At a recent dinner out, the food was good, the wines were delicious, the company was even better, and the dining room was somewhat disconcerting. The restaurant was downstairs and they made the most of the subterranean atmosphere by creating a setting that celebrated it's identity as a cellar. The upper dining area was bordered by the wine room and the brightest spot in the lower level of the room was a window onto the kitchen where diners could watch the choreographed chaos in action. The disconcerting parts of the room were the tables where the diners were sat.
The actual tables were large and well spaced and well, high. The table tops were taller than average and the chairs were somewhat shorter than average. They made up for this shortcoming by being unusually deep. For a larger person, this probably encouraged lounging back in the chair so that their knees did not bang against the table-top. For those of us who were more petite, it meant than there was no chance of leaning back into the chair without halfway reclining in a rather awkward manner. Thus I spent the meal at the edge of my seat, with a ramrod straight back and still my food was practically at eye level. The wine glasses were of fine crystal and of the overly large style that seems better suited to giants than human beings. The cutlery was also grand and heavy as befitted such a setting. The effects of this seating arrangement was that the formally attired service staff towered over the table and the diners were left feeling somewhat like awkward children at the grown-ups table. It was a subtle method of intimidation and quite effective. Looking around the room you could see well dressed people, half hidden behind their plates and wine glasses, looking up at their captains to ask questions or place orders.
The seating actually started a discussion about why certain types of restaurants are usually uncomfortable. In casual, high turnover places the seating is deliberately uncomfortable in an effort to keep people from lingering. In old-school fancy restaurants, it seems as though people are made to feel uncomfortable in order to keep them in their places. In an age where fashion is increasingly casual, we were called multiple times and reminded that jackets were required and that jeans and sneakers were unacceptable. I love good food as much as the next person and I can't help but wonder why it must so often be cloaked in fancy trappings and pretentious, snooty service. As a culinary student scraping together money to dine in top restaurants, I was often made to feel slightly inadequate, as if, in spite of having the money to pay the bill, I would never actually deserve to eat in their establishments. Times have changed and with new generations of chefs and restauranteurs, things have relaxed. Food that was once considered fine dining can be found at many different levels of service. Establishments designed to make the diner feel good about being there have become common place except at the highest price points. This seems odd to me because why would we want to pay more to be treated as less. There are a few fine dining restaurants that are welcoming even if you wear expensive jeans under your designer jacket. The dinosaurs may still exist, the smart ones are starting to change with the times. People are beginning to realize that they don't need to feel humbled in order to enjoy their food. Dining is supposed to be a pleasure and we should support the restaurants that make it one. Then as time goes by, the rest of them will embrace the new way of dining or eventually become extinct.