the essential character of a particular establishment. Charles is not about to order a hamburger well-done at Mille Fleurs. He may, however, request that his salad be served after his entrée, or that his white wine be a little warmer than refrigerator temperature. “A lot of times,” he explains, “the purveyor doesn’t care [what I want]; they do things and they think that’s how it is and that’s what works best for me. So there’s a certain negotiation going on — them having the smooth flow, and you getting what you want. We’re doing a dance. It’s like, ‘Who’s most important here? Me, the customer? The kitchen? The server? Or the people behind us, [waiting for the table]?’ ”
Often, the purveyor assumes authority because no one else seems interested. The diner is content to be so much putty in the restaurant’s hands. The dining experience may be so infrequent as to be almost utterly foreign, or it may be so common as to attract no notice. Or there may be other influences, not the least of which is the intimidation of exquisite decor and exotic cuisine.
Charles was inoculated against this last factor early on. “I used to go out with a group of friends. We all appreciated wine, and we would all go to different restaurants. The idea was, someone would choose a restaurant and a theme, and we would all bring bottles and conduct tastings. A couple of my friends were more assertive than I was, and I saw the results — the squeaky wheel gets the grease. You say, ‘I don’t want that; I want that,’ and you get it. When you go out with a bunch of guys, you’re eating, you’re drinking — there’s no pressure. You’re not as afraid to make mistakes, because these are your buds.
“It’s not like going out with a date. You might go out [with women] just as often, but there are a lot more dynamics than just the food and the wine.” The feminine presence, often a civilizing factor, can serve to numb the basic urge to squawk when something is awry. You don’t want to seem a boor.
The quality of foreignness can also serve as a deterrent to self-assertion. “I think most people dine out on Valentine’s Day, which is a nightmare; New Year’s Eve, which is just foolish; and an anniversary or birthday, which is fine, because that’s your day — you don’t have competition. It’s guaranteed that Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve can only be fair at best, just because of the volume [of customers] and the pricing and everything else. So if they’re dining four times a year, and two of them are atrocious experiences, that makes them not want to go out at other times of the year.” (During other conversations I had with him, Charles mentioned Mother’s Day, which is similarly awful in terms of “competition.”)
“When a birthday comes along, it’s like, ‘Do you want to go out?’ ‘No! Remember when we went out New Year’s Eve? It was crowded, our table wasn’t ready, we had to wait at the bar, they were out of everything, it was very expensive, and you had a bad time.’ ” Amid the clamor of holiday dinners, there is no possibility of getting things done your way, and if these meals make up the bulk of your experience, the feeling of helplessness might give way to despair. You might resign yourself to being a polite guest in someone else’s home, never asking for the sort of personal gratification you would feel comfortable requesting in more familiar surroundings.
But I suspect that, mostly, the situation is more akin to a man who is reading a book on his porch as the sun goes down. He is engrossed in his book, so he fails to notice that the light is getting poorer and the air is getting colder. He may register that he is not as happy as he was an hour ago, but he will not register the cause. Finally, his wife comes out of the house and breaks in on his literary communion. “Why don’t you come inside? Aren’t you cold? And isn’t it getting too dark to read out here?” He moves inside and is amazed at how much happier he feels. In the case of the restaurant, everyone is so busy paying attention to the food that everything else tends to go unnoticed.
Not so, Charles Matson. “I’ve been going to restaurants for half of my life, since I was 21. The first time I dined — when I was paying the bill — was when I took this girl out for her 21st birthday. It was great. I actually called a friend of mine beforehand — he told me [to use silverware from the] outside in, how to tip the hatcheck girl, and all that — because my parents didn’t know any of that. That was a milestone. I lost ten pounds; I was very nervous. The servers really helped me ease that. If I used the wrong thing, they weren’t going to grab it away from me, but they did little things, like, ‘Perhaps you’d like this [instead of that].’ Like the snails. They would probably have said something like, ‘Have you ever had them before?’ ”
Following his initiation, Charles “would go out once a year, on my birthday or something like that. Then it picked up a lot when I was 23. By 25, I was out of control; 25 to 30 is when I really went wild. I’m more particular now. I probably dine at least every other month.” This does not include his regular research expeditions: evenings when he will go out on his own to expensive restaurants (he is single), “belly up to the bar, see what wines they have by the glass, order some appetizers, get the vibe, and skate out.”
For my part, I have been “dining,” as Charles calls it, since a very young age. As early as 5, I was being taken on the occasional outing to an upscale restaurant with my brother and parents and grandparents. Something in it must have appealed to me, because for my 16th birthday, I asked my grandfather to take me to L’Auberge du Cochon Rouge, the swankiest restaurant I knew of in nearby Ithaca, New York. My friend Jason had dined there and let on that it was très chic. I did not want to be outdone.
We arrived on the happy evening and were immediately charmed. The restaurant was situated in an old house; I still recall the wide-plank floorboards. Candles lined the walls, supported by great sconces covered with wax drippings. The tables were few and generally small, the air hushed and full of murmurs.
Our party of six soon put an end to that. My father’s laugh has never boomed into the silence as it did that night. We did not belong there; we were too jovial, too talkative. The waiters began to appear with less and less regularity; our (outstanding) seven-course meal took a full five hours to consume, and not because we were slow eaters. One particularly egregious and wonderful moment: my brother ordered a soup — I think it was cauliflower — which, when we ate it at home, was served hot. At the restaurant, it was served cold, a quality not mentioned on the menu. Mark signaled the waiter.
“Excuse me, my soup is cold.”
“Yes, sir, it is a chilled soup.”
“Oh. It didn’t say that on the menu. Would you mind heating it up?”
The only thing colder than the soup was the waiter’s demeanor. He looked at Mark with a mixture of contempt and horror, then took the soup back toward the kitchen in silence. When he returned, the soup was literally bubbling, a grand gesture of defiance from the kitchen. For years, we wondered what would have happened if Mark had told the waiter that the soup was now too hot and that he would like it cooled off a little.
Many years and many restaurants later, I encountered Charles Matson and began to be curious to see a dinner through his eyes. So I asked him to take me through a couple of dinners out, providing commentary as we went. He chose the restaurants, based partly on their reputation for food and partly on their reputation for service. Our first meeting was at Vivace at the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad.
I called and asked for an eight o’clock reservation for two on Saturday, November 11, of 2000. The receptionist replied, “We have an opening at 8:45.”
“Could I have that, then?”
“Okay, no problem.”
Around eight o’clock, I arrived at Aviara, gave my keys to the valet-parking attendant, and made my way to the lounge. I sat beholding the generous appointments of the bar, nursing an $11 bourbon (you’re paying for a lot more than the drink here), waiting for my guest. Charles arrived, sat down, and ordered a Pellegrino from the manager — his gray suit set him apart from the waiters, as did the manner in which he drifted from table to table, monitoring everyone’s happiness — who appeared a moment later. Soon after that, a waiter approached our table, but the glass he set before Charles was full of Four Seasons Pale Ale.
“There may have been some miscommunication,” began Charles, unperturbed. “What I wanted was Pellegrino sparkling water.”
“Pellegrino,” repeated the waiter, puzzled. “Well, this wouldn’t be that.”
“With my accent and the music going on, a lot of different things could have occurred,” offered Charles, oozing kindness. Though it was true that we were seated next to the guitar player, Charles’s voice carries very little accent — if anything, he speaks with a slight twang that makes his speech clearer than most.
