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.