Just So You Know, Food Arrives When It’s Ready

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There’s a new restaurant trend afoot, one that takes the form of a casual, shoulder-shrug of a sentence, usually uttered by a server after he or she takes your order. It’s the sentence in the title of this post: “Just so you know, food arrives when it’s ready.”

It’s a sentence I heard last night at Alimento, a terrific new restaurant in Silverlake where I had some of the best pasta dishes of my life (more on those in a moment). It’s a sentence I heard last week at Republique with my parents, when they were here for Craig’s premiere. It’s a sentence we also heard at Bar Ama, where we went for lunch with both of our families (pictured above) after scoping out our secret wedding venue downtown. It’s a sentence that didn’t really bother me at first or even, really, grab my attention; but now that it’s becoming more and more common, it’s making me wonder: what’s it all about? And who does this really benefit: the restaurant or the diner?

At Alimento, last night, I asked the manager Katelynn (I think that’s how she spells her name? Also, I think she’s the manager? We met a while back at Sotto where she introduced me to Amaro) what’s behind the whole “food arrives when it’s ready” phenomenon.

“Well it encourages sharing,” she said. And it’s true that all of the restaurants where I encountered this trend were sharing restaurants.

“Also, it’s a way for kitchens with limited resources to make sure they don’t get too slammed.” She pointed out that unlike Sotto, where there’s a big vat of boiling water for cooking various pastas at once, Alimento only has room for one pasta dish at a time. Almost to illustrate the point, the pasta that Craig ordered for his entree–a remarkable tortellini in brodo dish where the brodo (or broth) was inside the tortellini like a soup dumpling–arrived at the table by itself.

“That came out first because he was probably cooking multiple orders of tortellini at once,” she explained.

Makes sense. And though we hadn’t planned to share, the fact that Craig’s pasta was on the table and mine was nowhere in sight led us to split each dish 50/50, which worked out nicely. When mine came out–maccheroni with chicken liver sauce made with Marsala wine and white pepper–it was one of the best pastas I’ve ever put in my mouth; zingy and vibrant and endlessly edible, but that’s getting off topic.

At Alimento, the “food arrives when it’s ready” policy had no real detrimental effect on our meal.

At Republique, my brother Michael–who’s currently exploring a vegetarian lifestyle–ordered corn pasta as his main entree (and we told the server he was having it as his entree, not a pasta course). But because the kitchen fires pasta as its own course in between salads/starters and traditional meat entrees, Michael’s pasta came out well before our meat dishes came out. Like half an hour before. There was such a space between Michael finishing his entree and us starting on ours, the server gave us a free dessert to apologize for the delay.

The willy-nillyness of it all seems inappropriate for such an expensive restaurant. Here’s what makes more sense to me: restaurants don’t need to make an official pronouncement about small dishes / appetizers / salads coming out when they’re ready. We expect that anyway. If you’ve ever had tapas, it’s not like the waiter warns you: “The croquettes might come out before the chickpeas, if you need to emotionally prepare yourself for that.” We just accept that because it’s a small plate situation, that’s going to happen.

Where it crosses the line, for me, is with individual entrees. Those should all come out at once unless they’re truly meant to be shared. At Alimento it didn’t really matter–though if we were with a much bigger group it might have, with three people digging into their tortellini and five people sitting there hungry–but at Republique it definitely did, especially with my brother twiddling his thumbs, full from pasta, while we all went to town on pork chops and chicken and other dead animals.

The shift towards casualness in nicer restaurants is a happy trend overall–I like being able to wear jeans, to be able to chat with a server conversationally rather than formally–but there’s a difference between the kind of casualness that makes a diner more comfortable and the kind of casualness that leaves a diner annoyed. Serving food as its ready is right on the edge; let’s hope it’s a fad, like communal tables, that gradually falls out of favor.