“Would you care for the beer anyway?” asked the waiter, eager to make amends. Charles accepted; the waiter went back for his Pellegrino and returned forthwith. Charles was pleased. “The server was outgoing; he took care of the situation and left the beer. A lot of places, they make you feel guilty, as if you must have mumbled. Here, it was, ‘We made a mistake — the beer is on the house.’ ”
Earlier, Charles compared the interaction he has with a restaurant to a dance. He also mentioned that his evaluation of his partner may begin even before he has requested that she join him on the floor — that is, before he has made his reservation. Often, he has already been there and “gotten the vibe,” along with some appetizers. Proceeding, then, to the request, which gives him a sense of what sort of partner he’s dealing with. “I would have liked to have been there when you called,” he told me. “I wish I could have listened to what they said, counted how many times they used your name. Three times is the [ideal]. ‘Thank you, Mr. Lickona, that will be two people at 8:45 this Saturday, November 11. We look forward to seeing you, Mr. Lickona.’ That’s twice; that’s the minimum.” As it happened, I didn’t get one.
Charles commented on my inability to get eight o’clock, a failure that didn’t surprise him. “Our table was probably a 6:30 reservation that they were counting on being gone by 8:30. It may have been a larger party — perhaps one requiring a six-top table, so named because it seats six diners — so they gave it an extra 15 minutes. If you said, ‘Eight,’ and they suggested 8:45, it was probably a larger-top table.”
Eight o’clock, it turns out, is something of a holy grail to Charles, an all but impossible reservation time, falling as it does slightly beyond the traditional end of the first turn and slightly before the traditional beginning of the second turn. (A “turn” is Charles’s term for the time taken at the table by a given party before the table “turns over” to another party. If you are first turn, you are the first party seated at that table on a given night.) “I once called a restaurant; I think I wanted 8:00. They said, ‘We have 7:30 or 8:30.’
“ ‘If I’m at 8:30, am I at the beginning of the second turn?’
“ ‘Yes, you heard me.’
“ ‘Well, there is a table seated before you, but they’ll be gone by 8:30.’
“ ‘What about 7:30?’
“ ‘No, you’d be the first one.’
“ ‘Oh, that’s what I want.’
“I want to be the first one seated at the table. That way, I don’t have to wait for anyone. Otherwise, you’re gambling.” He outlined an ugly and plausible scenario: “Someone calls [shortly before a very busy night like Valentine’s Day] and says, ‘Do you have anything around 7:00 or 8:00?’
“ ‘No, but we have 5:30 or 9:30.’
“ ‘Oh, I’ll take 5:30.’
“Now, what happens is, they’re at work at five o’clock. There’s no way they’re going to be able to get home and change and get to the restaurant by 5:30, but they don’t want to deal with not having a Valentine’s Day reservation. Plus, when you take something you don’t really want, you don’t feel obligated to get there when you agreed to. So they call at 20 to 6:00 and say, ‘We’re running a little late; we’ll be there in a few minutes,’ which basically means 20 minutes. Since they’ve called, the restaurant can’t really give their table away.” A half hour after their reservation, they sit down to dine. “The people who get hurt are the people scheduled after them, who called a month ahead of time and said, ‘I want a 7:30 reservation.’ ” Their table, which would have been available had the 5:30 couple been on time, is now occupied. Given a standard two-hour dining time, they are in for an extended wait at the bar. “They feel that the restaurant is very irresponsible, because now they’re waiting a half hour for a reservation they made a month ago.”
Further, “Once people pay the check, a lot of people say to themselves, ‘We don’t want any more food. We’ve paid our bill. But we don’t want to go. We spent a lot of money, and we want to stay. It’s very comfortable. We like it here.’ Sometimes people stay and have coffee and things that are virtually gratis. That’s why it’s very dangerous to be the second turn. Last seating of the first turn [eight o’clock] is the gem of gems.”
Another player has now encroached on the dance between Charles and the restaurant — the other diners. Those who come before him, he seeks to avoid; but there are also those who may come after. And despite his primary attention to getting what he wants, he does not ignore their shadowy presence in his world. This thoughtfulness is not without a touch of self-interest. Charles is a marathon diner; to be the second turn behind his first turn would mean disaster. So he gives fair warning. “I usually announce it when I make my reservation. I tell them, ‘You’re never going to see this table again. I am a four- or five-hour diner. If I sit down at 6:00, I will be there at 10:00; you need to know this. But you also need to know that I will order a minimum of two bottles of wine and a minimum of four courses. So you’re going to get more revenue from me than if you turned the table. But I don’t want someone sitting at the bar going crazy.’
“Most managers are great [with this], because they usually have enough tables. They just don’t plan on the table for the second turn. They may seat me at a less desirable table, because if I am someone who is eating for four hours, I’m probably more interested in the food than in looking out the window or something — which is okay. So negotiations kind of begin at the beginning.” (Since we were second turn that evening, no warning was required.)
The second step, after the reservation, is the arrival. Here, the restaurant has the opportunity to take control, and there is little that you, the diner, can do. Though you have made a reservation and arrived on time, you may still be asked to wait. This may not be the restaurant’s fault — they cannot necessarily control when a table becomes available — but it is still a matter of their telling you how your evening will progress.
One tactic they may employ to placate you is what Charles refers to as the “20-minute rule.” “If you say to a party that their table will be ready in 15 minutes, most people will come up after 10 minutes and ask, ‘Is my table ready?’ If you say [at the outset] that it will be another half hour, they’ll say that’s too long. But if you say 20 minutes, most people wait.” And once they’re waiting, the restaurant can stretch the time. For example, “If they have an eight o’clock reservation, and they get there at five of eight and you say it’ll be 20 minutes, [you can] seat them at 8:30. But if you say it’ll be 10 or 15 minutes, then in 5 minutes they’re, like, ‘Where’s my table?’ ”
In extreme circumstances, drastic measures may be taken. “Let’s say you [the restaurateur] book a table at 9:30, because ten o’clock is too late — no [customer’s] going to [take] that. You might even say 9:15. They get there and you say, ‘Oh, we’re just waiting for another table to finish up. We’ll just be a few moments; perhaps you’d like to have a drink at the bar.’ That will give you 20 minutes, at which point they’ll reassess. Push comes to shove, you comp a drink at the bar [for the guests at the table]. You say to the diners, ‘I need the table.’ It’s worth two cognacs. Some people take it really hard. Yeah, it’s been three and a half hours, but a lot of people are, like, ‘This is our table; how could you ask us to go to the bar?’ It’s walking a very tight line.”
By this point, my bourbon was drained. The manager stopped by and asked if I would care for another cocktail. I glanced at my watch and replied that we would be going in to eat in a moment. Charles suggested that I have the man check if our table was ready, thus allowing us to remain seated in the lounge until the moment when we could drift uninterrupted to our appointed seats. The manager left to see about our table, and I signaled for the bill. (I signed it without a second glance; only later did I discover that we had been charged for the beer we never ordered.) A few minutes later, he returned and informed us that our table was ready.
We ambled down the hall to the restaurant entrance, where we suffered our second stumble of the evening. We gave the name to the hostess, and she asked us to let her check our table. She then slipped a piece of paper to a passing employee, who disappeared into the restaurant. Then she turned to another hostess, and the two of them began a hushed discussion, leaving us to stare at their backs. We stepped back from the hostess station to wait. Another party arrived; the hostesses turned them back toward the bar, saying their table would be ready in a few minutes.
