How is one expected to behave while dining at some of the finest restaurants in the world? Is there a manual or a script to follow when dining at Alinea, The French Laundry or Eleven Madison Park?
For many, the expectation is to dress your best and to bring your articulate library voices while discussing cultured topics over the dozens of courses that are brought to the table. The evening is often spent with your significant other or a small group of close friends. Needless to say, it is not an experience many prefer to engage in, mainly because of the cost or pretentiousness.
You’ve heard stories of patrons being turned away for not following a restaurant’s dress code. Most restaurants have a dress code listed on their websites – whereas for other places, the dress code is understood. But is there a code of conduct? Can private topics of discussion get your table ejected? What if the private discussion becomes a public one? Is the level of tolerance by other diners measured differently if I were to compare the atmospheres of say, Oriole vs. Publican? Maybe. Maybe not.
The quality of your behavior (by normal societal standards) does not dictate or affect the quality of the dining experience, in any negative way, at some of the top restaurants in the world. I say this with confidence and actual first-hand experience. When a fine-dining restaurant allows its diners to unwind and let loose, the experience is actually enhanced – for both the diners and the restaurants. It’s an ‘against-the-grain’ feeling to have the freedom and pleasure to enjoy your meal the way you want to enjoy it.
Allow me to elaborate.
My friends and I planned a trip to New York City to knock out as many restaurants as we could in a 72-hour span. The plan was simple: Le Bernadin for lunch on Friday, Eleven Madison Park that evening for dinner, Blue Hill at Stone Barns on Saturday and squeeze in Ivan Ramen whenever we could. For the sake of length, I’ll only talk about the experiences at Le Bernadin and Eleven Madison Park.
Upon our arrival at Le Bernadin, we were greeted and the five of us were seated at our table. We were clearly surrounded by the New York Elite and I immediately felt out of my element. The atmosphere was tense and nowhere near as laid back as the demeanor and friendliness of head chef Eric Ripert. Though the meal was one of the best I’ve ever had in my life, the experience didn’t fit how my friends and I like to enjoy food. We would get our chance to get loose later that evening.
After an amazing meal, surrounded by the overly-pretentious New York crowd, my friends and I were mentally preparing ourselves for perhaps another uptight meal at Eleven Madison Park. Arguably proclaimed as the best restaurant in America, what kind of atmosphere would you expect?
We arrived for out 8pm reservation and were immediately seated in the center of the dining room. Our first of many paired wines arrived and the five of us began to indulge. Our server was excited to see we were ready to unwind. We had told him about our experience at Le Bernadin and our server assured us that we just relax and not worry about a thing. As the alcohol flowed, so did our etiquette. Library voices turned into concert voices and the topics of conversations became inappropriate by the perceived fine dining standard.
For reasons unexplained, the topic of a woman’s private scent became the focal point of our conversation and it could be audibly heard throughout the dining room. At one point, the server came to check on us and we included him into our conversation – he awkwardly obliged our invitation and gave us his honest opinion and quietly shared some of his personal experiences with us. We apologized for the fact that other diners, some of who were on romantic dates, could hear our storytelling, but the server assured us that the team was having a blast with us.
Midway through dinner, a different server checked in to see how we were doing. We jokingly told him that dinner was good, but not as good as Popeyes Chicken. Alcohol was definitely a factor in our responses, but that’s beside the point. The server asked about other fast food meals we enjoyed, and we all unanimously agreed that McDonald’s Spicy McChickens were to die for. The server agreed – stating that McChickens were the kitchen’s go-to snack on some nights. He topped off our wine and said, “I’ll let the kitchen know.”
A few courses had passed by, and by now, my friends and I were openly sharing inappropriate photos on our phones. The servers, of course, joined in and gave their thoughts. The lead server had come back around and informed us that a special treat was on the way. We all sat patiently, filled with excitement and curiosity. Our wines were topped off for probably the 30th time of the evening.
A pair of servers came back around with two large white platters. Could this be? No, they wouldn’t. This is the top restaurant in the world. They just wouldn’t do that for us. No one would. The platters were placed right in the center of our table. We all, servers included, burst out in laughter and high-fives. The kitchen had made McChickens for us. Delicious, crispy, juicy chicken breast fried in golden breading and placed in between a pair of freshly baked buns. This was better than a McChicken. Eleven Madison Park just flipped the script on us and we couldn’t have been happier.
After we had finished our McChickens, we were escorted into the kitchen to greet the chefs and were treated to some special sweets. The final four courses or so would play out the remainder of the evening in the same enjoyable fashion.
I think very few diners in the history of Eleven Madison Park had the pleasure of enjoying a meal the way we did. The service was above and beyond our expectations and we were treated with such openness by the staff. Perhaps, because we didn’t hold back and were comfortable as being ourselves. Was this way Eleven Madison Park was meant to be enjoyed? No one can really say except for you – the diner. A meal is meant to be enjoyed the way you want to enjoy it. Be comfortable with yourself, the kitchen and your meal.