Higher Dining, Etiquette, and Shame

On my last night in Los Angeles, instead of going for In-N-Out burgers, I took my dad (who was helping me move) to Tar & Roses, a contemporary American-cuisine restaurant in Santa Monica. Truth be told, my father is the last person you should take to a nice restaurant. The rustic-chic decor, cozy ambiance, small plates, and inventive dishes with complex flavors bold and nuanced would all be lost on him.

What qualifies as “upscale dining” to you is probably relative to your own circumstance. With small plates priced around $10 and large plates around $25, Tar & Roses hardly counts as upscale. But compared to my habits of eating out to a bill around $10, and my frugal dad who earlier that day bought a hotdog and soda ($1.50 total) from Costco for lunch, it certainly felt upscale. Not to mention things add up– the plates are pretty small.

So I am opting for the term “higher dining,” knowing this price range will horrify some and be scoffed at by others.

The restaurant itself is a beautiful space, situated on the corner of 6th and Santa Monica Boulevard with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows on two sides. The food was nothing short of amazing. The complaints I have are undirected, except perhaps against myself and some vague idea of the general social milieu.

tar & rosesWe showed up for our reservation at 9:15pm on a Saturday, the last spot available, and still had to wait. In a semi-cordoned off area on wooden benches, casual but well-dressed successful-looking people I like to call “young professionals” were sipping wine, laughing, and chatting, waiting to be seated. At the tables, the diners looked west coast and wealthy, breezy but still with impeccable hair. Except for a few young professional Asians, the diners were mostly white.

Even after we were seated at the sturdy dark wood tables, made to look rugged and worn-in, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat out of place. The feeling escalated when we dismissed their touted wine list and asked for water. Before he poured, the waiter asked, “Is flat ok?”

We came prepared with the mindset that we would spend $30 a person–that way we could enjoy the night and not worry about money. But it was impossible not to think about money. Fancy dining is not something my family does.

My tactic for dealing with this shame (arising out of strange feelings of inadequacy) was to take the initiative, make assertive orders and comments before the waiter could recommend adding this or pairing with that. I also avoided much eye contact with the waiter and probably appeared cold. I rattled off our order, one large plate of shellfish pot, two small plates of balsamic glazed ribs and cauliflower, and said something like “We’ll have these for now and if it’s not enough, we’ll add more later.”

As stated, the food was to die for. The ribs were extremely flavorful and tender, served with fried basil leaves. My dad did not notice the addition of anchovies to the cauliflower dish, but oh well.

The shellfish pot came with two slices of bread and a bowl for discarded shells (I explained this to my dad). I know a switch flipped in his head because he was very careful spooning the food, and did not touch anything with his hands, even cutting his bread.

I love picking up my food and usually have no qualms about doing it, but I felt unhinged enough to actually consider how one is supposed to behave in a nice restaurant. I ended up using my knife and fork to shuck everything.

I remember as a child, when we first immigrated, being told by my dad never to put my elbows on the table–a rule I’d never heard of before and seemed silly–because it is rude to do that here (in the West). Later, friends and dinner dates to whom I brought up the issue and sometimes even apologized for told me they’ve never heard of the rule, don’t think anything of it, or never adhere to it.

When the waiter came to collect our plates, I again took the initiative, adamantly commenting that the food was great and we’re good to go. This however did not prevent him from inquiring, “Did we have enough food?” and offering to bring us the menu again or the dessert menu, to which I had to decline. We were full. Ordering another would have made me feel less inadequate of a dinner patron. But it also would have been excessive and thus untrue to ourselves.

The bill came out to be about $25 a person. As my dad put it, not bad.

I read up a fair amount on shame when I was studying affect theory (out of curiosity, as it’s something that’s been trending in literary criticism in the past decade and a half). One of the big ideas I got from Eve Sedgwick and Silvan Tomkins is that shame self-perpetuates. One often feels shame, then feels shame for feeling shame in the first place. So true in my case. I was caught up in the vicious cycle.

I’m not sure I have a solution around these feelings experienced at higher dining. But I want it to be OK to go to a nice restaurant and not be expected to spend at a certain price level. I want to feel OK about being a “subpar” dinner patron. Who knows, maybe I’m the only one with this shame problem.

This post is a selfish one, written for the purpose of divulging my shame, an attempt to disrupt the cycle so that next time I can walk into a nice restaurant, say to hell with the old guards and the young professionals who get to live (not just taste) this lifestyle, and feel good about ordering whatever I want, however much or little. And so that I too can experience fine dining, tailored to my very own circumstance.


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