Originally published in The Daily Gullet at eGullet.com in 2003
CLASS. SOPHISTICATION. Applied with sincerity to a restaurant that takes pride in hospitality, these words make service charming rather than servile.
Dropped like banana peels on the floor of a restaurantthat feeds ’em and shoves ’em out the door, they’re ironicallyhilarious.
Whatever tonethey have, though, Class and Sophistication are not about anything asdiscrete as the cost or scarcity of the ingredients a restaurant uses.Class and Sophistication are all about attitude.
Checking out arestaurant’s attitude starts with two questions: Do they want me tocome into their restaurant? If so, what are the signs?
All was well, right? A grown man got a balloon, two people had a chance encounter just off the highway, and I had a BLT. Well, no. Don’t ever discount the flying monkeys. They must have made quick work of attractive bus-person because he returned moments later and said he had to repo the balloon. Painfully embarrassed, he apologized for letting “them” know it wasn’t really my friend’s birthday. There was an awkward silence as he untied the disgraced inflatable from my friend’s chair.
A few examples point out how a restaurant can zoom to the Height of Class and Sophistication (HOCAS), or sink to the Nadir of Class and Sophistication (NOCAS).
A HOCAS restaurant can be a mom-and-pop thatsends out a glass of wine on your birthday, or a mid-price place thatalways deals graciously with that member of your party who wantseverything “on the side” — and gets the order right. A HOCAS doeseverything within its powers to please. It’s smart to do so becauseevery restaurant makes mistakes.
Ah, but the NOCAS restaurants. They’re the three-stars where your server answers all of your most basic questions with, “I’ll check,” and never does. Where they lose your reservation and shrug, or send a steak back out three times — still well-done — until you give up in disgust. A NOCAS restaurant isn’t a NOCAS because they make mistakes. They’re a NOCAS because they don’t care about making people feel welcome. Without a protective cover of concern — however thin a veneer — shortcomings are exposed and they are not a pretty sight.
Who am I? Well, clearly not a food industry professional. I’m a person who eats out with friends when we want to celebrate. Or when we’re all kind of beat and we don’t want to cook, or when we want to enjoy the kinds of recipes that are beyond our perceived abilities. We’re deliberate. We plot the next Big Night Out well in advance and we do our homework — on eGullet and elsewhere. Consider me a devoted amateur.
Defining Our Terms
Quite simply, HOCAS restaurants are the ones you never want to leave. NOCAS restaurants are the ones you can’t get out of fast enough. But if more criteria are needed . . .
HOCAS: Like happiness, hard to define. A guest feels like a guest, even though she knows she’s a customer and all that. The staff is welcoming and knowledgeable about what they offer, the food is delicious. Mistakes and inconsistencies are mitigated by graciousness.
NOCAS: Egregious rudeness or incompetence in service and bad food, or such bone-headed management that ordinary food and service cannot hope to overcome the idiots in charge. The latter can be as painful to staff as guests.
Scenes From a HOCAS
A truck-stop outside St. Louis. Talk about low expectations. Well, hesh mah mouth because the vegetables had just been yanked out of the garden, the chicken was free-range, and the strawberry pie was composed solely of local fruit and crust made with lard. The hostess dealt with the waiting horde like she was wrangling puppies and our server, a motherly woman, called me “Doll.” I loved that. The service really complemented the meal. HOCAS out of nowhere.
My favorite Chinese restaurant. Three thousand miles away from me now, alas, in DC’s Dupont Circle. Years ago, Mom visits and I want to show her the sights and treasures of our nation’s capitol, i.e. the fried dumplings from this restaurant. Although three blocks away, I call for delivery, impressing Mom with my James Bond-like worldliness. We unpack the bag, mmmm dumplings, but — no sauce! The dumplings are good, they’re more than respectable, but it’s the sauce that makes them the little pork pouches of heaven that they are. Mom says, basically, Shut up and eat. I shoot her the look of, Don’t tell me about dumplings while you’re under my roof, and call the restaurant. The delivery guy is back in fifteen, shrugging at my thanks and nodding at the tip. Mom uses this story to this day to explain how I always get what I want. I use it to explain how a restaurant cared more about me than my own mother. HOCAS at my door.
In-n-Out, to me, is a HOCAS restaurant. How can that be? Some clues came from a random round of free association with friends. The phrase “fresh buns” kept coming up, as did “safe meat,” and its treatment of vegetarians as first-class customers despite it being a burger joint. Far and away, though, was a variation on “friendly, competent staff that doesn’t look like they’ve been beaten down by The Man even though I was a little weirded out by the Bible thing on the cups.” The element of surprise — the good kind — shows up. I remember very well eating my first burger there. I was shocked, absolutely shocked, at how good that Double-Double was. But I was just as surprised by how nice the counter staff was, how carefully they checked our order. Perhaps, you will say, the day was already memorable because it involved a Bugs Bunny cartoon festival, making it arguable that I was primed to love In-n-Out. Au contraire. A good mood does not dampen reason. I found fault with the fries then, and still do. I may be cheap, but I’m not easy. HOCAS on a budget.
