I don’t mind admitting that the first time I experienced it, I was elated. At some point in the lengthy interview/order-taking process that preceded our first meal at Arzak, the mythic San Sebastián restaurant, Elena Arzak, Chef Juan Mari Arzak’s lovely daughter, pulled up a chair and sat down at our table. Of course, Elena Arzak is also a chef and star in her own right, so, when she sat down, I was conscious of the honor. Then again, I’d just driven from France through the Pyrenees in my friend’s Mercedes, which I had dinged in a fender bender as we entered town. Basically, I was honored to be anywhere and not driving.
I saw it again this May—this time in Florence, at the iconoclastic Ristorante Cibrèo (which sources most of its ingredients locally and many of its recipes from history). This is the restaurant that dares not to serve pasta because it is not traditionally Florentine. For a restaurant located in an international tourist Mecca, Cibrèo is frankly didactic and a little in-your-face. After my husband and I had been sitting at Cibrèo for a few minutes, a rather prim older woman took a seat at our table and silently, and with authority, commanded our attention. This time around, I was put out by the invasion. I stared at the lady and she stared at me. After the détente, she proceeded to explain the menu at great length while probing for our “food issues.” Finding none, she took our order, and (finally) went away.
In theater, the act of transgressing the invisible boundary between the performer and the viewer is called “breaking the fourth wall.” Increasingly, this transgression has become a part of restaurant service. At first, it was just the mild-mannered introduction of your server’s name, as in, “Hi, my name is Jared and I’ll be taking your order.” That morphed into what’s been called “squat and chat,” a service style in which the waiter crouches to inject his own face into the faces gathered around the table. Of course, all that squatting is tough on one’s hamstrings; nowadays, your server might simply pull up a chair.
What’s the reaction among local diners? That’s hard to say. Recently, at Tagine Restaurant & Wine Bar in Croton, co-owner Craig Purdy grabbed a chair to sit down and chat about his newly opened restaurant. And he didn’t sit just with us: We saw Purdy do this at several other tables that night, and, from where we sat, the other diners loved it. But Purdy managed to carry it off without seeming like he was giving a sales pitch. With a less experienced front-of-house man, this might have ended in disaster.
Where will it lead? Who knows? But it’s time to get ready—that table that you think you rented might have to be shared.