Even though I live in London I consider myself a loyal American. I pay taxes, I vote, I start tapping my feet when I hear John Philip Sousa, and I still think baseball is a much better game than cricket with its completely unintelligible set of rules. And there is only one kind of ‘football’ -- one that doesn’t involve overpaid delinquents running around in shorts and flopping on the ground like beached seals when the opposition growls at them.
But there is one part of American life that can drive me to drink even warm English beer. I realize American business people think they invented the concept of upward marketing, constantly trying to get you to spend more than you wanted to, or perhaps should. In some cases like the department store Nordstrom this is done with skill and often a little humor. Once I dared to venture alone (my wife was back in London and my daughter was busy elsewhere) into the Nordstrom store in Seattle to buy a couple of shirts and some ties. Simple transaction, right? Not so simple. The attractive sales assistant didn’t say anything at my choice of ties. She didn’t have to. Her somewhat pitying expression said that perhaps, just perhaps, the chartreuse tie might not be the best combination for the blue checked shirt. About an hour later I walked out with better shirts, ties that actually matched the shirts, and a blazer that I had no idea I needed when I went into the store. Other than a sizeable dent in my credit card it was not an unpleasant experience.
But this approach fails utterly in restaurants. At many American restaurants you’re barely seated at your table when an eager waiter person with the glazed expression of a devout missionary steams across the floor in the direction of your table. Fresh from an inspiring pep talk from the manager (Get this mark’s bill up to $300 or your fired!) he launches into his spiel.
Frozen Customers Don't Cause Problems
“Hi, my name’s Ralph. I’ll be your guide tonight. I’m not really a waiter (no kidding), but I’m happy to help guide you through the menu, chef’s specials, our own very special wine selection.” This rapid fire monologue is delivered as he pours freezing water and ice into your glass despite the fact that the air conditioning is working overtime and the outside temperature is -20 centigrade. He hasn’t really noticed that you’re still bundled up in coat and scarf. American restaurant managers must believe you will eat more if you’re semi-congealed.
Various replies to Ralph’s introductory salvo come to mind, but after your wife delivers a quick kick to your shins and a clenched-teeth “Be Nice!” you limit your remarks to assuring Ralph that your reading skills aren’t all that bad and that the menu does not seem to have too many tricky words.
Oblivious to sarcasm Ralph plunges ahead and gives you the pedigree of each item on the menu. “The meat comes from George Jones’s special farm where the animals are given loving care and fed only the most wholesome grains. The lettuces come from Arthur’s farm garden and never, never come in contact with any chemicals.” He shudders a little at the thought of any chemical coming anywhere near Arthur’s lettuces.
You'll Just Love Our Special Tonight
But this is just a warm-up to his description of the chef’s special. He leans over confidentially and informs us that we are so lucky tonight to have the chance to experience the special – which just happens to be the most expensive item on offer – of a fusion (watch out for that word) of slow roasted bison with prairie grass, tacos, chili peppers, celeriac, etc. etc. By the time he’s through you’re not quite sure what’s getting fused, except perhaps your digestive system.
By this time you’re thinking that maybe a tuna fish sandwich on toast would not be bad at all, but Ralph hasn’t finished with you yet. He has to go through the wine list bottle by bottle only to point out that the $250 bottle from some vineyard you have never heard of would go perfectly with the bison and tacos. Even a glass of Coca Cola sounds good after this.
All this brought back fond memories of a lugubrious Viennese waiter called Gotwald. Gotwald comes from a family of waiters (his ancestors probably served Charlemagne his morning mash) and has spent his entire career in one of Vienna’s finest restaurants. Wearing his starched white jacket with a discreet badge of some medieval Viennese guild he greets you with the barest of nods no matter how many times you have been to this restaurant. He places the menu in front of you and would sooner run naked through the streets than interrupt your contemplation with mindless chatter. Questions are answered intelligently, and if the wine choice is not quite right he might offer the slightest grimace without ever – of course – suggesting that your knowledge of wines is painfully limited. He has perfected the art of profiling his customers and knows instinctively what price range of wine to suggest without a hint of condescension.
Meanwhile Ralph is beginning to wind down and is waiting eagerly with poised pencil to take our orders so he can return to his acting career. His interest in our table drops sharply when we limit our order to grilled sole and a simple veal chop accompanied by two glasses of the house red. He quickly overcomes his disappointment when the food comes and he inevitably waits until our mouths are full before asking if we are enjoying ourselves. The service is remarkably quick, however, because the sooner we leave the sooner another ‘mark’ will come in and be offered the unique opportunity to experience the chef’s special.