Special Dishes, Secret Prices

Dear Helena,
It really bugs me when a server recites the specials without saying the prices. Servers ought to say the price, don’t you think?
—Don’t Keep Secrets

Dear Don’t Keep Secrets,
There’s a certain kind of restaurant where talking about filthy lucre at the table is considered déclassé.

At Diner, a Brooklyn restaurant at the epicenter of the ultrahip Williamsburg artsy scene, there is no regular menu, only changing daily specials. Well, there is one menu item: a hamburger. The servers write down all the other dishes available that day on butcher paper covering the tables when they seat you: a laborious—dare I say, pretentious—process that does not include writing down the price of said items. Andrew Tarlow, Diner’s co-owner, says that the restaurant’s reputation is such that its customers know what price range to expect from the menu, and that not actually discussing it has a soothing effect. “It’s a romantic notion of taking numbers and clocks out of [the dining experience],” he says.

Gary Smith, a restaurant consultant and former server at fancy San Francisco restaurant Michael Mina, believes servers should only mention cost if the price is substantially higher than any dish on the menu: filet mignon, lobster, etc. Otherwise, he says, mentioning prices is “tacky.” If the customer wants to know, it’s his or her responsibility to ask.

But inquiring about the price is mildly humiliating for the customer, akin to requesting tap rather than bottled water (before the former became the ecoconscious choice). You’re showing yourself to be a budget-conscious diner. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, but you probably don’t want to draw attention to it either.

If servers shrink from uttering prices aloud, a simple solution is to put the specials and their prices on a board, or on a menu insert. But in my view, mentioning numbers tableside shouldn’t be such a big deal, and many Chowhounds agree. All the server need do is state the price of the dish in the same silky tone with which he utters the words “cacao nib emulsion,” and it won’t destroy the mood.

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