After a few minutes of our own, the employee returned, and we were led to our table, tucked into a back corner of the restaurant just next to the heavy wooden doors that led to the balcony. Charles commented, “Since we had checked the table ahead of time, when we came up, it should have been, ‘Oh, Mr. Lickona, your table is ready.’ They should have known what table you were headed for — it’s not like, ‘We have three tables, and he’s going to be getting one of them.’ ”
Charles added more comments, general in nature. “When the manager came up and asked if the Lickona table was ready, they should have asked things like, ‘Is it two gentlemen? Is it a man and a woman? Does it look like family — two brothers, father and son?’ Something about what the dynamics of the table are. Did you see all those [side-by-side] banquettes that we passed? Those are for couples; it would have been very inappropriate to seat us there. That’s the kind of information they need to make an accurate assessment; otherwise, you can’t make a proper decision” about where to seat a given party. “He probably said, ‘It’s two guys, probably business; put them off to the side.’ ”
The mystery, then, was the delay. Why did we have to wait? “Sometimes they do that just to make sure that the table really is ready. The last thing you want is to come all the way to the table and [discover] that two people over there decided that they liked this table better and decided to move without mentioning it to anyone. That usually doesn’t happen at a place like this, but it does happen.
“You also noticed that they turned their backs on everyone and talked to each other. That’s something you have to be really careful of. Turning your back on a guest is something that’s never interpreted as good. [As a customer], I’m sitting there, and all my paranoia is coming up to the surface: ‘My table’s not ready. They’ve lost my reservation.’ All those fears and uncertainties. [The restaurant] is supposed to make sure I have no uncertainties, only confidence.” Sending the manager had not been a wasted effort, however; we had at least given notice of our arrival. “If we hadn’t checked from the bar, that other party that came up while we were waiting would probably be sitting here.”
Frederick, our waiter, appeared promptly with the wine list, his arrival as soft and unobtrusive as his overall manner. He proceeded to tell us about the evening’s specials, “which might affect your decision about wines tonight.” After running through the list, which included ingredients and methods of preparation, he asked, “May I bring something else for you to drink while you relax with the wine list?” We ordered waters, and I asked Charles for his impressions so far. “The hostess should have opened our napkins [when we sat down]; that’s to be done. My guess as to why she didn’t is that she’s running a little behind on changing tables. She needs to get back to seat more parties.”
We continued chatting, settling into the happy snail’s pace that marks Charles’s meals. When Frederick arrived with the waters, Charles told him we would probably need a few minutes. When he checked back a few minutes later, we still hadn’t taken a serious look at our menus. The wine list, however, had at least been broached.
“Am I rushing things?” he asked, his tone blended from equal parts humor and genuine curiosity.
“No,” answered Charles, “we’re right at the point where we’re going to have a beverage.”
“Oh — ha-ha.” There was the tiniest hint of wonder in his laugh — was this man serious?
Charles ordered two glasses of champagne from different producers (he is fond of variety, and I was happy to share), his preferred opening to any dinner. That was all. “We’ve only just begun,” he said smiling. Frederick left; Charles turned to me. “I generally use euphemisms like that. Right now, he’s gathering information — ‘Am I rushing you?’ He’s building up a sense of timing. It takes a little while; you walk on eggshells until you get into a groove — ‘Are [the diners] uptight? Are they very California? Are they demanding? Are they from New York City?’ The server is constantly taking in information, like a little child.”
I asked after his general approach to waiters. “You’re starving and you’re in their hands. You have to make friends with them. You don’t have to, but it’s best for all parties concerned to meet halfway. It’s best to smile and be friendly and use direct eye contact — give them an idea that you’re here to have fun, not to make their life miserable. You just want to have a good meal, drink some wine. If you set a light, happy tone, generally they’ll feed off that: you’re happy, you’re loving life, having a good time.”
Which is not to say you’re inviting him into your circle of intimates. “I usually don’t have to handle overfamiliarity, because I set up an East Coast wall. How you speak to them is generally how you’re spoken to. So you set a tone of levity [but also make it clear that] ‘I’m the paying person; you’re the one who is to take care of my wants and needs.’ They often sense that. It also depends on where you go. The higher end [the restaurant], hopefully, the more professional they tend to be.” (Throughout the evening, Frederick, while warm, seemed to understand Charles’s wishes in this matter. He chatted where he thought appropriate — in particular, about the wines — and kept a friendly distance the rest of the time.)
When Frederick returned, he was carrying a tray. On the tray stood two empty champagne flutes and two open bottles of champagne. Frederick placed one flute in front of Charles, lifted one of the bottles of champagne from the tray, poured Charles’s glass in a narrow, steady stream, returned the bottle to the tray, placed my flute in front of me, lifted the second bottle from the tray, poured my glass, and returned the second bottle to the tray. He never paused and he never trembled, despite the strain of placing and pouring with one hand while keeping the champagne-laden tray balanced with the other. We were duly impressed. “That is so wonderful,” marveled Charles as Frederick turned to carry the tray — no doubt getting heavier by the second — back to the kitchen. “I have never seen that. That was one of those things you forget, and when it comes back to you, you say, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful.’ ”
“Feeling hunger pangs?” asked Frederick when he returned at 9:25. A smile tugged at his lips as he said this; the question was almost certainly rhetorical. Charles ordered appetizers — lobster carpaccio and prosciutto di Parma — nothing more. Five minutes later, Frederick reappeared. “We should be arriving with your appetizers in just a moment. Do you know what you might like to have follow them, and then I can get your menus out of the way?”
“We do,” answered Charles. “Not the menus, but we do know what we want to follow the appetizers. We’re going to jump into the baked parmesan custard with wild mushrooms.”
“One to share?”
By now, the pace and practice were beginning to become clear: We were not in a hurry and would not be hurried. “He’s gathering information,” nodded Charles. “A daunting try. The kitchen is trying to get the whole order in — ‘Where are we? How much more do we have to prepare? What can we clean up and start putting away?’ If he comes back and says, ‘Are you ready to order now?’ at a certain time, that means he’s getting heat from the kitchen — or he just wants to get home. It’s a fine line. But if you don’t give your order to them, they have nothing to do. We’ve taken control of the situation, and that’s the part I like.”
Tempo does as much as anything in dictating the nature of a particular dance, and it is especially in this matter that Charles refuses to be led. “The general flow of a restaurant is this: they’re looking at about 20 minutes to a half hour per course. You order your meal; after 15 or 20 minutes, your first course comes.” Twenty minutes later, if you order it as a separate course, your salad. “Twenty minutes, entrée; then 20 minutes, dessert. That gives you a flow in the restaurant — about an hour and a half to two hours per turn.
“That’s why I often withhold information [about my order]. Once I give up my order, I can’t get it back. They’ve got it. If you send food back [because you’re not ready for it], that’s a very touchy area. There was a time when they would say, ‘What would you like for your entrée?’ when they took my appetizer order. I would say, ‘I would like this,’ and as dinner went along and the entrée came out, I would say, ‘Oh, I don’t want it now.’ And they were, like, ‘It’s been prepared.’ ‘Who decided that?’ ‘Well, we did, because, you know…’ And then you send it back,” a sensitive matter. “These people are controlling your food; you don’t want to get them upset.”
Even if the kitchen isn’t upset enough to let your subsequent orders get shuffled to the bottom of the pile, there is the danger posed by the heat lamp that is likely to watch over your entrée as it waits for you to ready yourself to receive it. Cream sauces break; meat begins its journey from medium rare to medium.
Frederick’s curiosity about our readiness to order made me wonder if we weren’t irritating the kitchen even as we avoided sending things back by not ordering. “It’s 9:30,” Charles granted, “but this is a Saturday night, which is totally different than pulling this on a Tuesday or a Friday. Also, you asked for an eight o’clock, which is impossible to get, but that’s okay. The point is, you asked for something they weren’t able to provide; you were accommodating and they were accommodating. ‘Sorry, Mr. Lickona, we don’t have eight o’clock, but we do have something at 8:45.’ That doesn’t mean that they take 45 minutes out of your dining time; you get the same amount of time.”
