Face It, Foodies

The À la Carte Is Over

by Megan Volpert

12 August 2016

 

When McDonald’s introduced breakfast for dinner, customers were psyched. McDonald’s employees, however, felt differently; the rollout was noticeably rocky. They complained that it was difficult to adjust their kitchen space and production habits to accommodate two menus. The night staff had to be trained on the breakfast items, restocking the kitchens became much more of a guessing game and storage became more jumbled. Even though McDonald’s was already possessed of all the relevant training and ingredients for breakfast, allowing breakfast orders to roll in all day produced a kind of chaos that did not sit well with customers—even ones that were psyched about breakfast for dinner.

We go to McDonald’s because we know what to expect; expanding the availability of the breakfast menu introduced a degree of uncertainty that was contrary to the brand and perhaps to the world of fast food way of life at large, which places a premium on the comforts of predictability delivered by standardization. In music, the equivalent would be those musicians who only play their greatest hits at live shows. Some performers even play the same set no matter what city the show is in that night. You could follow certain legacy acts all the way down the Eastern seaboard and see a dozen virtually identical shows.

I will often look up the set lists for concerts at the beginning of a tour to get some sense of what’s going on at the shows, and then check again on the morning of the date for which I have tickets in order to calibrate my expectations. When I get to the show, I’ll often discuss with fellow concertgoers what songs they’re hoping to hear while we wait for the lights to dim. Answers vary widely, but I simply can’t imagine a world where I would look at the tickets on sale and decide not to pony up for them because it seems unlikely that the musician is going to play my favorite song. We entrust our fun evening to be curated by the musician, who obviously knows best what the band can and should do that night.

Yet, we wrench precisely this necessary type of control from chefs everywhere. We demand to curate their set list, their menu. I know so many people who go to a favorite spot and order the same thing every single time. I know people who complain when that greatest hit item drops off the menu, either seasonally or permanently. We all know these people, the ones whose eyes glaze over when the server begins a spiel on the specials because there is simply no possible world where they will order something created in, of and for that moment—no matter how talented the kitchen that made it.

The main argument against ticketing essentially amounts to the right to be disrespectful. No-shows are the most serious threat to a restaurant’s success because of already razor-thin profit margins. This is true for Michelin-starred restaurants, mom and pop shops, and chains all alike. People want to be able to change their minds at the last minute, ditching out on their restaurant plans without so much as a courtesy call to cancel the reservation. Sometimes the restaurant can fill those empty tables, but often they cannot.

Ticketing forces diners to commit or pay the price for bailing, so the restaurant doesn’t absorb the cost of flaky diners. A distaste for ticketing is pretty much a confession of personal irresponsibility. The only other argument is preservationist—either for control of everything going into one’s mouth or for the spontaneity of not locking into a menu in advance, and neither of those prospects is actually lost through the experience of ticketing.

As often as I’m able, I push the menu aside and just talk to the server. This could be a favorite place with a server who knows me well, and is practiced as catering to my history of demonstrated preferences. Or it could be at a reputable place where I might find a server’s ability to make recommendations generally trustworthy. Or it could simply be a wild card kind of night where surprises and adventures are in order. The few times in my life where I have been forced to sit down at a Cheesecake Factory with its pages upon pages of options, I just throw a dart and await whatever boring yet palatable heaps of indistinguishable nonsense get put in front of me—kind of like going to a Crosby, Still and Nash concert.

Anyone who has spent a half hour flipping though a Netflix queue, suffering the uncannily massive anxiety brought on by modern life’s overabundance of choice, can appreciate the potential glory of simply giving up control and letting expert people do their jobs well. This freewheeling approach to restaurants doesn’t require me to cast off my budget or my aesthetic sensibilities. I can still filter all the options through my wallet and my taste. But I have found without exception that releasing much of the decision-making to the restaurant maximizes the beauty and power of restaurants for all stakeholders.

The ultimate form of pushing the menu aside is to just buy tickets. Most of the common arguments in favor of ticketing rely upon the ways such a system benefits the chef and the restaurant. Tickets allow the kitchen to stock precisely what it needs to meet the demands of its dining room with maximum efficiency and minimum waste. It allows servers and line cooks to have properly predictable work schedules where daily tasks are most easily divisible, as well as fostering their clear comprehension of everything coming out of the kitchen, because when a menu applies to all tables equally there’s more consistent practice in the study of that menu.

The menu can undergo more precise tweaks because there’s more consistent feedback coming in from the tables about what does or doesn’t work on a plate. The kitchen staff gets to take more risks and give less experienced cooks more opportunities for advancement. The restaurant’s cost of doing business becomes tightly controlled when customers have paid in advance. You don’t no-show at a table for which you’ve already paid, just like you don’t bail on a concert when you’ve already got tickets. The restaurant’s cultural capital as a brand expands in proportion to the degree of intellect it displays when given free reign to show diners its best.

But of course, you’re a diner with little reason to care about whether ticketing is good for the kitchen or the business. As far as most diners are concerned, when going out to eat, the stakeholders are you, any guests you brought along, and maybe your servers just because it can get awkward if a server is clearly miserable. Arguments in favor of ticketing rarely emphasize all the ways that the people in the dining room stand to benefit. I often get an education about ingredients or techniques toward which my own attention might not have gravitated naturally. My guests can focus on making conversation and drinking more wine. The servers light up with personalization, save their autopilot polite faces for those tables unwilling to take risks. The chef is always happy when a diner cares to listen, and sometimes find a minute to stop by the table to see how we’re faring on our journey through the menu.

Specify your dietary restrictions, of course, but take the ride. I spent $240 on a meal ticket for my 30th birthday and it was the best dining experience I have ever had, bar none (thank you, Alinea). I spent $90 on a meal ticket and every plate was masterfully made into satisfy both belly and brain (thank you, Staplehouse). I spent $35 on a meal ticket and left completely full with both food and company (thank you, every local “restaurant week” prix fixe menu ever). Tickets are really just a new-fangled version of fixed price menus—the same flat fee but you pay in advance instead of at the end of the meal. Fixed price menus have been on offer all over the English-speaking world since at least the early 1600s without toppling civilization in whatever manner prophets of doom suspect that ticketing will.

If you just don’t like to be told what to eat, these menus frequently allow for limited freedom of choice. For example, at Friday’s you can select an appetizer, entree and dessert with at least a half dozen options in each category. That meal at Friday’s can be had for less than $20, so this is hardly the purview of the wealthy alone. While restaurants taken as a whole certainly do necessitate some disposable income, dining out need not be a ruinous financial undertaking. In fact, if anxiety about flipping over the bill at the end of the meal is really prohibitive for you, there’s no better remedy than tickets, because you will know from the start exactly what you’ll be paying at the conclusion.

“Tickets” are too often possessed of elitist connotations. Think instead about Japanese food culture and how the English-speaking world treats its sushi joints’ offer of an omakase. A phrase that literally translates as “I leave it to you” from makaseru, meaning “to entrust”, everybody likes to jump at this chef’s choice option. We have no problem paying respect to a master maker of sushi in this way; we even revere the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012), still going strong six years later in the top recommendations for your already overstuffed Netflix queue. Through ticketing, we should entrust more chefs with curating our meals, because the truth is that most good chefs possess Jiro Ono’s same insane work ethic, creative love of ingredients and micromanagement of detail—and Jiro, not incidentally, offers only omakase.

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