The other night, I was having dinner with some friends in a fairly decent restaurant and was at the very peak of my form as a wit and raconteur. But just as, with infinite and exquisite tantalizations, I was approaching my punch line, the most incredible thing happened. A waiter appeared from nowhere, leaned right over my shoulder and into the middle of the conversation, seized my knife and fork, and started to cut up my food for me. Not content with this bizarre behavior, and without so much as a by-your-leave, he proceeded to distribute pieces of my entree onto the plates of the other diners.
No, he didn’t, actually. What he did instead was to interrupt the feast of reason and flow of soul that was our chat, lean across me, pick up the bottle of wine that was in the middle of the table, and pour it into everyone’s glass. And what I want to know is this: How did such a barbaric custom get itself established, and why on earth do we put up with it?
There are two main ways in which a restaurant can inflict bad service on a customer. The first is to keep you hanging about and make it hard to catch the eye of the staff. (“Why are they called waiters?” inquired my son when he was about 5. “It’s we who are doing all the waiting.”) The second way is to be too intrusive, with overlong recitations of the “specials” and too many oversolicitous inquiries. A cartoon in TheNew Yorker once showed a couple getting ready for bed, with the husband taking a call and keeping his hand over the receiver. “It’s the maitre d’ from the place we had dinner. He wants to know if everything is still all right.”
The vile practice of butting in and pouring wine without being asked is the very height of the second kind of bad manners. Not only is it a breathtaking act of rudeness in itself, but it conveys a none-too-subtle and mercenary message: Hurry up and order another bottle. Indeed, so dulled have we become to the shame and disgrace of all this that I have actually seen waiters, having broken into the private conversation and emptied the flagon, ask insolently whether they should now bring another one. Again, imagine this same tactic being applied to the food.
Not everybody likes wine as much as I do. Many females, for example, confine themselves to one glass per meal or even half a glass. It pains me to see good wine being sloshed into the glasses of those who have not asked for it and may not want it and then be left standing there barely tasted when the dinner is over. Mr. Coleman, it was said, made his fortune not from the mustard that was consumed but from the mustard that was left on the plate. Restaurants ought not to inflict waste and extravagance on their patrons for the sake of padding out the bill. This, too, is a very extreme form of rudeness.
The expense of the thing, in other words, is only an aspect of the presumption of it. It completely usurps my prerogative if I am a host. (“Can I refill your glass? Try this wine—I think you may care for it.”) It also tends to undermine me as a guest, since at any moment when I try to sing for my supper, I may find an unwanted person lunging carelessly into the middle of my sentence. If this person fills glasses unasked, he is a boor as described above. If he asks permission of each guest in turn—as he really ought to do, when you think about it—then he might as well pull up a chair and join the party. The nerve of it!
To return to the question of why we endure this: I think it must have something to do with the snobbery and insecurity that frequently accompany the wine business. A wine waiter is or can be a bit of a grandee, putting on considerable airs that may intimidate those who know little of the subject. If you go into a liquor store in a poor part of town, you will quite often notice that the wine is surprisingly expensive, because it is vaguely assumed that somehow it ought to cost more. And then there is simple force of custom and habit—people somehow grant restaurants the right to push their customers around in this outrageous way.
Well, all it takes is a bit of resistance. Until relatively recently in Washington, it was the custom at diplomatic and Georgetown dinners for the hostess to invite the ladies to withdraw, leaving the men to port and cigars and high matters of state. And then one evening in the 1970s, at the British Embassy, the late Katharine Graham refused to get up and go. There was nobody who felt like making her, and within a day, the news was all over town. Within a very short time, everybody had abandoned the silly practice. I am perfectly well aware that there are many graver problems facing civilization, and many grosser violations of human rights being perpetrated as we speak. But this is something that we can all change at a stroke. Next time anyone offers to interrupt your conversation and assist in the digestion of your meal and the inflation of your check, be very polite but very firm and say that you would really rather not.