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MAN BITES TOWN

Dishing It Out : L.A. Has Grown Into a Great Dining Town. So Why Is Eating Out Still So Irritating?

October 14, 1990|HARRY SHEARER

IT'S NOT MY FAULT. I have to say that right up front, because I've seen the vituperative mail Ruth Reichl receives for being insensitive enough to write about restaurants that charge more than $10 for dinner. For four. So, please understand: It's not my fault that I eat in restaurants. I was raised by Europeans. They didn't know any better. Their language didn't have a word for "microwaveable." Of course, neither does ours, but you get my point.

Restaurants have always felt comfortable to me. They were where I could eat what I pleased, regardless of what the other family members were having. They were also where I could scoot under the table and goof around. I'd never try that at home. This was all, you understand, when I was a child. I'm very good about not climbing under the table these days.

Anyway, as a veteran restaurant-goer, it pleases me no end that Los Angeles has, in the lifetime of a chipmunk, gone from being a mediocre dining town to being one of the best. For every reliable kitchen plowed under (ou sont les Ollie Hammonds d'ayer? ), a few dozen wonderful places have sprung up, and a hundred cuisines have bloomed.

But somehow, despite advancing rumors of a recession that has already closed more New York restaurants than a year's worth of Health Department inspections and which should have the local places trying hard to please, the designers of our dining-out experience seem increasingly to view us as their guests only in the Iraqi definition.

Let's assume that the new breed of supercilious host, the drop-dead gorgeous girl who sniffs as snobbishly as any tuxedoed maitre d', has actually allowed you to sit down. Now the fun begins. Waiters and waitresses have always had plenty of things to look at--the kitchen, other diners, each other--so that they needn't notice your protracted efforts to attract their attention. Today they have something to truly mesmerize them. Most restaurants have installed computers, and the waitstaff must now engage in endless typed conversations.

Management buys these systems to keep precise track of inventory. You can, if you're foolish enough to be in the restaurant business, know at any moment how much duck breast you've sold today. But waitpeople are aspiring performers, not CPAs-in-training. Like the rock-'n'-rollers who now struggle with the terminals at record stores or the woman at the airline counter when you're about to miss your flight, they are not computer-friendly. So they must stand at the console, their backs to their customers, cajoling and pleading and negotiating with the machine while needs for water or another recitation of the specials go unmet.

And why, by the way, do the specials have to be recited at all? This is the age of desktop printing, of high-quality photocopying, of cheap blackboards, for God's sake. But the nicer the restaurant, the more daily specials, so the longer the recitation, which means the more quickly you forget, so the specials have to be re-recited, tying up the waiter when he should be taking care of business back at the computer.

If you'll pardon the usage, I think the theory behind oral specials is that it bonds you to your waithuman, so that when the time comes for him or her to push dessert or a wine on which the house has a deal, you'll receive it like advice from a friend.

But OK, imagine that you've managed to actually follow orders and enjoy your meal. There's still one more act in the modern restaurant floor show. You've given the valet your car, ignoring the fact that he's uninsured, and now, after you've waited long enough that you could have retrieved your car and driven it to Needles, he's brought it back.

Now you must pay him. The sign says "Valet Parking: $2.50." You give him $3. What follows is a staredown that belongs in the remake of "High Noon."

He doesn't say anything. He doesn't walk away, but he sure doesn't offer you your change. You wonder whether you read the sign right. Then you wonder if the guy will think you're a cheapskate for requesting your two quarters. Then you wonder why you care what he thinks. Then the car behind you honks, so you get in and drive off.

They could just put up a sign that said "Valet Parking: $3." But the actual parker might not get the extra four bits. On the other hand, there is no product involved with valet parking; it's 100% service. So why, after paying for the service, should you be mind-gamed into tipping for the same service? Why can't the guy just take a chance and have a tip jar, like any decent lounge pianist?

Given all of this, I'm tempted to root for the recession to perform its cleansing magic. But I have this nagging fear that the restaurants left standing will be the ones with the best computers and the loudest specials.

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