Dining out in Brooklyn. Photo by Johannes Kroemer of Cobble Hill (johanneskroemer.com)
A recent Saturday night, Williamsburg, Brooklyn – My fiancé and I are dropped curbside by Arecibo at one of our favorite restaurants—a delicious, warmly lit and lively place. It’s a hotspot with gushing reviews; they’re serious about their food. They’re also serious about exactly if, how and when you might secure a table to eat their food.
The host greets us at the door with an iPad held up so high between our faces that I think she’s taking a retina scan. She looks pretty unhappy. We feel compelled to be overly nice. This isn’t like the brusque and efficient encounter one expects, even craves, at a ramen joint. Also, this isn’t a ramen joint.
Columnist Renee Dale
The host’s mood is underdressed for the setting. This place doesn’t take reservations, a convention that’s standard in Brooklyn, and one that I sometimes accept with a shrug and sometimes with a pout. A few of our evergreen spots, like the stellar La Vara in Cobble Hill, have begun taking reservations for small parties, but it’s still the norm that one needs 26 or more people to reserve a table. Are all 26 in your party here?
The Williamsburg place is bursting with bodies, steamy with CO2 and padded with coats and infinity scarves—a wooly layer of human accessories. Space issues in Brooklyn dictate that guests leave the premises to optimistically wait for a table elsewhere. This is a step we’ve grown accustomed to. Small is good, charming, Brooklynish—am I right, Brooklyn? Airplane hanger architecture and chain-food factories are not what we’re after on Date Night in Kings County, America.
We are given our options. We can leave a cell number and find a place in the neighborhood to wait “for between 45 and maybe an hour and 45,” or, well, that is our option.
We enter into this contract like lemmings. Leaving our number and a stem cell sample, we head down the block to a nice enough bar, unremarkable except for its purpose as The Annex to the Hotspot. It is populated completely by people waiting for their tables at the restaurant. This is a growing trend and business model; newly expanding meccas like Pok Pok Ny and classics like Al Di La, among others, boast their own money-printing sidecars. These thriving waiting rooms, communal in mood and undeniably convenient, also kind of make me feel like a self-conscious jackass—are we all this set on this food from this particular place down the street? Are we such stubborn food-tools that nowhere else will do? Yes, we are.
In the meantime, through no fault of the Hotspot’s, we order olives floating in oil and citrus peels, a dish of nuts, and two drinks. This means that during the layover, we fork over significant cash for refreshments before arriving at our actual planned feast. Good for Annex businesses and our fat pants; bad for our budget.
Sixty-eight minutes later, we are summoned via text—Hi! Your table is ready! (Keep this sentence in mind; we’re going to circle back to it.) We arrive flushed with goodwill and anticipation. It is unclear if the hostess remembers our faces, but that’s okay because the iPad tells her it is us. Here we are, full of gratitude and blood-sugar tremors, thank you for having us!
She squeezes out a pained, micro-smile expression, and we realize almost in slow motion that we are being walked past the cozy tables to, Oh, wait, are we—is that—where’re we headed now? Ceremoniously, we are led to our stations…at the bar. Next to the main computer hub for servers and staff. Side-by-side on narrow slabs facing the ovens. Because bars are no longer for drinking. They’re for eating. (What’s the difference? Don’t be needy. Don’t be a diva.) Awkwardly grateful as we are for being given two seats, and weak from eating only olive flesh, we manage to squeak out an apologetic, “Oh, OK but, we wanted a table. We were waiting for a table.”
Huge exhalation from the ambassador. “Um, a table? You guys didn’t say that.”
“We had to say that? Specifically?”
“Yeah, I mean, we seat a lot of people at the bar. Hmmm. Wow. I don’t know. We have to really just kind of seat people as things open up.” She looks unhappier with us than ever. “So…are you okay with the bar? A table would probably be…” quick swipe on the iPad…“Hmmm, maybe another 45?”
People like eating at the bar. I like it too sometimes. My fiancé enjoys bar eating very much. But what I don’t like as much is not being asked if I’d prefer to sit at the bar for my meal. I wish I’d been alerted, before dispatching me to the off-site Annex, that nearly an hour hence I’d be seated at the bar without comment, in a weird, if I don’t make eye contact they’ll never notice it’s the bar moment. When did this become standard ops? Your table is ready. It’s 30 feet long, has 15 other people at it, and there’s a man standing behind it. You’re welcome.
Something’s going on. Something’s not quite right. There is a needling, passive-aggressive current flowing through our beloved, much remarked-on restaurant culture. It’s incubating in the arrival/seating/reserving realm, not the wait staff/food realm, but still, it must be a top-down problem. (Servers, by the way, seem more knowledgeable and hospitable than ever. Can I ask them, though, to not stop by and say of my meal, “Are you still working?” It makes me feel like I’m in some kind of competitive eating tournament and if I keep on working, I might have what Joey Chestnut would call a “reversal.”)
Things are going wrong in the welcome mat interlude. This is messing with our faith, our religious practice. For some Brooklyn people, restaurants are churches, temples, mystical sanctums—our Stonehenge. And barring the sauced Monsignors of my youth, no one at any hallowed, exalted place of worship should act annoyed that you’ve arrived. Oh…you again, back to pay us handsomely for the food we cook and sell. No one should sigh. Look put out. Look, frankly, bummed. I sometimes wish they weren’t looking down at a screen through the interaction either, preemptively exhausted; but that’s a separate, more personal desire.
