Snooty French Restaurants

This is a running gag I’ve seen in sitcoms ranging from The Jestsons (and possibly earlier) all the way through modern shows such as Home Improvement and Mad About You. The gag is this: ordinary middle-class couple splurges for a night out at a French restaurant, usually at the insitence of the wife.


[li]The Maitre 'D treats them like crap.[/li][li]The waiter treats them like crap.[/li][li]The staff gives preferential treatment to patrons who are obviously wealhy, sometimes making the OMC (ordinary, middle-class) couple wait an exorbitantly long time for service and/or for their food.[/li][li]The waiter gets personally offended if someone doesn’t understand something in the menu.[/li][li]The menu is incompreshensible.[/li][li]The prices are through the roof.[/li][li]The portions are miniscule.[/li]

I’ve never been to a French restaurant in the US, so I can’t speak from experience. So what’s the deal with this sitcom gag? Are French restaurants really such horrible places to eat at, particularly if you’re OMC?

It’s pretty much an exaggeration, especially nowadays. There are certainly restaurants that cater to an upscale clientele and do things like insist men wear jackets and ties, but they are rare.

One semi-execption are in big cities. There are restaurants that are so popular that the average patron has to wait weeks to get a reservation, but there are people who, through money or connections, can get reservations easily. But once you have the reservations, you’re pretty much treated like everyone else. And it’s possible that tipping the maitre d’ an extra $20 will still get you a better seat, if that matters to you.

A couple of friends of mine recently went out to this type of restaurant. They hadn’t realized how classy it was and showed up dressed casually and they were on a bit of a budget. They were seated in the back near the kitchen, in a booth (though they had specified a table). However, other than that, the service was fine. (The prices were extremely high, but you expect that).

If the stereotype ever did exist (and I find it hard to believe a restauranteur would deliberately piss off paying customers), it is dying as owners realize that money is money and that casual dress is here to stay.

I recall that William Poundstone, in one of his Big Secrets books, talked about how he went to Antoine’s, which is located in New Orleans, for the purpose of stealing some Oysters Rockefeller to determine what was in them. He had a reservation and was dressed in a suit and tie (or something reasonably nice, anyway). As he arrived, there was a couple dressed casually (man was wearing a sport shirt, etc.) wondering why the door was locked and whether the restaurant was closed. The maitre’d then opened the door to let Poundstone in without even giving the casually dressed couple a second look.

So apparently restaurants like that do exist in some places.

However. My experience here in Seattle (and this may be particular to Seattle, which is renowned for its casual attitude) is that even the priciest of restaurants generally have friendly wait staff, and nobody is going to make fun of you for, for example, not knowing the wine-sniffing ritual or whatever. Every time I’ve gone to an expensive restaurant out here, they have been courteous and polite to everyone, no matter how they are dressed or how knowledgable they seem to be about food, wine, or silverware settings.

Q: Yes, but why does this always happen in FRENCH Restaurants???

A: Because the French are always pretentious snots!

Remember that not everybody’s idea of an expensive restaurant is the same. My girlfriend used to think that $12 entrees were expensive. Now that she earns more money (and spends more of mine) she thinks that $20 entrees are expensive. Obviously the Outback steakhouse (super casual) isn’t in the same range as Smith and Wollensky (business dinner), but S&W isn’t La Caravelle either.

As far as expensive restaurants go, there’s two types. One is the traditional French restaurant where everything is done a particular way, and ceremony and protocol is important to the image of the restaurant, as well as the clientele. Such ‘exclusive’ places truly cater to a certain crowd. When you don’t see prices on the menu, it’s a warning sign. These places have probably been open for many years, and their waiters are career waiters who have probably been waiting tables for the majority of their lives. Thus the crustiness/snootiness.

The other kind of expensive place is the eclectic and hip restaurant where ‘smart’ casual attire is the norm, and ceremony has been replaced by friendliness and flexibility. These places are probably as famous for their people-watching as they are for their food (Spago comes to mind, and yes, I know it’s not French food).

But yes, places like that do exist, and they maintain this image as much for their clientele as for themselves.

I think Aestivalis has it. The comedy arises from the struggle between the traditional (if over-stated)American frugality and casualness on the one hand and the (also over-stated) expense and formality of the higher-end French restaurants.

A restaurant with haughty waiters won’t last long in today’s market unless it is has the greatest food in the world.

Most people won’t pay a lot of money to have a waiter be rude to them, even in New York.

Here in Southern California, there are few restaurants that have a dress code that mandate ties for men. The only dress codes I’ve seen usually involves making sure that men wear long pants or shirts with collars.