At 9:30, the appetizers arrived via busboy. Three minutes after that, Frederick approached and asked how everything was, thus establishing a pattern that would endure throughout the evening. Three to seven minutes after each arrival, there would be a check to make sure we were satisfied. At 9:49, he came ’round again, this time to inquire about a wine to go with the custard. Charles ordered a glass of Sangiovese; I decided to let Frederick suggest something. Without hesitating, he named the Whitehall Lane Merlot. I accepted.
“Do you know what you’d like to have after the custard?” asked Frederick, ever tactful, ever hopeful. We gratified him and ordered our entrées but remained undecided on our accompanying wine.
“That was well done,” said Charles when I ask about Frederick’s wine recommendation. But to Charles’s eye, it was not perfect. “My general read is — and this is definitely from my prejudices — that merlot is just kind of what everybody offers to everybody. I tell my friends, ‘Go into a store, tell them you’re having roast beef, hamburgers, or whatever, and merlot is generally what you’ll find suggested.’ I wonder if that’s actually a suggestion based on the quality of the wine — Whitehall Lane is a good winery — and the type of the dish, or if it’s because it’s kind of safe. That’s what merlot is: it’s a safe wine.”
At 9:58, the custard arrived, along with the wine. Frederick repeated the ritual with the tray and the glasses and the bottles. The performance was only slightly less amazing this time, since we had seen it done once, and since still wine bottles usually don’t weigh as much as champagne bottles. The great difference was in the receptacle. Our glasses were Spiegelau crystal, and they were shaped differently from one another. Charles’s burgundy glass was shorter and broader, with a great flare from the stem that turned sharply inward as the glass made its way up to the rim. Mine was designed for Bordeaux: taller, with a more uniform, less drastic curve. Frederick filled them both to what Charles later said was the universal limit, regardless of glass size or shape — the widest point of the bowl. After he left, Charles was off and running.
“It’s a proper pour, but because of the shape of the glass, I actually got a significant amount more wine than you. Seriously, though, this is too much wine. If you swirled this [to aerate the wine and bring forth the flavors], you could snap the stem very easily. I was ready to stop him halfway through his pour, but I figured, we paid for it, and you can’t get half a pour. Did I ever tell you about Fleming’s? When you order a glass of wine, they give you a little carafe, and you pour it yourself. If I could get them to bring out the bottle and pour it into a carafe, I would have the best of both worlds. It’s more work for the dishwasher, though.”
Frederick checked back five minutes later. At 10:07, we ordered our wine for the entrées. At 10:10, it arrived. The entrée followed at 10:15. The hour and the wine cast a warm haze over our meal, a haze that was punctured only once in the course of the evening. The offending agent was a puff of sour cigar smoke, carried on the wind created by the balcony door as it closed behind a departing patron.
The smell summoned up Charles’s memories of servers past. “This was before the law that said you couldn’t smoke in California restaurants. My friend John and I had gone to this restaurant in San Francisco earlier in the week to have lunch, and after lunch, I chose a bottle of wine for our dinner: the 1959 Château Palmer. It was a very special occasion; we were on vacation. Now, the number of people who go in and order a bottle for Saturday night on a Wednesday is very, very small; these are obviously anal people who take their wine way too seriously.” But self-deprecation aside, this was not a minor bottle, and neither was the expense involved.
“I called and asked for the nonsmoking section, and I told them I would be having a nice wine. We went, and we had a great evening — wines preceding the Palmer, the grand finale, blah blah blah. The chef actually prepared our meal — I knew the sous chef — and he had come out and was sitting with us at the end of the night. It was a moment. We were finishing the last of the bottle, savoring our last sips, and across the room, a guy lights up a cigar. John just goes, ‘You’re on, Charles.’
“I called the waiter over and asked, ‘When I called the restaurant, I asked for the nonsmoking section. Is this that section?’
“ ‘Yes it is, sir.’
“ ‘That gentleman is in my section, smoking a cigar.’
“ ‘Well, sir, it’s late at night; you’re the last two tables.’
“ ‘Where is he; and where am I?’
“ ‘He asked me, and I let him.’
“ ‘Did you ask me?’
“ ‘So who’s going to pay for the last of [the Château Palmer]? I won’t charge you for the whole bottle; that wouldn’t be fair. But there are 2 ounces left in my glass and an ounce or so in my friend’s glass. That’s 3 ounces in a 24-ounce bottle. Are you going to pay for that?’
“ ‘Right now, my ’59 Palmer smells like a cigar. If you had asked me, “Mr. Matson, the gentleman over there would like to smoke a cigar,” I would have said, “Give me ten minutes. I’ll finish this, we’ll have some cognac, and we’ll all smoke cigars.” He asked you, because he knew he was in the nonsmoking section, and you let him. But you didn’t talk to me, and now we have an issue. Do you think I should have to pay for this 3 ounces of Château Palmer?’ ”
Charles’s reaction may seem harsh, the mark of a man too tied up with his taste buds. But it is a fact that taste and smell are intimately bound up, and consequently, when you try to taste a delicate wine like an old Bordeaux in a room laced with cigar smoke, all you are going to taste is cigar smoke and acid. Charles did not disclose the wine’s price, but a reputable Bordeaux with 40 years or so of bottle age can easily fetch $500 in a restaurant. Five hundred dollars divided by 24 ounces comes out to around 20 bucks an ounce — that’s $60 worth of wine that Charles would not be enjoying.
I was a little shaken by his account of the confrontation — I come from the school that suffers in silence and then complains afterward to people who can’t do anything about it — but also a little impressed. “We went back and forth, and my friend the chef was, like, ‘Down boy!’ I said, ‘All right; it’s as much principle as anything else. I’m doing it for all the future diners who are going to be there.’ A little communication would have gone a long way. That was actually one of the times when I was a bit more aggressive than normal, because I was pretty upset.”
Ten-eighteen brought another check to ensure that everything was all right, which it most emphatically was. At 10:55, we ordered dessert; it arrived at 11:07. One last check, and then the bill arrived at 11:40.
I left a happy man but felt that there was more to be gathered from Charles’s store of experience. I realized that I had given in to the same tendency I decried at this story’s outset — I had paid too much attention to the food. We agreed to meet again at El Bizcocho in the Rancho Bernardo Inn, another restaurant with a fine reputation for service, on the Saturday before Valentine’s Day, 2001: February 10.
This time, when I called for the reservation, I asked for six o’clock. The hostess offered 6:15. I accepted and then followed Charles’s policy of letting the restaurant know that the table would probably be tied up for the duration of the evening. “Thank you, sir, we appreciate your letting us know.” Very gracious. But I still didn’t get a “Mr. Lickona.”
At 6:15 we were led to our table; the restaurant was still all but empty. The moment our chairs were drawn up to the table, our waiter, Arthur, appeared — I didn’t even notice if our napkins were placed upon our laps. “Good evening, gentlemen, how are you? Would you like a cocktail, or I’ll be right back with your menus and wine list?” We opted for the list, and Arthur disappeared. His speech was clipped and clear, just this side of too fast for comfortable listening. We had been seated at a stand-alone table (as opposed to a banquette) near the far wall, right next to and just before two two-top banquettes — lovers’ tables. Valentine’s was fast approaching; the banquettes’ occupants were the savvy diners who put pleasure before sentiment and avoided the rush. Arthur was working all three tables; I noticed that he paused to chat with the lovers for a moment before taking their orders. When he inquired — politely — after our welfare, he seemed to pause in his motion without quite stopping his momentum, hanging suspended upon our orders. Perhaps he knew we were there for the duration, and for the food.
