If you stop and think about it, it’s interesting that we visit a top-end restaurant, hand over a couple of thousand Rand per head for the pleasure, and then profusely thank the waiter, the manager and the chef for the privilege when we leave.
This gratitude is only elevated the more rare the opportunity, like when we land a table at a place that really is difficult to get into. What this brings into focus is that we are the guests of the restaurant and they are the hosts, and we thank them as we would thank the hosts at a domestic dinner party. We only stop short of bringing them flowers.
Hospitality, whether at a restaurant or at home, has developed rules of etiquette, and these are shared between both environments. Just as we are expected to be polite when dining at friends’, and not comment on their over-cooked fish, we generally carry this politesse over to restaurants. This hints at why we are reluctant to complain about restaurant food that is not up to standard. We simply hope the waiter notices our anguish, and asks if all is OK, and then attempts to resolve our issue.
But like so much in restaurants today, this point of etiquette has become symbolic. It has now become waiters that robotically and pre-emptively ask “Is everything OK?” without reading the table; managers that nominally act as hosts but exude boredom; and food that tries only as hard as it needs to – it meets the bare minimum requirement.
Yet while we tend to avoid restaurants where these points of etiquette are completely ignored, we also don’t expect them at all eateries. Where we don’t, we tend to assign them to a different category – these are your “fast-food” outlets for example. Here eating is functional rather than cultural. Rather than being a form of entertainment or relaxation, a night out, these are fuelling stops.
But most of the places we consider “restaurants” still fall into the category where we (even tacitly) expect to be hosted and the establishment – at least – “plays the game”; and the better they play the game the less visible it becomes and generally the more successful the restaurant is. Furthermore, people feel the distinction between a place that is role-playing and places that are heart-and-soul, where the people on the floor really are hosts. And these places, almost certainly, are owner-run or chef-operated. Or they are the best hotels, where professionals are on the floor, hospitality at the core of their job description.
What they share, and what remains a truism, is that it takes the right people to create centres of hospitality, long before great food.
And then we get establishments, right on the other end of the spectrum, that even depart from the realm of being restaurants. These are The Test Kitchens* of the world, where simply getting a table is no mean feat, straining either your ability to think ahead (“Bookings for October, November and December will be open from the 1st September 2017 at 08:00am South African time”) or testing the reach of your influence.
This kind of experience is more akin to going to the theatre or to a jazz improvisation than simply going out to eat – which can be more like going to watch a movie or listen to the latest teen pop idol. The pop idol strives to be mechanically reproducible (sometimes with hilarious results) and make hits that sound the same on stage as on the radio. The jazz band is a live ensemble putting heart-and-soul on the high-line night after night. The idol belts out vibrato versions of formulaic pop songs; the jazz band challenges itself to constant renewal and discovery in the making of fresh music and in turn challenges the audience to keep up – not knowing what they are going to get next, often because the band doesn’t know either. (Get some at Chicago’s Sound Experiment).
Free jazz is artistry in the moment, creation that happens in the instant of an evening and is never repeated in exactly the same way ever again. It can be thrilling and it can also be confounding, and even bum notes sound from time to time. But the pleasure of the all-encompassing sensations (the space, the sounds and the sights, even before the flavours) and the excitement of what’s around the corner are what make these “restaurants” something more. This is ample reason for them to be celebrated even if we can’t get there often – and in fact, we shouldn’t try to. These are high saturation events; to become inured to them would only dull the senses (and put your wallet on a diet). What these theatrical environments do is push the boundaries of sensorial experience, and in an age of saturation, it’s a noble undertaking.
* A recent meal here illustrated the ever-evolving nature of these high-wire “culinary acts”. The Test Kitchen is now a two-part experience, a Dark Room and a Light Room and the spaces have been redecorated along with the menu. It’s a memorable night out in all respects and the sense of wonder on diners’ faces suggests another comparison – the restaurant as playground for adults.