We follow an increasing number of rules and regulations put forth by restaurants because we dine out as communal worship, as the centerpiece of our social lives. Most of the time, it’s worth it. Friends and couples eat out together instead of going to house parties. Everyone’s apartment is too small, or their kids are sleeping in a repurposed broom cabinet off the living room and there’s no privacy. We eat out to be part of the conversation, to endorse and suggest experiences to each other. The pleasure of giving praise is contagious. Some couples even eat out because they have little of consequence to say to each other and while they’re out they can at least talk about the food they’re eating as they’re eating it, in real time, for the length of the entire meal. Food fetishism is valuable to both the patrons, who’ve replaced intimacy with it, and the restaurants. Win/win.
But mostly I think Brooklynites eat out and canonize our restaurants because to not partake of the food experiences right in our backyards could mean we might start to wonder why we live here in vertical constriction and financial ruin. I mean, we’re here, we might as well go try the Flemish Dumplings around the corner. Cash Only there, don’t forget.
Our food scene is a grand success story, but if the elevated cuisine and prices don’t begin to merge with hospitality expectations and time constraints of a mature population of customers, there could be a downshift. I like to think that the marketplace would take note of the problem. For now, the silly procedures and purgatorial waits we subject ourselves to reveal that change is likely not imminent. There are currently more people who crave a specific brand of dining-out than there are places supplying it.
Brooklyn food critics, and critics of Brooklyn in general, like Vogue’s Jeffrey Steingarten, have said all of this before. Now that I’m older and less patient myself, it’s gaining real traction in my decisions about where to spend my time.
Restaurant owners rely on increasingly affluent communities of adults for business. These adults have to arrange child-care, have limited social time, and require assurance they can secure a table in under an hour. They can opt out of dining in places where gaps in expectations and experience continue to grow. I refer mostly to pricey neighborhoods with established family populations like Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. There is serious passion about food in these areas, and of course, more disposable income, but there’s also more crankiness from diners who don’t have two hours to wait for their crispy kale.
This certainly seemed less a problem that night in Williamsburg, where the streets teemed with waves of sustainable food zombies. Patrons appeared content to drink fathoms before sitting down for their first course at 10 p.m.
I’m not an MBA, or a business owner, precisely because the risk, overhead, responsibility for employees, and customer service sound like a gory horror show to me. But I am a loyal local diner. And I’m not the only one noticing that the DIY, be mellow, it’s not fair to the beans to serve your coffee hot vibe is not wearing well.
Dear Very Popular Restaurants that Are Not Cheap: We’re here to celebrate excellent food with you, and to eat it, and to pay for it. But in this particular contract, we are not the same. You’re supposed to act happy to see us! Especially if we behave well. Aren’t you glad we’ve come?
This is not an Andy Rooney screed. I’m right now on my way to eat a huge, multi-course lunch in Bushwick and I’m not even very hungry. I’m an enabler in the madness. I have to leap over at least four distinct piles of dog crap to even get in the door at the Bushwick place!
So maybe a rephrasing, a gentle invitation to think it over is better: IS there a pass-aggress, sharp whiff of something besides the aged cheese blossoming? Is it blasphemy to even bring it up in gentle Brooklyn?
We’re grateful we don’t ever have to leave the borough for innovative cuisine. It’s cold out and Manhattan is very far. We’re excited about the regenerating list of places to try, new neighborhoods to trek to for nourishment. I routinely travel to Crown Heights for pizza and salad. We even have our own fancy hotels: tiny, torture chamber rooms in which to bruise shins and stub toes, with Important Restaurants right off the lobbies. We have all this to ourselves. People come from all over the world to sit elbow-to-elbow with us on backless, disk-herniating benches. This is fine! We get to work our cores on the benches while devouring meats and cheeses. See? Balance.
Recently, I’ve had perfect food, service and atmosphere at widely celebrated, ultra-pro places as varied as Franny’s and Pok Pok Ny, and The Elm, and also at neighborhood spots like Rucola, Bar Bruno and Moo Burger. Folded in are the less savory experiences where I felt I was being punished, a little roughed up, for wanting to eat someplace. A little bit S&M, a little bit Sustenance.
It’s not so bad, the subjugation of self in order to get a plate of hot food. There are worse things. There are real problems to fix in the world that have little to do with how and where we stuff our faces. We all seem more than comforted by our comfort food in these parts. More barbecue, anyone?
It’s just that everybody wants to feel…wanted. Is that so wrong? Maybe ask us if we’re okay perching atop an obelisk like a parakeet for dinner, next to a stranger who sweats while he eats. Stuff like that. Little things. Let’s start there. Then we’ll keep quiet and go back to working on our meal.
Renee Dale is a writer living in (where else?) Brooklyn. She and her fiance and their four kids live in a narrow, tilting “house” in Cobble Hill. Or is it Carroll Gardens? When Renee isn’t writing, she’s engaged in various museum and natural history pursuits and can often be found lurking the Hall of African Mammals. In this column, she will bring her anthropological talents to bear, covering everything from parenting to local news to whatever else bursts forth in our Brooklyn life and times.
Read Renee’s other columns:
Brady Bunch Brooklyn
The Awkward Stew: You and Your Sitter at 1 a.m.
This Problem is Not Sexy: The Way Too Early Sexualization of Girls
Rated P for Permanent: Dale advocates adding some R classics to your child’s repertoire
She tweets @ReneeMDale
Visit Renee’s website: reneedale.com