When he returned with the list and the menus, he offered water. “Evian would be great for myself,” said Charles, and then Arthur vanished before I could speak. “I can only speak for myself,” Charles said to me. It seemed likely that Arthur had heard “Evian would be great,” and concluded that Charles was ordering for the table. “For myself” might not have registered.
Once again, the ritual began. “My show is, definitely start with bubbly, just because it allows time to kick it while we’re looking at the menu and deciding what we’re going to do. That’s probably going to take 15 to 20 minutes, which is a long time to go without some kind of refreshment. I usually start with water, get the wine list, order a glass of bubbly, then outline the meal — the number of courses, food-wine combinations…”
Charles was not dazzled by the by-the-glass champagne, a Piper Heidsieck, and there was no sparkling wine by the glass. “Most restaurants offer a house sparkler and a French champagne…usually a low-end and a high-end.” Happily, he found a long list of half-bottles at the back of the book and, after being tempted by a still Chablis, decided on the Perrier-Jouët.
Moments later, Arthur appeared. “Have you peeked at the menu?”
“Not at all.”
“Can I get some wine for you?”
Arthur took the order and slipped away. Soon after, we thought we discovered part of the reason for the quickness in his speech and step: two eight-tops, their rounded edges almost touching, loomed behind me like storm clouds on the horizon. The tables looked set up to receive a single party.
A few minutes later, Arthur returned to list the evening’s specials and to explain the duality in the menu — ultra-traditional French on the left, more modern California on the right. While he spoke, a server arrived with the champagne and busied himself with setting up an ice bucket and placing our glasses in front of us. I noticed, from his name tag, that he was the sommelier; Charles did not. After Arthur’s explanation ended, the sommelier, whose name was Mike, held the bottle out for Charles’s approval. Charles nodded; the sommelier poured. Charles stopped him at about a third of a glass (a subject that will be addressed in a moment). I found the sommelier’s motions during the description of the specials slightly distracting — the list of specials was long and detailed — but Charles said that he didn’t worry about it, “because from an efficiency standpoint, it works.” He did wish that the bubbly had arrived first, for purposes of refreshment. “I would have liked to sip champagne while I listened to the spiel. If I can kind of sit back and sip, you’ll have a lot more of my attention. When I’m thirsty, I’m still waiting.”
We turned to the menu. “Foie gras is something I consider myself something of a connoisseur of. Very rarely do I step into a restaurant and not try their foie gras if they have one. I drink champagne with mine, but they’ll most likely offer me a sauternes. I would be very surprised if they didn’t; in fact, it would be a faux pas if they didn’t. That’s what everyone has with it — except me. That’s one of the reasons I want to have it.”
We decided to retreat into the Old World, sticking to the left side of the menu. When Arthur returned, Charles began — breaking policy a little — by ordering all three appetizers. “We’re going to start with the gravlax.”
“No, we’re just going to split the one. And we’re going to split an order of the snails and — is the foie gras served hot?”
“It’s a chilled preparation, au torchon. He takes it and rolls it in cheesecloth and poaches it in red wine. We have a Château Guiraud dessert wine [a sauternes], or the champagne would go perfectly with the foie gras as well.” The sauternes–foie gras faux pas was avoided, and apparently Charles was not the only one who had ever decided on champagne as an accompaniment. “Do you want to do the champagne with the gravlax and then we’ll do the snails and the sauternes with the foie gras after that?”
“We’re not going to do the sauternes.”
“Would you like the foie gras split?”
“And by then, we’ll probably think about the next entrée.”
While we waited, Charles ruminated on the splits we had ordered. “The proper way is to have it split in the kitchen. On the other hand, a lot of people like tossing plates back and forth; it’s like shaking hands. It means you’re building a level of intimacy, and a lot of people enjoy that.”
The gravlax arrived — split in the kitchen — cold followed by cold (foie gras) before the hot snails.
We ate in bliss; the snails arrived. “This would be a good time for [the waiter to pour] more champagne,” observed Charles, peering at his nearly drained glass. “I’m going to wait a few seconds and see what happens. There are three snails. I’ll have one before I reach over and grab the bottle myself. Then we’ll see how long between my reaching over and someone coming over.” Charles ate a snail, reached for the bottle, and filled his glass. Thirty seconds later, Arthur appeared and filled my glass — about halfway. This was higher than ideal for Charles, though hardly excessive by ordinary standards. “For one second, he stopped at a third of a glass, which is where we told him to stop before, but then he went over.”
Charles wasn’t too fazed; I gathered that he thought fill level is something the waiter needs to learn as the meal progresses, just as Frederick needed to learn the pace at which we wished to dine. Charles will not always wait for this; on occasion, he will request that he be left to pour his own glass, so as to keep it never more than a third full — the better to sample its aroma. Again, it is a question of who is in control, Charles or the restaurant.
“Part of restaurants that I find [difficult] — and this is a personality quirk of mine — is that you give up control over the wine. They have your wine. In a lot of restaurants, higher-end or European or whatever you want to call them, you would never have that bottle of wine there [next to our table]. What they do is have it along the wall over there. It would have our table number on it, and our sparkling water would be there and our red wine. I like having my property within reach. Once I’ve ordered it, I’ve purchased it; it’s my property.
“I went out with this girl one time and we’re sitting there, and my water glass is empty, my champagne is empty, and there it was [on the side table]. She was, like, ‘You can’t get up. You wouldn’t dare. I would die.’ I said, ‘Then you explain to me how we can remedy this situation.’ ‘Just wait.’ ‘That’s not how I like to do things.’ Luckily, someone came and saved the day.” On the other hand, such a situation provides a waiter with an opportunity to shine. “When I went up to Patina [in Los Angeles], I walked into the restaurant and they took my bottle of wine. I was pretty nervous; I couldn’t get [what was] mine. But even though it was a busy Saturday night, the waiter would just come [at the appropriate moment] and give me my splash of red wine and disappear. I didn’t know where he came from; he must have had mirrors or something. It was a real treat.”
That evening, our bottle was within reach; Charles could have poured if he wished. “If I had said to the waiter, ‘I’ll pour my own,’ he would probably go to the maître d’ and say, ‘Table 14 wants to pour their own wine.’ He would do this for two reasons: one is to let the maître d’ know that he is not slacking — otherwise, it’s like, ‘What are you doing? His glass is barely a third full!’ The other is to keep other people from coming over and trying to fill my glass. I should only have to say it once. But sometimes, I don’t want to pour it. Sometimes, I want them to get an idea of where I want it. When I let them fill it when it’s here [near empty], and I stop them when it’s here [one-third full], they’ll get an idea that that’s the range.” Despite his desired precision, he noted that the issue is not always crucial to his judgment of a restaurant’s service.
And the service, so far, had been dandy, from the kitchen outward. “You can tell from the time between the foie gras and the snails that the kitchen is very relaxed. If the kitchen didn’t know [we were planning on a long meal], believe me, there would have been one person standing there with the snails, and as they picked up your plates, the snails would have gone down — guaranteed. That’s how you know you’re being rushed.”
In this case, both kitchen and server had let us run the show. “I’m brutally hard [on servers],” admitted Charles, “but I think I’m pretty good on communication as far as ‘This is what I’d like; this is what I’m doing.’ I’m very specific about my requests: if there’s a salad that is part of the meal, I say, ‘I’ll have the salad after my entrée.’ ” Such a request is not without consequences. “That throws the kitchen off. You should spend a Saturday night in a kitchen and watch as the dukes come up, because the kitchen knows when you were seated. ‘Table 14, they sat down at 6:15, right on schedule.’ At the beginning of the night, they have a sheet that the maître d’ gives to the chef that says, ‘We have these tables coming in: three two-tops, one four-top, an eight-top, etc.’ They knew these three tables [ourselves and the two banquettes] would be the first ones down — generally, those two first, because they’re romantic and it’s right before Valentine’s Day. This would normally be their third, because if we were a couple, we’d say, ‘We’d like to sit over there [in a banquette].’ So they would block them out by putting bodies there first. The kitchen is ready for that [progression]. Now, the kitchen also realizes that we were down at 6:15; it’s 7:30, and they haven’t gotten an order for a second course or an entrée…” I was thankful that I had given warning.
