The Single Rudest Thing You Can Do In A Restaurant
Guilty as charged
Time To Read: 8 mins | November 8, 2016
I’ve actually written an article under this exact title for a former employer, but Google informs me that my old boss, following the borderline-evil timing of my two week notice, has destroyed all evidence of my ever working there. In that piece, I told the story of drinking at a posh Hollywood bar and becoming disgusted with two men’s relatively innocuous behavior.
This story’s like that, except this time, I was the one being an ass.
Paris isn’t overhyped. Everything looks like you expect it to – which is a compliment, considering how romanticized most of us imagine the city. The streets are marvelously quaint, the Seine picturesque, and the monuments legendary. Given how often you’ve seen images of the Eifel Tower over the years, sitting under it doesn’t fail to impress, nor does glimpsing the Louvre or Notre Dame in person. And on a tangential charming note, it’s apparently illegal for any street to have less than a dozen outdoor cafes.
Now this is an odd thing to say, but when I first arrived, I’d forgotten that I didn’t speak French. Which isn’t something most people ‘forget’, but I’d become so used to Spain, where I can at least handle buying groceries and asking where the bathroom is, that tackling the same basic chores in France was a surprise issue.
Not that there weren’t volunteers offering to help.
My first grocery store clerk was particularly eager, as he made plain by offering me free language lessons after he got off work. I didn’t decline because he was wearing eyeliner and obviously stroked my hand when handing me change, but it did influence the decision.
To future explorers of France: you’re required to start off with bonjour, even when entering a supermarket. To not greet is an insult. But after that, as long as you make a scared puppy dog face and ask parley vous inglai?, most everyone understands and is as polite as can be. Forget the tales of snobbishness you’ve heard; as always, the act of trying with humility works wonders.
One other observation of French life before we move on: everyone’s carrying baguettes. And whatever visual you’re imagining after that sentence, multiply it by a hundred. 9/10 Parisians walking the street are smoking a cigarette, carrying a loaf, or both. I’ve never doubled over in laughter as hard as the time I walked past a mother and her daughter; the 3-year old was stumbling along next to mommy while her stroller held three French loafs.
But to the matter at hand.
My one concession to touristiness – well that’s a lie, isn’t it? The entire Paris trip was the definition of touristy. Which is obviously a word. So the biggest concession to touristiness was a riverboat dinner. For the price of one black market kidney, you can enjoy a cruise down the Seine in a floating restaurant. You’re served a fixed menu, given prepaid cocktails, and driven to all the most popular historic sites from a romantic river view. This is the evening of honeymooner’s dreams.
I wasn’t there to celebrate nuptials, of course. I had a date and this seemed like the sort of thing people on dates in Paris do, so I ran with it. And before I get to the cringe of the story, let me stress that it was a lovely evening. Highly recommend it — should you find yourself in Paris with a lack of evening plans, the dinner cruises are a perfect solution. You’ll have the best time and probably get to third base afterwards.
It’s no one’s fault but our own that myself and the aforementioned date acted like jackasses.
Included in the price was a welcome cocktail. It was allegedly rum and juice, but both of us (former bartenders) decided that it must have been rubbing alcohol and Pepto Bismol. The thing tasted like Zenka mixed with medicine mixed with sadness. Had we paid for the drink, we would have politely demanded something, anything else, but since it was included gratis, we simply threw it back like oversized shots, then desperately looked for toothbrushes to cleanse our distraught palates.
I can only guess that this liquor was served to help guests feel less revolted about the forthcoming meal. Her pasta could best be described as thrice overcooked. My duck tasted like it could bounce. The mashed potatoes were lovely though — all two bites of it.
No one should expect haute cuisine on a prepaid fixed menu cruise. They’re serving limited dishes en masse on a boat, not working towards a Michelin star. Maybe the chef was just having an off night. But considering the price tag, we had hoped for something swankier than rubber poultry and al dente al dente al dente gnocchi. So, determined to enjoy ourselves, we instead ordered all the wine and fell into a pleasant drunken giggle fest.
Two things: first, I’m disgusted that I just wrote “giggle fest.” Second, we were the only ones who found it funny.
Next to us was an African couple. I’ve no idea where they were from but I think I caught some Swahili. Certainly not French or any other European dialect. Anyway, they were dressed to the nines and had ordered a bottle of champagne. We’d later find out, after cake and candles and song were delivered, that it was the guy’s birthday. They were celebrating a milestone and had paid out the nose for it.
Which brings us to my peeve: being loudly condescending of a nice meal.
At the top of this story I referenced a story I’d written years ago. On that occasion, two older men were loudly bitching about the $9 beers they’d ordered. Sitting at the next table was a young couple who were clearly in a new relationship and eating somewhere beyond their usual budget. This poor kid, on an early-in-the-courtship date, kept glancing at the men complaining, and over the course of an hour I watched his face fall further and further as his big expenditure was cheapened by the snobbishness of established middle-aged men who likely drank and ate there all the time. Because the 50-somethings felt a fancy evening was garbage, the 20-somethings who’d shelled out for a posh meal suddenly felt like they were wasting their limited resources. What for them was once fancy had become irrevocably cheapened.
This is the height of impropriety, in my mind. You can feel any way you’d like about something you paid for. But to inflict your views upon others is unfair.
We weren’t being quiet – it’s not in my nature. While my date and I weren’t screaming “All of this is shit,” we weren’t whispering about the quality of the meal either. And because I’m a horrendous hypocrite, it only occurred to me once our neighbor’s cake came out that we’d likely tainted their entire experience with our bitching.
There’s no resolution here. You can’t lean over and say, “I’m sorry we loudly mocked everything during your special evening.” I mentioned my guilt to the date and she immediately understood; we clapped along and (tried to) sing happy birthday in French. We considered sending them a bottle of wine, but it was only during the final minutes of our cruise that we recognized our own douchebaggery. And for all I could tell, our assholish actions had no effect on the other couple’s evening.
But that doesn’t make me feel better about it.
photo: a friend recently told me it looks as though I’ve graduated from the michael bay school of filmography. eiffel tower, paris