Prices are up, quality is down. Most fish is farm-raised and cheaply bought but priced as if it’s wild; no sensible diner would eat it if they knew what the fish are fed (or, for example, that farm-raised salmon is white and injected with color to make it red-orange). A bottle of wine costs customers 400 to 500% more than restaurants pay, and after the first tasting glass the "server" seldom pours another drop but expects a full tip on already ridiculously inflated bottle prices; plus, vintages often are not stated on menus because many establishments offer very young wines but charge what used to be an older and better wine.
By-the-glass wine prices are also high but ounces are low; notice the little line or other markings on wine glasses to control the amount down to the last centiliter. What once were simple “free-pour” drinks (Manhattans, martinis, gin-tonics) are now more expensive, exactly measured, and trickled into downsized glasses, and an "up" drink costs more than on-the-rocks.
Farm to table? The farm could be 1,000 miles away. "Music" noise levels are so high that shouting replaces conversation. "Suggested" tips are now printed on checks to assure 18%, 20%, or even 25% gratuities for indifferent waiters who deliver meals without sincere concern for satisfaction.
Let’s unpack this dining-out subject a bit to see how it relates to overall American culture. "Fine dining,"meaning inventive food beautifully presented, professional-professionally dressed wait-staff, interesting décor, and unobtrusive (if any) music has sky-rocketed; a three-course meal without wine, tax, or tip at high-end restaurants can run anywhere from $145 to $400 a person (and more if boasting Michelin stars). This is not just in big cities —I dine regularly in New York City, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the "boonies" of Vermont, not to mention excursions south and west with various outposts in between.
So consider "everyday," non-special-occasion restaurants where, say, dinner for two runs $120 to $150 without beverages, tax, or tip. Appetizers and salads that were $8 to $10 a couple of years ago are now $15 to $18. Entrees that ran in the mid-high $20s are now $35 to $40. Desserts are at least $12. The lowly hamburger was $10 to $12 yesterday and $16 to $20 today.
What happened? Pounding "music" was ranked the number one annoyance by Zagat’s 2018 survey, so let’s address that first. In general, carpeting, upholstery, and napery have now been replaced by inexpensive bare floors, wood chairs, and undressed tables, all conducive to sound bouncing. But that’s a contributing factor, not the main culprit which (according to USA Today’s July 9, 2019 well-documented report) turns out to be restaurant owners learning via multiple professional studies that ear-splitting "music" makes customers eat and drink quickly, resulting in more table turnovers; hence, more revenue.
We could speculate that uncomplaining diners are desensitized to blasting beats because the sounds are so "normal" everywhere from supermarkets to car radios that they don’t notice. But the Zagat survey names it as number One in annoyance interfering with dining pleasure, so diners are distressed.
Which brings us to the deeper, cultural aspect revealed by restaurant dining today. Posting not only tip percentages but also the actual dollar amount calculated to your very own bill indicates that you are to select an option the restaurant prefers. This attempts to intimidate diners into choosing a minimum of 18% on the whole bill, including beverages — that’s often after tax — and suggesting that really 20% or 25% would be more appropriate. Why do diners accept these "suggestions" for tipping even when service may not be attentive? Why tip a percentage of the entire bill on a bottle of already massively overpriced wine when there’s no service? And even if there is, why tip 20% for pouring wine already marked up four-five times? Why not complain to managers or owners when service is poor? Tipping is supposed to be on service and food, so if service is not acceptable, why reward it? Why not return food if it displeases or in any way is not as described on the menu? Why not protest if noise interferes with the relaxed evening anticipated and makes normal conversation impossible?
The answer to every question is that intimidation works; plus, political correctness has spilled over into dining experiences as well as nearly every other part of interactive social life, so any criticism can be perceived as a personal insult. If a waiter identities with some minority group, even polite complaints can be perceived as prejudicial. If that happens, ignore it. Management’s problem, not yours.
It’s time to vigorously resist outrageous restaurant scenes and schemes. Reviews are taken seriously by restaurant owners as well as by potential diners who consult them. TripAdvisor lets you write what you honestly think. The cell phone app — Decibel X —registers noise levels; use it and show the numbers to whoever is in charge when requesting sound reduction. If they don’t comply, leave after ordering but before being served.
If there’s no wine service, separate your tip between food and wine and tip what you decide not what the bill tells you; unless exceptional, I leave 15% on food/ service plus only a few dollars per bottle of wine. Let bartenders know you don’t appreciate minutely measured drinks and will imbibe elsewhere — my husband writes "Precisely measured drinks = precisely measured tip" on drink bills and leaves tip amount accordingly.
Find out the retail price of your favorite fish, which is way more than restaurants pay wholesale. If a restaurant is serving farm-raised and charging $35 a 4-5 ounce serving for what they buy at $10 for a whole fish, let them know you don’t appreciate the scam and don’t order it.
Verbalize complaints, write reviews to warn other diners, and inform restaurateurs of your displeasures. Encourage this practice to friends and families. Numbers of complaints and bad reviews count. Only if customers become informed and active will dining-out change and return back into gustatory and convivial evenings of relaxed pleasures.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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