Pressure, when it came, came not from the kitchen or waitstaff, but from our fellow patrons. The members of the double eight-top party, who had been massing at the bar for the past half hour like an army assembling for attack, began rolling toward their tables. “I’m seeing this eight-top sit down; we want to jump in with our next order ahead of them. They do have cocktails; it’s going to take ten minutes before they even sit down.”
We chose our soups — lobster bisque and roasted squash — and a half-bottle of white for after. “You keep an eye out for the waiter,” advised Charles. I caught Arthur’s eye, and he, sensing our wariness, assured us that he would get the orders right in. Our appetizers consumed, Charles lingered over his champagne; mine had long since departed. “I have these little quirks,” he announced in a burst of understatement. “You don’t finish the last of one wine until you order another. I don’t consciously not finish it, but it happens. You don’t want to get caught wineless or foodless.”
He cast his eye back to the double eight-top. “If things go well, they’ll take long enough to order appetizers for us to have our soup, they’ll get appetizers, we’ll do an entrée, and be ahead of them all the way. If we get behind them — for the kitchen to do 16 entrées, we would not get our entrée for a long time.” Had we been a recently arrived couple, hungry for a late dinner, the urgency would have been still greater.
The soup arrived in three minutes, at a perfect temperature for eating. Soon after, the maître d’ approached with our half-bottle of white wine. Charles declined a pour — he didn’t care for wine with soup — while I requested and received “just a splash.”
Our soup consumed, Charles joined me in relishing the white, a very well priced ’97 Vacqueyras. Charles perused the list, running over possibilities for our entrée wine. “Actually,” he mused, “we have enough wine that we don’t have to choose now. The waiter will come by, we’ll order, and by the time he takes the order, that will be our cue to start looking at the wine list.” The soon-to-be-swamped kitchen would have our food order, and we could turn our full attention to the wines.
Arthur glided up a moment later to ask how we were doing. This was always his question — never “Are you ready to order?” The question of ordering was always ours to raise. He merely wanted to check on our happiness. We ordered — duck for Charles, beef Wellington for me — and Charles asked, “Anything I should immediately have my attention turned to for the half-bottles of red wine?”
“Let’s see; you’re having duck and beef, duck and beef…”
“If it was easy, anybody could do it,” joked Charles.
“Right. Pinot noir…something full-bodied…”
“What kind of sauce is on the duck?”
“Bordelaise sauce. You could do a Bordeaux, something younger. The ’97 Lynch-Bages…”
Charles thanked Arthur, who departed for the kitchen with our order. “That was a good suggestion. Top producer, drinkable [read: lesser] vintage. The grapes actually got ripe. They weren’t green.” He continued to peruse, eventually discovering a ’95 Bordeaux from Troplong-Mondot, a château he used to collect. Arthur stopped by again, asked how we were doing, and took our wine order. Before he left, he filled our glasses precisely to the point where Charles had stopped him earlier. Charles was suitably impressed, but not as impressed as he was by what came next, which was arguably the high point of the evening for him.
Mike the sommelier arrived, and this time, there was no mistaking him. Before him, he pushed a garidon, or cart, upon which rode our half-bottle of Bordeaux in a (full-bottle) basket, a candle, a corkscrew, and a half-bottle-sized decanter. Charles, clearly awed by the display, still managed to smile and ask, “You don’t have baskets for half-bottles?”
“I know you’re joking,” replied Mike, “but we do have some. I can’t find them right now.” He then proceeded to uncork and decant the wine. As he poured, he held the neck of the bottle over the candle so that he could see any chunks of sediment, dropped by the wine as it aged, approaching the neck of the bottle. That way, he could slow his pour so as to keep the bits from spilling into the decanter.
Charles offered Mike a glass of the wine, which he accepted. I then let Mike give me a standard pour; Charles requested “about half that.” Finally, Mike arranged the bottle, our near-empty bottle of white, and the decanter into a neat tableau along one side of our table. Charles was delighted. “That’s only the second time I’ve ever seen that done. When I went to England and I ordered a bottle of ’70 Bordeaux, the sommelier brought out [the bottle on] a cart. He had this little [decanting] kit — he cut off the foil, he brushed it, he wiped it,” thus removing the grime accumulated by decades of aging in a damp cellar. “And they had these huge crystal glasses. I’m 25 years old, going, ‘Omigod. I really got my money’s worth.’ That was real service. It was a whole other level.”
The event touched on the question of tipping for service, an issue dear to Charles’s heart. He launched into his take on the matter, citing a case where “a table of six came [into a restaurant], and they ate and drank very well — in fact, they drank very well. The bill, for six people, was $2500. The majority of the bill was obviously wine. The maître d’ made a judgment call: for a party of six or more, they normally do an 18 percent gratuity. He went to them and said, ‘I’m going to leave it on you. Just to let you know, there is no gratuity added.’
“They left a hundred bucks. In other words, they didn’t tip at all on the wine. I knew that if the maître d’ had added the 18 percent, it would have been $476, because I heard it over and over again” from servers at the restaurant whom he knew.
Charles, if he had his druthers, would have tipped “20 percent on the food.” As for the wine, “I think they had six bottles. To be honest, I probably would have tipped no more than $20 a bottle, depending on the wine and all that, because they ordered some nice wine. The restaurant would have been very upset, because even that’s [only] $150 to $200 [total tip], and that would come out to less than 10 percent on the whole bill. But that’s what happens when you order a bottle of wine for $500. It’s like, ‘I’m sorry; I’m not going to give you $100 to open a bottle of wine.’ From the skill involved, [it’s not worth it]. These weren’t old wines or anything, they were just expensive. You’re paying a penalty for enjoying good wine.
“In addition, they take an extra markup because [of rarity or status]. Screaming Eagle is $2000 a bottle; [even] at 10 percent, that’s $200. I’m not tipping $200 on a bottle of wine just because I was stupid enough to order the $2000 bottle of wine to begin with. If I ordered the ’45 Mouton-Rothschild and they decanted it and brought out the Riedel crystal,” it would be another matter. “I guess it comes down to ‘What’s the difference between pulling a cork on a $20 bottle and a $500 bottle?’ The skill involved isn’t any different.”
Further, a flat fee per bottle would ensure a less interested suggestion from the sommelier. “I remember going to a restaurant back in the ’80s. I ordered what, on paper, looked like a good bottle of wine. The server said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with that selection. I have it available if you would like it, but I would recommend this [other wine]. I think it would be better with your dinner.’ We had eaten there before, so we had established a rapport with the sommelier. I felt very comfortable.”
But such comfort and assurance is the exception. “You’ve got to read between the lines: Is he saying, ‘Oh, I feel that the wine that’s more expensive is better’? If the waiter was getting the same amount of money per bottle, who cares if I order a $20 bottle or a $200 bottle? The tip is the same. What he really wants to do then is make me happy. If I enjoy a $40 bottle more than an $80 bottle, then I have $40 left to give some to him. [As it is] the motivation to have me buy a more expensive wine is not really to make me happy; it’s to make my bill bigger, and that’s a bad thing.”