I like two related San Francisco restaurants called Chow and Park Chow very much. Both are often jam-packed, but the service just seems to get better the busier it is and the kitchen turns out excellent food that looks deceptively simple. They know what they do — Cal-Italian primarily and do it very well and consistently. What makes them outstanding is that I always leave thinking, “That was even better than I thought it’d be.” That little kick of surprise, here as at In-n-Out, makes the difference between good and HOCAS. Take the family HOCAS.
I have a couple of nominees below for My All-Time HOCAS Restaurant and My All-Time NOCAS Restaurant. Interestingly, it was easier to figure out the HOCAS one. Either I’m eating in better-than-average places, or there are not as many disasters out there as I feared. It certainly isn’t because of an all-forgiving attitude on my part.
Keep in mind that no individual server can earn a restaurant the HOCAS badge of honor, just as no mere host, however rude, can bring down the ignominy of a NOCAS ruling. Like our government in this ol’ USA, restaurants are supposed to have a system of checks and balances. The front and back of the house can be feuding like the executive and legislative branches, but that’s not supposed to stop them from doing their jobs. Customers are not supposed to suffer for their failure to get along. Real achievement, therefore, should reflect their ability to work together.
I have to give a little background before I describe My All-Time HOCAS Restaurant. I can’t use my hands very well anymore, so I ask servers to please have the kitchen cut up my food. I’m not doing anything inappropriate, but I still dread the subtle brush off: “Well,” (heavy sigh) “I’ll see if the kitchen can do anything.” Out and out refusal is actually easier; it gets my back up and I brook no nonsense. “No, my friend cannot help me. The kitchen can cut a chicken breast in two seconds.” Generally, though, servers’ attitudes are great. But I often get food that is indeed cut up but not anything close to bite size. Whoever I’m eating with has to pitch in and do the finish work.
When I eat out now, the response to this request serves as a barometer for whether the restaurant is heading toward HOCAS or NOCAS. My request is unusual but reasonable; a well-run restaurant can take it in stride even at the busiest time.
I take you now to La Folie, a small French restaurant in San Francisco that I don’t go to nearly as often as I would like. One night I was there with two friends, and we were dithering over the menu. I wanted to order the quail stuffed with foie gras, which was roughly an 11 on the scale of Cutting Up Difficulty. A ballsy choice, nothing shy about it. My friends said, Go for it. They refilled my wine glass. Moments later, I agreed. I doubled the burden on the kitchen by choosing the lamb sirloin as my next course. In for a penny. (For those of you questioning the wisdom of selecting two such heavy courses, I say this: You should have seen the soup and dessert that I had as well; La Folie’s menu demands nothing less when it comes to capacity. Their lobster made a pregnant friend consider naming her child “Butterpoached.”) Our server simply said, “Of course, we do it all the time,” when I put in my request. If she was lying, she was lying well. I basked in the glow of not being special after all.
We drank our wine; breads were offered from a big basket; soups were dramatically presented via domed bowls and mini copper pots; we were all of us lightly facialed from the fragrant steam and spooning up the goodness. Then. Our main server appeared holding a single domed dish which she lifted to reveal the quail pour moi, saying the chef wanted me to see it before carving. Well, isn’t that the most savory-looking thing I’ve ever seen. I thoroughly approved, both of the chef and his proxy, the quail. We all agreed this was our favorite restaurant for good reason. The team reappeared with our appetizers. I figured the quail with foie gras would be a pile — a delectable pile — on the plate. It was not. It appeared as before until I looked more closely and saw the cuts. It had been cut into perfect bite-size cubes and reassembled, if indeed it had ever been disassembled. As someone who can’t cut an onion in half, I was deeply impressed. I was also glad I went with the lamb as well, which was later deconstructed and presented as artfully as the quail.
Jump to the end of the evening. Chef Passot was out saying goodnight in his whites, somehow more pristine than our crumbed and wine-smudged selves. No one minded, they were all getting our coats, calling for our car, hanging by the neat little bar near the door to see us out. We were effusive in our thanks, but it wasn’t just because of the wine and food. This restaurant has the warmth of family concern, albeit a family with better manners, grooming, and access to truffles than mine. It comes across as someone’s personal expression, and not the result of a restaurant group’s decisions based on dining trends, or (I laugh at the thought) a franchise. Though dependent on the marketplace, it’s nevertheless based on providing a unique vision of culinary craft and hospitality. Whatever challenges they may or may not have business-wise, I don’t doubt the chef is up to something in the kitchen that he genuinely cares about. I think the entire staff cares about what they’re creating in the kitchen and on the floor.
