Eat It or Else! The New Culture of Culinary Coercion

Restaurant diners are increasingly being told "no substitutions"

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Napa Valley Register / Zuma

Roasted capon with chestnut stuffing, savoy cabbage and honey-poached cranberries by the French Laundry's Phil Tessier on Dec. 17, 2011

Now that I am old, I probably can’t take it for granted that everyone remembers the iconic scene in Five Easy Pieces, when Jack Nicholson wants to order a plain omelette with tomatoes instead of potatoes, and a side order of toast. The waitress, a stand-in for all the inflexible authority figures that loomed so large at the time, tells him he can’t get toast as a side order and that there are “no substitutions.” Nicholson calmly adds to his order a chicken-salad sandwich on wheat toast and tells the waitress to hold the chicken — between her knees.

In the years since, the hospitality industry has done everything possible to distance itself from this kind of intransigence. Everything from feeding toddlers chicken fingers to accommodating a panoply of food allergies that not a few chefs believe to be largely imaginary. But this long, elliptical orbit has, I believe, come around, and we find ourselves moving back to the kind of authoritarianism Nicholson ran up against in the early ’70s.

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Consider Wylie Dufresne, one of America’s most innovative chefs. He recently announced that he would be revamping the whole format of his Manhattan restaurant, wd~50. No more would diners be able to order à la carte; it will be all tasting menus, all the time. This trend has become more pronounced in the fine-dining world, where the new rock-star status of the top toques in each city allow them to define the terms in which they engage with diners. Nearly all the megarestaurants in the country, like the French Laundry in the Napa Valley; Next and Alinea in Chicago; and Momofuku Ko, Brooklyn Fare and now wd~50 in New York City, decide what you are going to eat, and in what order you will eat it. You get to say thank you at the end, and pay the (often stratospheric) bill. And even when not serving tasting menus, the hot restaurants tend to be odiously bossy: Victoria Beckham, in what qualified as a scandal in the Los Angeles food world, was told last year that she couldn’t have her fish with the sauce on the side in a trendy Venice, Calif., restaurant.

I don’t blame great chefs for acting like this. Artists like Thomas Keller and Dufresne are sought after for their vision; it’s not unseemly when they ask for the right to present their vision unencumbered by what you happen to want or like. But the trend has trickled down to lesser restaurants too that now proudly announce what you can’t do. There are the third-wave cafés that, in their almost evangelical desire to convert the world to the religion of better coffee, refuse to serve artificial sweetener; the craft-cocktail bars that don’t have any commercial sodas available, either as mixers or on their own; the disappearance of salt-and-pepper shakers from tables where they used to be taken for granted. More and more, diners are being told that they can’t have it their way.

This, I would submit, is not a direction we as a country ought to be going in. For one thing, it’s mean-spirited, inhospitable and domineering. For another, it exploits the privilege of elite taste culture �� the kind of snobs-vs.-slobs haughtiness that fuels culture warriors in the so-called red states. For the good of the country, can we all agree that this has gone too far? Sometimes a guy just wants an order of toast.

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