People know about the joys of ordering for the table, right?
So, I’m at lunch with a friend. I suggest that she order for the table. And she refuses.
This is odd, because we’re on her turf, at a restaurant near her office. She’s a regular. She knows the menu, whereas I have never eaten here. I reassure her that I feel comfortable with her picking lunch for me, that I eat everything but Brazil nuts and bananas. But she says that she won’t order for us and that she would never order for other people (outside of a Korean restaurant, with her Korean family).
How much pleasure has she denied herself and others, letting them wallow in the regret of their own poor menu choices?
On one hand, ordering for the whole table can be seen as a stereotypical and antiquated male chauvinist thing to do. This is beautifully captured in the movie Phantom Thread, in which Daniel Day-Lewis’s character uses food to control the women around him. In restaurants, he presumes to know what they would like. At home, he rejects their food choices as a means of asserting his dominance or withholding of his affections and approval. Though the character intends to be sophisticated, he comes off as perfectly boorish.
On the other hand (in real life and in modern times), when it’s a two-way street, ordering for other people in a restaurant — or having them order for you — can feel terrifically liberating.
For me, there’s a freedom from anxiety when someone else takes over the ordering, a process that can often mimic the protracted frustration of jury deliberation.
I must have been about 15 when I first realized how terrible we are when trying to be democratic about dinner. Some friends were ordering Chinese (this was long before I learned, much less appreciated, regional specificity among Chinese cuisines), using the variation of a ranked ballot system in which whoever can gather the most votes for their choices (and yell loud enough at the same time) selects the menu. And someone vetoed a chicken dish because “we already have a chicken dish.” So we ended up with a beef dish that nobody liked.
Why couldn’t we get more than one chicken dish? What if we all liked chicken? The menu had two dozen preparations of chicken. Where was it written that we had to choose one chicken, one beef, and one pork?
The assumption that variety trumped preference seemed nutty to me even then.
When I became a restaurant critic, it became necessary that I order for a group. I realized that this cuts out 10 or 20 minutes of pointless consultation, as well as repeat visits from servers asking whether we “need more time with the menu.”
Certainly, it is our privilege to take our time deciding. But the natural rhythm of sitting down with friends in a restaurant — jumbled dialogue switching between catch-up session to menu perusal to gossip trading to pressured cocktail choices — results in quick, short movements of conversation, back and forth with many interruptions and little progress, like looking for a spot in a parking lot that turns out to be full.
A skilled server can take individual orders from a table of eight and present everyone with their own split bill. But they also know how to infer whether the group has an official (or unofficial) leader. When they ask, “Does anyone have any questions about the menu?” it’s a legitimate question. But it’s also code for, “Does anyone feel comfortable speaking for the table rather than letting this devolve into an ineffectual city council debate?”
Seeing someone take the lead, they will sidle over to that person to make everyone’s lives easier.
Even if one person chooses for the whole table, anyone who truly wants a specific dish can speak up and advocate for it.
When I order for the table, it’s only with the consent of everyone. And I always start by asking people whether there are any specific dishes they want. I try to pick dishes for other people’s taste rather than my own.
But mostly what I’m doing has nothing to do with food choices. The reason I enjoy ordering is that it frees everyone else up to go back to their conversation, which is the purpose of going out.
Over the last decade, dining has trended toward family-style and shared dishes. And while I’ve heard grumblings about the pendulum swinging back to composed plates not intended to be shared, I haven’t seen real evidence of it.
Not everyone loves sharing food or needs to love doing so (see the recent New York Times screed against sharing food in restaurants). But for the most part, North Americans have embraced the way the rest of the world dines out, reaching for and passing around plates of food, rather than huddling over our personalized meals and asking one another how we are enjoying our property.
Not only do I prefer sharing dishes; I also don’t enjoy the old way anymore. This is not some veiled message about socialism versus individualism. I just feel closed off from people with my little solo plate composed of protein, starch, and vegetable. I still want to taste everyone else’s food — and I don’t want to feel like a panhandler asking for a bite.
Sharing food brings people closer together. I’ve seen this as a restaurant diner and as a host. The necessity of physical proximity demanded by family-style eating invites an emotional closeness as well. It’s hard to reach, pass, share, and pick from the same plates while keeping up our personal barriers.
There is also a joy in ceding control to someone who might know something we don’t.
Recently I was out for dim sum. We were at a restaurant where I’ve eaten a hundred times, where I’ve settled into a routine gorging on char siu bao, turnip cakes, and pan-fried dumplings. But I was eating with a young chef who is also a regular, so I asked him to order for the group. He chose everything I never would, and soon the table was filled with chicken feet, tripe, squid, and tendon. And while the tripe did not sway me, the tendon was a revelation. The sumptuous cubes of collagen, rendered into a texture like a meat and soy-sauce-flavoured Jell-O, were something I never would have ordered on my own. And I was so happy to be exposed to something new.
The worst that can happen in this situation is that you try something you don’t like. Which is fine. My friend took the tripe leftovers home with him.
The best that can happen is you can discover something new and delicious to you. That’s a good deal of risk versus reward. I am a creature of habit. And I like to know what’s coming — particularly when it comes to my meals. But if you told me that I wouldn’t taste anything new from this point forward, I don’t know what I’d be living for.
May we have a moment of your time?
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