Thursday, March 19, 2009

Discrimination I don't get.

Well, I don't get a lot of discrimination, even as I understand the cognitive shortcuts of availability heuristics that lead to discrimination, whether invidious or unconscious. But that's a conversation for another day.

I bring this up because of this rather affecting post by Helen about her experiences at Le Bernadin, a very nice restaurant in NYC. Helen is a food blogger for the MenuPages, a swell gal, and a big fan of Eric Ripert (the executive chef/owner), which made the experience all the more disappointing:

I raced home after work and changed from my usual cubicle attire of jeans and ratty t-shirt into a total slickness cocktail dress, high heels, teeny tiny clutch purse. Fancy, dig? So I walk in, Mr. B's not there yet, and present myself to the Maitre d'. "Hi, I'm a few minutes early for a 7:30 reservation." He looks me up and down, sneers, dismisses. "Yes. Well. You may check your coat." A flick of the hand in the general direction of the coat check and he turns back to his reservation book.

On my coat-checkward pivot, an older gentleman comes in, and presents an identical introduction. "Hi, I'm a few minutes early for a 7:30 reservation." It's like a parallel universe: "Of course, sir. May I take your coat? Please make yourself comfortable in the lounge. May I have the bartender make you a drink?

It didn't get better. When Mr. B arrived, we were led to a crappy table next to the kitchen door. Okay, overlookable, all restaurants have crappy tables and someone needs to sit in them. But then the captain comes over and hands us our menus, opened to the dinner menu, which he explains. Then he walks away.

So we call after him — actually, we explain, we were planning on ordering the tasting menu. Is that available? So yes, actually, it turns out it is, and he flips the page and shows it to us. "The tasting menus are $135 and $185 dollars," he takes care to note. Thanks, dude, the price is printed on the page. He starts to walk away again.

I have enough multi-course tasting menus at enough super-fancy restaurants (I know, pity me) to know that sometimes even the best service has an off-day, and I'm forgiving of it. But just as the maitre d' was welcoming and warm to the middle-aged man who walked in thirty seconds after I did, the service captain's back was always being hastily turned to us so that he could attend, friendly and with notable graciousness, to the table to our left. And in front of us. And diagonally to the right. It wasn't an off-day. We were, apparently, off-customers.

Look, I don't want to say that it was because we're young that we got such bad service, but oh my god, it was totally because we are young. I'm not really the type to march into a restaurant and declare "Hello, I am a former cookbook editor* who is now a food blogger, i.e. I know my shit, and my dining companion works in finance, i.e. we are not going to cheap out on you. Treat us accordingly." If I did that, I would be an asshole. Because there shouldn't be any "accordingly" treatment for a food pro and a rich dude.

Probably the Maitre d' has more accumulated experience about this, but I can't even understand the basis for his discrimination and/or cognitive laziness that he made such a snap judgment. Did he judge lovely Helen's shoes and bag to determine her ability to pay? (I am sure they were fab, much more so than my Naturalizer shoes.) In any case, why couldn't he assume that Helen and Mr. B were second year law firm associates or flush investment bankers ready to go to town with a tasting menu + wine? Ok, maybe now that there's a recession, there may be less of that, as everyone tightens their Prada belts and the financial services people are laid off left and right. But still, it seems to me illogical to assume that 20-somethings are unlikely to be able to afford a fine dining experience, and treating them badly ensures that they will not be repeat customers, even if they could afford to be. In fact, as age discrimination often skews the other direction in employment, I would expect older workers to be more affected by lay-offs (you have to pay them more for their experience), and given the reduction in defined contribution plans (no more pensions) and the abysmal savings rate and crashing housing market (many had their chief source of assets in the value of their house), it may well be likely that the 20-something has more income and earning potential than most middle aged Americans.

I'm not arguing for age discrimination against the middle-aged! I am merely saying that it seems wholly illogical and incomprehensible for nice restaurants to discriminate against 20-somethings! About as logical as discrimination in tipping. It would take a relatively cultured and knowledgeable diner to choose such an establishment, so why presume their inability to pay? Maybe it's my relaxed, go-with-the-flow geographical milieu, but TD and I have always had the nicest service 'round our parts. Even the super fancy "best restaurant in the world" was extremely gracious to us when they expressed their apologies that the waiting list was much longer than the date for which we wanted to dine. And you know what? One day we'll go to that restaurant. Nothing makes me more nervous than snooty people treating me rudely and judging me. I don't have as emotional a connection to a chef and his food as Helen does, so I feel doubly sorry for her for her bad experience.

In any case, Helen gets it exactly right--despite whatever presumptions, correct or incorrect, logical or illogical the Maitre d' may have had about her worthiness as a customer and her ability to pay, she deserved good service:

At a restaurant of the caliber and reputation of Le Bernardin there is one of two scenarios for a table: One, they're the kind of person for whom this isn't a break-the-bank experience. They're the "you know, I've really been craving that mackerel at Le B, let's go next week" table. They should get excellent service, because they're the backbone of the restuarant's business.

Two, they're not that type. They're tourists splurging on a special dinner. They're a young couple who've saved up for a couple months to spare no expense on a birthday celebration. Heck, they're a young couple who haven't saved up for a couple months, and will frugally and perhaps embarrassedly order the precisely cheapest things on the menu, because it is a special occasion and they have decided that, credit card debt be damned, they would like to spend that occassion at Le Bernardin. They should get excellent service, because they fucking deserve it.

Yet another thing I will never get: deplorable service from an industry that is based on the giving of service, such that they are called "the service industry." Dude, do your job. I also hate any and all professors who are demeaning to students on the basis of class, gender, or race, as if to impart the divine liquor of knowledge is beneath them, and only the most worthy may be supplicants. This all fills me with enormous class resentment and indignant rage.