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27 comments

  1. Why does the restaurant try and encourage diners to “share”? A large format entree like the Bo Ssam at Momofuku Ssam in NYC is designed for 8 people, ordered in advance, etc. But a pasta dish with 4-5 tortellini? That’s meant to share? My take is that restaurant kitchens don’t want to do the hard work of coursing things out properly OR better put, making sure diners at a particular table who order mains get served at the same time.

  2. This is one of the aggravating things about living in Europe. Main dishes, beverages, etc…nothing comes out at the same time. And it can be a long time in between so sometimes one person is nearly finished before the other person gets his food. It doesn’t seem to be country-specific, either. It’s like the whole continent isn’t organized enough to send out food so people can eat together. GRRRRRR.

  3. This is one of the aggravating things about living in Europe. Main dishes, beverages, etc…nothing comes out at the same time. And it can be a long time in between so sometimes one person is nearly finished before the other person gets his food. It doesn’t seem to be country-specific, either. It’s like the whole continent isn’t organized enough to send out food so people can eat together. GRRRRRR.

  4. I agree. Here in Austin that’s a big fad lately and I don’t like it. It’s usually just me and my husband, and we share anyway, but we each order our own dishes for a reason. A great Thai place in town, Sway, does this (along with communal tables!!) and frankly that’s the reason we haven’t been back. Bah humbug.

  5. Oh my God – PLEASE get or riff the maccheroni with chicken liver sauce! I’d love to make that. Oh my. Please please please, and thank you in advance!

  6. Oh my gosh gosh gosh can you PLEASE attempt to make that chicken liver pasta?! I would die. It looks incredible! And back to the point (surely the underlying point was that incredible pasta…?), I would have to wholeheartedly agree with your point about the food arrival. I would not want to sit and watch a friend eat so long before we do ourselves.

  7. I refreshed this page after I posted and saw someone else had the same sentiment as I did about the pasta. I want to believe they, too, saw the underlying message in this post. ;)

  8. I feel your pain. This happened to us recently and we explained to the manager that we wanted to slow things down when the entrees arrived while we were still enjoying a few shared appetizers and our cocktails. He graciously replaced our entrees when we were ready. I don’t mind this when all we order are shared dishes (which we often do), but a well-run kitchen should be able to time the orders to meet the customer’s needs, not theirs.

  9. Think its ridiculous for people to be served at different times or be forced to share if they don’t want to. And I’m all about casualness and good food.

  10. In re wedding, would love to see you in the “Vows” section of the NYTimes. I remember seeing the first male couple to be featured, and so silly, brought tears to my eyes.

  11. I have to agree – people go out to a restaurant so that they can eat together – not sit around while a meal stretches interminably and watch each other eat. It would put me off restaurant dining altogether to be honest. At home we eat together because we all eat the same thing – I pay to eat out for the experience of shared dining while ordering interesting and different things – if we’re not sharing the dining, well, that’s half the experience! I agree possibly for two people it would work – if they both ate what they both ordered!
    Sheesh – sounds like drama to me

  12. yes but chinese restaurants are like tapas – general dishes ordered for the table – it’s not like the soup course is brought out wonton soup at 6:15, hot and sour at 6:25

  13. I have to admit: I’ve been gravitating more and more to casual dining restaurants or bars because the nice restaurant scene has become intolerably precious and navel-gazing. The attitudes of the restaurants described in this post embody that. I don’t want to split a tiny and expensive entree with three other people because the restaurant can’t be bothered to get everything out at the same time. I’ll go to a bar where we can all get beer and burgers instead.

  14. I have to admit: I’ve been gravitating more and more to casual dining restaurants or bars because the nice restaurant scene has become intolerably precious and navel-gazing. The attitudes of the restaurants described in this post embody that. I don’t want to split a tiny and expensive entree with three other people because the restaurant can’t be bothered to get everything out at the same time. I’ll go to a bar where we can all get beer and burgers instead.

  15. If you walk into an Asian restaurant and see turntables in the center of the tables, you know that is how the meal is meant to be eaten and that’s fine. Otherwise, totally unacceptable and just plain lazy. I would leave and take my business elsewhere. If people would refuse to accept this lack of professionalism, the trend would end quickly.