This talk of flat fees led to Charles’s General Theory of Tipping. “My theory is based on the services rendered for expense. Let’s say you order the chicken and it’s $10, and I order the rack of lamb and it’s $30. The waiters walk back into the kitchen and they pick it up and they bring out yours and they bring out mine. Twenty percent on my $30 is $6; 20 percent on your $10 is $2. Has anything really different occurred? What have they done differently for my lamb than they’ve done for your chicken?
“I went up to Tra Vigne in Los Angeles with [a woman], and they brought out the fish — the whole fish — and deboned it tableside, served it onto one big plate, then divided the fish into three sections for each of us.” That was different; that required particular skills, “which is exactly what’s different about the restaurant we’re in this evening. They carve the rack of lamb by your tableside.” He was referring to an event we had seen earlier, an event promised on the menu. Out came the rack on a cart, seemingly from nowhere, stopping at one of the banquettes. The waiter took up his knife, carved the rack, and placed it on the plate before presenting it to the happy diner. “That’s worth 20 percent,” marveled Charles at the time. “He’s actually finishing [the dish] at tableside.” And at a restaurant like El Bizcocho, or Tra Vigne in L.A., “finishing” means more than making sure the meat is not sitting on top of the little mound of steamed vegetables. At this level, presentation counts.
“So my theory is that, for tipping, there should be a fee per plate, the way I was saying with the $20 per bottle of wine.” The idea, which seems tailor-made for multiple-course tasting menus — all that walking back and forth with tiny plates would pay off for waiters — is more than a little incendiary. That kind of merit-based thinking could lead to a fee-per-trip theory, since more work is involved in multitudinous back-and-forth journeys between kitchen and table. You could end up having a waitress in a diner bring a pot of coffee to your table 12 or 13 times and get a better tip than François the headwaiter at Chez Expensif, who leaves you to yourself unless absolutely necessary. In short, it violates the time-honored maxim that those who work the hardest make the least.
And so it remains, for now, a theory. “I don’t do it, because I have to go back [to restaurants]. One of the things you learn is to adjust yourself to the customs of where you are. When a Frenchman comes here, they should know that you can do 15 percent, but you can’t do 5. As much as I think this is a great idea that I’ve come up with, the reality is that in America in 2001, it is not socially acceptable. Maybe it will come up and be accepted little by little, like maybe at banquets or prix fixe dinners — instead of there being an 18 percent gratuity, there would be a $10-a-plate gratuity.”
In practice, what Charles generally does is tip 20 percent on the pre-tax bill. Exceptions are made for exceptional service. “I dined with my friend Ann at the French Laundry. It was time for dessert, and our waitress was saying that cabernet goes well with chocolate.” Charles hesitated. “She said, ‘How about port?’ ” Again, Charles demurred. “ ‘Maybe a sauternes?’ ” A third time, he shied away. “We were just at an impasse, and finally, she just walked away. Ann said, ‘Great, Charles, now we’re not going to get any wine. She made three suggestions, and you pooh-poohed all of them.’ Anyway, the girl comes back with six glasses — three for each of us — with all three of her suggestions.
“I knew they pool tips at the French Laundry, so I tipped 20 percent on the credit card, and then I went up to the girl and said, ‘Look, I know you guys pool tips, but you made our night special. I’m not skimping on them, but you went above and beyond; here’s an extra 20 bucks.’ When you go to the French Laundry, what’s 20 bucks? She really put up. It’s a nine-course meal, and right in the middle of it, we had some leftover pinot noir, and we wanted an extra course before we went on to the cabernet. She had to go back and tell the kitchen.”
So much for tipping; but the mention of Riedel crystal and Mouton-Rothschild started Charles in another direction, this one involving a flaw — sacrebleu! — in our place setting. At least, in Charles’s judgment it was a flaw. The overall theme was one of simplicity: plates were white and barely decorated by a few ridges. Silver was clean-lined and straightforward. But the glassware was too plain — the white wineglass too broad, the red too ballooned, the rims and stems too thick. They felt clunky, like something you might find in a midrange bistro. Here, it violated two of Charles’s rules. The first was more personal than anything: “One of my new standards in life is what I call ‘better than my home as a baseline’ when it comes to food, glasses, things like that. Because I consider myself at the bottom rung of material wealth in terms of knives, forks, plates, things like that. The same thing with wine.” His home glassware rated better than this, and that rankled him.
The second was more objective. “The key is balance. If you increase one aspect’s excellence, you need to increase the other. If you have Wedgwood china, you need to have crystal stemware. If you have crystal, you need to have different silverware. It all has to balance.” Here, the sumptuousness of the surroundings and the excellence of the wine list cried out for something better in the way of glasses.
Charles recalled a time when he was tempted by a ’70 Mouton-Rothschild from Bordeaux. “This was in ’91, so it wasn’t as old as it would be today, but it was 21-year-old first growth — they weren’t giving this away. Before I even ordered, I said, ‘Do you have other glassware [than what’s on my table] if I order this? Because if this is the only glassware you have, I’ll order something different.’ They literally went into the [adjoining] shop, pulled them right off the shelf, washed them, and said, ‘Here you go.’ If that was the only thing stopping me from buying that bottle of wine… But the thing is, they didn’t have enough to do that for the whole restaurant. Of course, the whole restaurant wasn’t ordering that kind of wine.”
(It sounds snooty, I know, but I sympathize. You’re paying a phenomenal premium to drink that kind of wine in a restaurant, and it’s understandable that you would want such a wine to deliver everything it possibly could. The giant-bowled, razor-thin-lipped crystal stemware Charles asked for helps concentrate aromas and deliver the wine to the right part of the palate. Some restaurants, in an effort to accommodate people like Charles, or just to acknowledge that paying hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine is an extraordinary event, will keep a second set of crystal that gets brought out for the big boys. The problem here is that other tables can see the good stuff being hauled out, and they may wonder, “Why wasn’t my bottle good enough? What do I have to pay to get the good glassware?”)
The fire was in the belly now; and Charles leveled his first real criticism at our waiter. Given the fact that there was a sommelier on the floor, “He overstepped his boundaries of expertise” when it came to suggesting a red wine for our entrées. “His recommendations were good, but there is someone [here] who is a full-time employee whose job is to do one thing. The waiter didn’t say, ‘What’s your price range?’ He didn’t ask what are called ‘probing questions.’ ‘Are you closing a business deal? Is it a birthday?’ I think that just to throw out [suggestions], boom boom boom, without any kind of research — ‘Do you like big reds, do you like light reds, do you like American, do you like European’…or just cut to the chase: ‘I’ll send our sommelier over.’ He’s conceived and designed this list along with the chef in order to create a dining experience like no other. That would have been what happened in a perfect world, but you know…”
“The sommelier’s probably a busy man,” I rejoined, defending Arthur. “Mike didn’t bring the white; the maître d’ did.”
“On the other hand, it’s kind of like the glasses — when do you get the Riedel? When do you get the sommelier? I didn’t know they had one on the premises; otherwise, I would have said, ‘I’m going to talk to the sommelier’ from the champagne on.”
“On the other hand, Mike did bring the champagne. Maybe Arthur thought, ‘He knows the sommelier is here, and he’s not asking for him.’ ”
I scored a point there. “That would be fair,” granted Charles.
Our entrées arrived. Charles was mollified by the fact that Arthur and the attendant busboy worked in unison; our entrées came to rest on the table at the exact same moment. “It’s great. It’s old school, but I still appreciate it. So bon appétit and salut.”
Returning to our discussion of wine recommendations: I was curious as to why Charles, a man for whom control is everything and whose wine knowledge is extensive, would even be interested in someone else’s telling him what wine to buy. “I generally ask almost for confirmation [of what I’ve chosen]. Sometimes, they’ll say, ‘Oh, there’s peppercorn in the beef Wellington; you might be better off with a Syrah.’ ” The waiter may know something Charles doesn’t, and his question is the waiter’s chance to share information.
