15% is the new 20%

August 19, 2011 at 1:05 pm (I love my city, plays well with others, present)

Dinner last night at Murray Circle was a performance. (It was also painfully and unexpectedly expensive, but that’s only vaguely relevant and not, in my mind, the fault of the restaurant.) We gathered in a private room off of the main dining room and were split into two tables of twelve. The menu was set except for the entree, so we prepared for four courses. Our head server was just the right kind of attentive and no wine glass was left empty, but the real show began with the soup. Six waiters marched soundlessly to the table, waited for a cue, then in perfect unison placed bowls before the women. There was a brief pause, then a swift motion put bowls before all of the men. The first time this display of Edwardian manners occurred, it created a hush amongst the diners. (And to create any kind of quiet in a group celebrating a 30th birthday with alcohol is quite a feat.) By the time our cake slices landed with military precision, it felt like the final act of a charming period play. They removed dirty plates from the second course before presenting the third. They served from the left and cleared from the right. They were somehow always present, but never intrusive. It was deftly, elegantly, impressively done. And if the server got a $1200 tip (from which he would need to tip out the others who helped, plus bussers, bartenders, hostesses etc.), then he deserved it. Yes, deserved it.

I’m not new to fine dining (though my Michelin star experience tops out at two), but this was utterly divine. And it came the same day I read this Inc. article that led me to the original GQ review. Both recount Alan Richman’s experience with terrible service (which seems to have garnered him an accusation of sexual harassment) at a restaurant in Queens (yes, Queens) that thinks it’s too cool for school. I don’t want to sound all “Good help is impossible to find,” but I certainly agree that when I go out for a meal, I am paying for service (with my tip and the menu prices themselves) as much as for fine food. Over the last ten years much of that service has been sacrificed on the alter of cool so that inked hipsters in whatever they feel like wearing can tell me that the chicken I’m about to eat was named Colin instead of delivering it in the perfect moment between conversations.

C and I enjoyed an amazing brunch on Sunday at Baker and Banker (one of my favorite neighborhood spots), but our server didn’t even attempt to hide her disdain when I asked her to bring a clean fork with the cinnamon roll I was taking to go. And my request that the potato pancake be placed to the side of my smoked trout and horseradish cream so that gluten-intolerant C could taste the fish was met with a barely disguised eye roll. I’m not lamenting the overarching casual turn most dining has taken, I just believe, in my own old-fashioned way, that if I’m paying to be waited on, I’d like courteous, experienced service. Or even some tiny fraction of what we saw last night. And until I do, I will tip the 15% that once indicated a barely acceptable minimum and nothing more.

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2 Comments

  1. Bridget said,

    Okay, first and foremost, I would have paid the amount of my car being towed to be at that dinner.

    Second, I think it is sad that we feel we MUST tip bad service. While I agree that no one can survive on minimum wage for a thankless job in today’s society, I also don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior. I usually stick to 10% for bad service but have tipped less when absolutely necessary.

    Am I missing something?

    • BS said,

      It wasn’t quite as bad as your car’s bail, but it was close!

      And perhaps you’re right. Maybe it’s my standards that have dropped so that eye rolls and disdain are now worth 15%.

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