Not that it was all so very serious as I’ve made it sound. Bottom line, we had fun. Not stuffy, “Oh, Biff, you slay me,” kind of fun. I’m talking about the real kind, the kind that is peculiar to each set of friends — especially when those friends are, like mine, peculiar. That was what made us effusive when we were leaving. Many restaurants offer good meals, even great ones, in beautiful surroundings, and do try to pamper their guests. What seems truly unusual to me is a restaurant where the staff can go, what I call, “off script.” In short, where the interchanges are as uncanned as the vegetables, even with a very ordinary guest, not an insider or celebrity. I felt that this was what made La Folie the HOCAS to end all HOCAS. The sommelier, for example, had a splendid suit and polished accent that left us abashed at first. That ended when this seeming pillar of Gallic propriety punked us — lightly — that same evening. We were in the throes of wine selection, behaving as if we were choosing a new house. We finally named a wine and waited for the standard, “Very good choice.” What we got was an infinitely regretful, “You have made a terrible choice,” before he chuckled at the horrified looks on our faces. “No, no, it’s a good wine. I will get it right away,” he said, vastly amused. “But I got you.” Now there’s a man who understands hospitality, we said. He saw that the way to make us feel at home was to abuse us — and then get some wine in us quick.
Based on that pervasive and stubborn desire to please us, a rather quirky group, I name La Folie as My All-Time HOCAS Restaurant. This makes them, I suppose HOCAS-POCAS (Pinnacle of Class and Sophistication). Doubtless, other people will have their picks for this title.
I’m not going to name My All-Time NOCAS Restaurant because it would be just the sort of place to employ a squadron of web-savvy flying monkeys who would read this, get into flying formation, and carry me off with their long monkey toes to drop me in the Pacific. My little dog, too. Suffice it to say that it was on the route from LA to San Francisco and that the only thing tackier than their attitude toward guests was their well-known decor.
I was with a friend. We stopped for lunch and all seemed well despite our having to wait for ten minutes in a room filled with empty tables. After our order was in, my friend started a minor flirt with a bus-person, saying, “It’s my birthday.” (Yes, he’s always been that smooth.) Attractive bus-person runs away, and I laugh at my friend for scaring off another one, but then attractive bus-person runs back holding a lavender balloon, which he bestows on my friend. They continue their flirt which I now fear is leaving the minor leagues for the majors, unaware it is doomed and will soon return to the minors dissatisfied, washed up, and prone to wearing old-man t-shirts even though it doesn’t have the shoulders for them. My friend confesses it’s not his birthday; attractive bus-person gazes lovingly at the new liar in his life and runs back to work.
All was well, right? A grown man got a balloon, two people had a chance encounter just off the highway, and I had a BLT. Well, no. Don’t ever discount the flying monkeys. They must have made quick work of attractive bus-person because he returned moments later and said he had to repo the balloon. Painfully embarrassed, he apologized for letting “them” know it wasn’t really my friend’s birthday. There was an awkward silence as he untied the disgraced inflatable from my friend’s chair. This was an average restaurant until this point. But average cannot compensate for something this unpleasantly petty, the repo of a balloon from a friend who has both a PEZ and a Mr. Potato Head collection.
Suddenly, all I could notice were the flabbiness of the fries and the server’s rough touch with a ticket as she pounded it on the table without a word. And was that a box of wine in the corner! Dear god, what a hell-hole. Poor attractive bus-person. Hard to give your all in a soulless life-sucking pit of despair done in way too much pink. The BLT and attractive bus-person’s humanity notwithstanding, management’s commitment to stinginess and by-the-book mania really took the cake. Er, balloon. One more thing about a NOCAS restaurant, it’s better in the retelling than the experiencing. NOCAS, NOCAS, NOCAS.
HOCAS-NOCAS, HOCAS-POCAS — it’s the language of secret powers and spells and charms and potions and poisoned apples. Like all good magical words, they’re just the thing for summoning forth power and focusing it. The words are knowledge. Knowledge is power. Up to a point.
The public’s focus has increasingly been on the inner workings of restaurants. The idea that seeing the nitty-gritty details (carefully chosen, of course) will build interest is sound. And it is interesting, whether because there are theatrical personalities on display or because someone like me has an interest in how cooks figure out their purchasing. I’ll never do it myself but oh that sense of vicarious knowledge.
None of this copious out-pouring of food-service industry information necessarily explains why dining in this or that restaurant is more desirable than another. Nor does it touch on the central delight of a good restaurant. The feeling of walking into a bustling room, a stranger or nearly so, and being greeted by name, then taken into the unknown interior and given to eat exactly what you want by people who are there to take care of you. Romantic nonsense? Of course. It’s called charm and it overcomes suspicion, pragmatism, and world-weariness. It works even when I know the staff is working its collective tail off to support themselves and not because I’m so swell. It works when I consider my money well spent on a meal out, a meal that a more practical me would have prepared at home. It works when a leisurely lunch in a sunny courtyard makes me feel like I went away for the weekend. In the end it doesn’t matter if I know how the magician is counting the cards or sawing the lady in half because I just don’t care. I’ve been bewitched. Call it class, call it sophistication, or simply call it a job well done. Magic enough for me.