Other times, the question becomes a sort of test. “I was in Santa Barbara, and it was a special occasion. The restaurant listed a bottle of ’59 Pichon,” a name shared by two noted wines in Bordeaux. “I asked, ‘Is it the Pichon-Longueville-Baron or the Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de Lalande?’ It was a ridiculously expensive bottle of wine, but it was a special occasion. I was willing to go for it.
“I premised the question to the waiter. I said, ‘Are you the one I should ask? Are you the one who answers wine questions, or is there someone who is a wine expert?’ He said, ‘I can handle it.’ So I asked him, and he said, ‘Let me check.’ ” The waiter retreated behind a wicker barrier and asked someone, presumably the sommelier, Charles’s question. “I could hear the two of them talking, and the one tells the other one, ‘No, no, it’s the Baron, not the Comtesse de Lalande.’
“The irony was that plan B was, depending on whether it was the Baron or the Comtesse — I wanted the Comtesse — I was looking at a couple of burgundies on the list. Burgundies, as you know, are like dancing in a minefield.” It’s easy to make a disastrous misstep. “So I was asking him the Bordeaux question as a test. The waiter talked to the real person who knows, who didn’t come out from his little cave, and then the waiter came to me and said, ‘No, no, it’s the Baron.’ I said, ‘Okay, then, I’ll have this other inexpensive bottle of wine.’
“What I was really saying was, ‘I was going to ask questions about burgundy, but I figure if you’re not going to come out and answer this question, you know, I’m not worth it,’ ” even though I’m looking at spending a small fortune on Bordeaux. “ ‘You decided that it’s just a question, and the waiter can handle it. The waiter handled it. Fine. I’ll order the $60 bottle of wine.’ ”
Our entrées had been demolished, the wine was all but drunk. Charles looked around thoughtfully, searching for aspects he had not yet evaluated. His eyes came to rest on a couple seated at a table similar to ours, away from the wall. “This table works well for you and me, but for the couple over my left shoulder, for pre–Valentine’s Day…bad deal. You’re on an island. That’s one of those tables where I might actually say — if I came in and they said [that was my table], I’d say, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ It depends on my mood and the girl I was with. Some girls get really upset, like, ‘You’re not playing the game. This is our table.’ Others admire the fact that you’re [standing up for them].
“The restaurant doesn’t just give me a table; I buy it. I’m paying the same amount as those people over there [at the banquette]. That’s where you need to talk to the maître d’. If the maître d’ says, ‘You called on Wednesday,’ you need to back down. If you called on Wednesday, and you wanted an eight o’clock reservation, this is what they have for you. If you wanted 8:30,” they might have been able to accommodate you. “When you call for a reservation, you have to figure out what’s more important: eight o’clock, or 8:30 with a nice table.”
Or, you might be able to get both, but you would have to call much, much sooner. “If this was a date, and I really wanted to do it right, I would have come for lunch — if they had lunch. I’d come on Wednesday two weeks ago. The beauty of lunch is that it’s not that expensive.” The advantages are numerous. “It would fill in all the empty gaps. The cost for lunch for one compared to a special dinner for two or four or six is a small investment. You don’t get lost; I’d never been here before, and I could easily have been 20 minutes late.” You try the food. “You look at the wine list — ‘Oh, they have a lot of half-bottles. Maybe I’ll do that.’ If there aren’t any half-bottles and they have a lousy by-the-glass selection and the list is very expensive, you say, ‘I’ll bring my own. How much is your corkage?’
“I would have introduced myself, found out about the sommelier. I found out now, but it wasn’t until the third wine. At lunch, probably not that many people would be ordering wine, so the odds of him taking care of it are much higher. I would try to get ahold of the maître d’. A lot of time, the night maître d’ is not available for lunch, but I would say, ‘What’s that table over there?’
“ ‘That’s table seven.’
“ ‘I’m coming to dinner on such-and-such a night. I have a reservation at 8:00; is that table available?’
“ ‘No, I’m sorry; it’s booked.’
“ ‘When is it booked?’
“ ‘We have a table that’s coming in at 6:30.’
“ ‘Could I come in at 8:30?’
“ ‘Oh, yes, we could do that for you.’
“ ‘Thank you very much; I look forward to it.’
“There you have it; you have a nice table. And a lot of times, it’s not booked. They have so many two-tops, and that’s just one that’s [scheduled to be] coming around. Normally, when you go to a restaurant, you’re supposed to take the table they take you to. These people didn’t,” he said, motioning to a table next to us that had been vacated almost as soon as it was occupied. “They said, ‘This one’s wobbly; this won’t work.’ You’d be surprised how many people would never say anything, and the busboy at the end of the night would go, ‘What’s wrong with this table? Send it down to engineering and get it fixed!’ A lot of times, it’s to the advantage of everyone to point out things that are not correct so the establishment has an opportunity to correct them. If you want a specific table, come in ahead of time and say, ‘This is where I want to sit.’ And you have a much better chance of getting it on the first turn. On the second turn, it’s whatever comes up.”
Arthur appeared again. By now, he had shown himself to be a paragon of manners, asking, “May I?” before attempting to refill glasses, and suchlike. “Pardon my interruption; can I bring either of you a cup of coffee?” We ordered coffee. Arthur came by with the dessert cart. We ordered dessert. Arthur came by with the cordial cart. We begged off, though I was sorely tempted by the calvados. At long last, the time came for the check.
Charles was not finished. “One of the major quirks a lot of diners have is the time between asking for the check and getting the check. Sometimes, that can be fairly short, but then you put out your credit card [and wait]… A lot of people can be cruising right along; everything is great, and all of a sudden, [they’re unhappy]. What happens is, as the dining room slows down, the servers, who have been working since six o’clock, go out and catch a smoke. It’s only five or ten minutes, but it’s the wrong five or ten minutes. By the time you put your card out, you’re done. You can almost see the tip decrease as the clock ticks: 20 percent, 18 percent, 15 percent… People start at the full 20 percent, but maybe they’ve got a baby-sitter at home.” The server has stopped serving. “They’ve changed roles. That’s my whole control theory — who’s in control?”
The check arrived; we employed Charles’s method of figuring the total, writing that in, and letting the staff do the math to calculate the exact tip. “You’ve already decided what the total is. You shouldn’t be responsible for doing math problems late at night after drinking,” he explained.
The food and the wine and the surroundings and everything that had gone right softened Charles; he was feeling generous now. “I am in awe of the level of service here,” he said. “I have not experienced anything like this in America in a long time.” Looking back, it was easy to agree with him: the carts, the decanting, the care with the wine pours, the perfect balance between being left alone and being attended to whenever we desired. “It’s kind of old school; some people don’t like that. But it’s kind of like manners — are they ever really out of style? Is it a bad thing that men are required to wear jackets?
“This would be a perfect example of as good as it gets. It’s funny, because when I think of all the other places I’ve eaten in San Diego, or even in San Francisco and Santa Barbara…I’ve had some really nice meals — food was exquisite, the wine and all that — but there was never that level of experience. This is something that I’ll remember. No one else is doing this that I’m aware of. In New York, there are probably a couple of old-school places, but [here] it’s done with a certain amount of flair. I don’t think it comes off stodgy, which is the main thing. If the old Mister A’s did this, it would be boring. It’s how you do it.”
And the chairs, specially chosen to dictate the length of our evening? “These are endless; these are ‘you’re here until the cows come home.’ ”
(Note: Names — both Charles’s and the waiters’ — have been changed.)