  16. I think this approach to dining is perfectly fine if the purpose of the trip is to enjoy the food. But not everybody goes to restaurants to enjoy the food: some people just go to a restaurant because it is a convenient way to meet up with people and the conversation is the point of the evening. If conversation is the point of the evening, this kind of meal is very frustrating and, frankly, annoying.

    I know it sounds odd on a food blog to talk about how food isn’t the focus of a restaurant. I think it certainly is for everybody here. But it is not the focus for everybody dining in the restaurant, and that is one reason that I do not think this restaurant style is here to stay.

  17. I live in the DC area and Range, owned by on e of the Voltaggio brothers, offers this style of serving which they say encourages sharing. I love their food but hate this concept. The portions are NOT large enough to share and the prices are expensive so I think this trend is not for sharing but to encourage diners to order more food so enough food will come out for everyone to get a taste. It does not make for a leisurely dining experience because the wait staff is constantly interrupting conversation to serve. If it was a casual restaurant I would be fine with it, but not at high prices.

  18. I live in the DC area and Range, owned by on e of the Voltaggio brothers, offers this style of serving which they say encourages sharing. I love their food but hate this concept. The portions are NOT large enough to share and the prices are expensive so I think this trend is not for sharing but to encourage diners to order more food so enough food will come out for everyone to get a taste. It does not make for a leisurely dining experience because the wait staff is constantly interrupting conversation to serve. If it was a casual restaurant I would be fine with it, but not at high prices.

  19. I live in the DC area and Range, owned by on e of the Voltaggio brothers, offers this style of serving which they say encourages sharing. I love their food but hate this concept. The portions are NOT large enough to share and the prices are expensive so I think this trend is not for sharing but to encourage diners to order more food so enough food will come out for everyone to get a taste. It does not make for a leisurely dining experience because the wait staff is constantly interrupting conversation to serve. If it was a casual restaurant I would be fine with it, but not at high prices.

  20. I live in the DC area and Range, owned by on e of the Voltaggio brothers, offers this style of serving which they say encourages sharing. I love their food but hate this concept. The portions are NOT large enough to share and the prices are expensive so I think this trend is not for sharing but to encourage diners to order more food so enough food will come out for everyone to get a taste. It does not make for a leisurely dining experience because the wait staff is constantly interrupting conversation to serve. If it was a casual restaurant I would be fine with it, but not at high prices.

  21. I live in the DC area and Range, owned by on e of the Voltaggio brothers, offers this style of serving which they say encourages sharing. I love their food but hate this concept. The portions are NOT large enough to share and the prices are expensive so I think this trend is not for sharing but to encourage diners to order more food so enough food will come out for everyone to get a taste. It does not make for a leisurely dining experience because the wait staff is constantly interrupting conversation to serve. If it was a casual restaurant I would be fine with it, but not at high prices.

  22. I also understand this at tapas or small plates restaurants yet anywhere else i won’t tolerate it or return. Appetizer means it comes out first- for everyone at the same time…. I’m vegetarian and have had my app come first- so i of course share, have one bite of my dish and then am stuck since other have ordered non veg dishes.
    This is just code for we want to keep turning tables and don’t care that you aren’t finished with your appetizer yet and won’t hire more kitchen staff.

    And i guess LA got lucky- communal tables are freaking everywhere in nyc. And that’s just to shove more people in a smaller space…..

  23. Have to say I cringed a bit when reading “exploring a vegetarian lifestyle.” Sounds almost as bad as “Adam is currently exploring a gay lifestyle.” It is not really a lifestyle–you are just limiting your menu choices–it isn’t like joining a cult.

  24. That´s a gross generalization. I´ve lived in Germany, the UK and Italy and never had this experience in normal, nice restaurants.

  25. I agree, I do not like the trend in Austin either.
    In San Francisco when eating Italian or other ethnic meals with multiple courses and everyone was having the “Chefs Menu” it was fine but when eating with one other person it doesn’t feel right and I do not enjoy it.

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