No elbows

All You Can Eat

The other night I was at a nice restaurant with some friends and co-workers. At one point during the meal, I found myself checking my posture, flatware alignment, and making sure my wine glass was properly held. Hopefully no one noticed my posturing, because I felt pretty silly.

I’ve always been fascinated by etiquette and decorum. And though the rules are in place for legitimate reasons, they can easily become distractions. During the meal, I was thinking more about how to hold things than the food on the table and the people with whom I was speaking. What good is etiquette if you are so wrapped up in where your elbows are that you miss the whole point of the meal?

Eating at a fancy restaurant should be just like eating from a stand on the side of the road: all about good food. Now maybe you shouldn’t scarf that porterhouse down in the same fashion as a breakfast taco, but each situation has some rules that have some merit: chewing with your mouth closed, no burping, and using a fork instead of lapping up soup like a dog.

My mother would always tell me not to put my elbows on the table. Why? So I could look uptight and self-absorbed? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen anyone who went an entire meal without placing an elbow on the table. Etiquette should be taken more as guidelines and less as hard-and-fast rules.

Much of the dining experience has to do with your mindset. I’ve been to places that made me feel uncomfortable one day and relaxed the next. The difference was my attitude. If you feel the pressure to act a certain way, it will preoccupy you. Some people don’t go to “fancy” restaurants for many reasons: “Why would I pay 30 bucks for something I can get for five?” “It’s stuffy.” “I don’t know the etiquette.” “I feel that everyone is looking at me.” “I can’t pronounce the things on the menu.” Besides the objection about cost, each comment isn’t about the food or the company. A restaurant should never be more about atmosphere or status than food. If so, they should go into another business. When it comes down to it, a restaurant is about serving food and creating an experience to go along with it. Without the food, it’s something else.

photo / Kent Wang A salad from Vespaio 

When I want a perfect dining experience I always find myself at Chez Nous. The cozy dining room lends itself to familiarity. Lighting, music, simply delicious food, and a knowledgeable staff come together in one of the best restaurants in Austin. Vespaio is a close second. The only thing better than their intuitive and attentive waitstaff is their food.

Unfortunately, few nicer restaurants get it right the way that Chez Nous and Vespaio do. Places are either disrespectfully casual (flip flops, tank tops, and $40 sea bass), the waitstaff acts like it’s a privilege to dine there, or simply not worth the price. All of these categories are represented at the Cheesecake Factory. I think they serve overpriced “gourmet” food for people who don’t know any better. For the same price – or cheaper – you can eat better food at Taverna or Blue Star Cafeteria.

Restaurants don’t have to be “fancy” to provide a wonderful dining experience. They just have to have good food and low stress. Marakesh’s quiet retreat downtown is one of my favorite places to go when I actually want to talk with someone. Noisy tables filled with sorority girls on their third cosmopolitan are hard to find. Tables are quiet and generously spaced. In a similar vein, Cipollina in Clarksville offers up a refreshing combination of a relaxed atmosphere, excellent food, and very affordable prices. These are the qualities I want in a restaurant. They put you at ease so that you can focus on the food, not the prices or stuffiness. It’s hard to relax in the wrong setting.

Eating out isn’t supposed to be a social pageant or a demonstration of your rearing. Food is supposed to be about flavor, tradition, and sharing. A meal is significant. In biblical times, who you chose to dine with meant something. Nowadays families eat separate meals at separate times in separate rooms. Whatever happened to the table? Fast-food drive-ins and Must-See TV have replaced the family dinner table. It’s no wonder so many people are uncomfortable at the table; it’s unfamiliar.

Dining can be like dressing up: The nicest suit or dress won’t cover up the fact that you look or feel uncomfortable. It’s all about being at ease. This applies to eating as well. Flawless execution of the tenets of Emily Post will be overshadowed by the fact that you look like you have a potato chip in your pants and you don’t want to crush it.

So relax. Perfect is boring. Unbutton your collar, put your arms on the table, and enjoy the people and food around you. If you do slip up, it’s better to make a faux pas than to look like you have a fork up your ass.

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