Ham on Rye, Extra Sadism

Dear Helena,

I was at a well-regarded Chinese restaurant with some friends, and the owner told us he’d order for the group. I’m a vegetarian, so I objected because I feared there wouldn’t be enough dishes I could eat. He started to yell at me, kicked me out, and told me to never come back.

I feel like part of the reason people like this place so much is because it’s so hard-core. But I didn’t like it at all. Shouldn’t people in the hospitality industry make themselves hospitable towards customers? Is it ever OK for them to boss you around?
—Anti–Stockholm Syndrome

Dear Anti–Stockholm Syndrome,

In America, most restaurants follow the “have it your way” philosophy of Burger King. If a restaurant has rules (a topic that Chowhounds have tackled), patrons are quick to compare the proprietor to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi.

But in other countries the customer isn’t always king. A few years ago my husband and I were in Brittany, and we went to a café for breakfast. It was just past noon. We wanted coffee and croissants, but the waiter refused to give us any croissants, even though we could see them behind the counter. In France, you only eat croissants for breakfast. We ended up having a plate of fruits de mer instead, and enjoyed our meal.

Often, Soup Nazi types are culinary purists. Their view is that if you insist on customizing everything you eat, you lose the chance to taste their food the way it’s supposed to taste. Brian Spangler, owner of Apizza Scholls in Portland, Oregon, won’t let customers order more than three toppings on their pizzas. People are used to ordering what artisan pizza makers call “garbage pies.” But, says Spangler, when the dough is good, it doesn’t need to be loaded with toppings. Besides, he explains, a garbage pie won’t cook properly. “Any moisture added to the basic pizza slows down the cooking process,” he says.

Rules aren’t always designed to make the food better, of course. Occasionally the restaurant owner just hates people. Tony Persuade, a.k.a. LA’s Crêpe Nazi, has plastered his restaurant Crepe to Go with snippy signs, demanding that patrons decide on their order before they get to the counter (“unless you’re a kid or an IDIOT”) and prohibiting “stupid questions.” One sign forbids laughing at the signs.

The vegan Montreal restaurant Spirite Lounge doesn’t let customers order dessert unless they’ve finished their entire entrée, and won’t let them back in the restaurant if they don’t finish their dessert. Proprietor Rozer Noel says he’s trying to prevent food waste. He also says he doesn’t post his menu in the window of the restaurant, or allow prospective diners to peruse it before sitting down, because “food has nothing to do with pleasure.”

It might seem like such misanthropes should get out of the restaurant business, but many patrons enjoy being bossed around, either because they find it entertaining, or because it creates an aura of in-clubness for those who learn the rules. One Spirite Lounge diner writes on the vegetarian restaurant site HappyCow, “We all cleared our plates with the exception of me who dared to leave a date stone and half a spoon-ful of slop … me and family were kicked out … It was hilarious.”

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.