Scandalous Restaurant Review Prompts the Question: Is Good Service Dead?

Food critic Alan Richman, rightfully furious after M. Wells co-owner Sarah Obraitis accused him over email of giving one of her waitresses a "hardy [sic] pat" on the ass, wrote a blistering column for GQ, "Diner for Schmucks," that indicts the state of service in general. And also, critics. Richman writes:

"Critics like me deserve some blame for the current proliferation of impossibly low service standards in so many casual New York restaurants. We tend not to censure lackadaisical conduct, thinking this is what customers want and that we would appear out of touch if we disapproved. In fact, the article I was planning to write most likely wouldn’t have dwelled on the egregious manners I’d encountered. I wish I had never been so forgiving in my reviews of New York restaurants. I should long ago have paid attention to this disastrous decline in service. Casualness in restaurants does not automatically make customers feel more relaxed. It often has the opposite effect."

This is rich coming from the guy who wrote a famous paean to Jewish waiters and their sad decline, filled with quotes like "The young Jewish guy of today, he's above this kind of work" and "The new Jewish waiters are all strictly business. They get what you want; they bring it with a smile; they get their money and their tip."

But let's take Richman at his word anyway. He noticed a decline, he passed it off as "if it's too loud, you're too old," and only upon being grievously personally insulted is he pissed enough to write honestly. Does he have a point? Has service declined? And if so, have critics let the restaurant industry off the hook?

Certainly, no one could argue that formal service, with the suit-wearing guy with a towel over his arm and finger bowls, went out a long time ago. This is the era of "Hi, I'm Brianna, and I'll be your waitress." But being casual and providing good service aren't mutually exclusive. You can be an attentive waiter even if the tables are covered with white paper and Mason jars.

I also don't see critics backing off on reporting bad service. I read a lot about service flaws in reviews written by both professionals and amateurs. People notice if the waiter fails to bring the appetizers before the main dishes, or if they have to wait 45 minutes for the check—and it gets written about. Furthermore, in the age of Yelp, you can bet that a restaurant will get written up about even the tiniest slight in service, and that the restaurant and potential diners will probably read about it.

One thing's for sure: I bet Obraitis wishes she'd learned the difference between hardy and hearty before she blasted a famous restaurant critic.

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