Service With A Scream

Travelling to Europe ruined me in several ways. One, of course, is that I’m compelled to constantly demonstrate what an insufferable poseur I am by placedropping (“Oh, yes, there’s this little bar in Madrid just north of the Gran Via that specializes in Vermouth. They serve anchovies and olives as tapas — you really should go, dahling…"). The other is that I can’t enjoy a meal at a restaurant any more, because I can’t stand being interrupted while I eat.

The intra-prandial checkup seems to be a thoroughly American phenomenon. It’s one that you don’t even notice until you’ve eaten somewhere that doesn’t do it. Try this: the next time you’re out eating with a friend, keep track of the number of times a waiter or waitress comes over and interrupts your conversation to ask “Hi! Everything OK here?” This typically happens to me at least 3 times when eating dinner out.

I want to be clear that my ire isn’t addressed at the servers, who are just doing their job and meeting cultural expectations. Rather, I’m bemoaning that this has become our cultural standard. When I first started travelling abroad it actually made me nervous, on a subconcious level, that the waiters weren’t checking up on us. Were they ignoring me? Well, yes, but only because that’s part of what it means to be polite in Rome: you don’t interrupt someone’s meal without a really good reason (note that “bringing more food” is one of the good reasons). Eventually, I not only got used to it, but started to enjoy it. To eat out is not a big deal, but to eat out and actually feel unrushed and unhurried is a true luxury. In the US it almost feels like the service expectations of fast food have leaked into the standard restaurant culture. Hi! Welcome! Please sit down. What would you like? Everything OK? Everything OK? Everything OK? Please leave now.


Welcome to America

I don’t see any real hope for changing the practice here. Our tipping culture encourages wait staff to be more attentive rather than laid back, and restaurants, as businesses, want to turn tables over more quickly to get high volume. I do find it somehow amusing that our coffee culture is also the inverse of the Italian coffee culture, specifically, with Starbucks encouraging you to sit and relax with your espresso, which is a drink that God clearly intended you to gulp down at the bar in 10 seconds shortly before striding out of the door of the bar stuffing a cornetto in your face on the way to work.

I don’t want to make the situation seem more bleak than it really is. There is great food culture in the US, even in Pittsburgh. It’s just not the norm. You have to work to find it. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

And, in the worst case, I guess I can just look at this as another excuse to go back to Rome. See, I know this little bakery hidden away on Via di San Teodoro! They’re only open 2 hours a day, and…