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My friend Minerva is fed up with her cousins. To put it more precisely, she’s fed up with the way they feed each other.
The cousins (let’s call them Calvin and Blanche, since, having actual names of their own, they truly do exist) have been married forever — at least 40 years. All that time, it appears, they’ve been eating off each other’s plates, both at home and in public. I, for one, have actually seen them do it — at Minerva’s house, at their own house, and at fine restaurants in major cities, all across our fair nation.
There appears to be an unspoken agreement between the two of them. Blanche takes a few bites from her entree and then slides her plate across to Calvin. Forthwith, Calvin takes a forkful of Blanche’s poached salmon and shifts the plate back toward her. Being more adventurous of spirit, she then stretches across the table and dips into Calvin’s boeuf bourguignon, holding her napkin under her soup spoon, so as not to dribble on the linen. Then they look at each other and say either “Mmmm…” or “Mmmm?”
In short order, and after a swift swallow of wine, they return to their own dishes. Until the dessert course arrives, nothing else is shared across the course of the evening, except polite conversation.
It drives Minerva crazy. (“Why can’t they just eat their own food?!!?” she’s been known to screech in the cab riding home from a restaurant.) And it would drive me crazy, too, if this weren’t such a ritual for Calvin and Blanche, a rudeness they’ve fine-tuned down to the point of high art. They handle it subtly, and rather elegantly, to tell the truth. Hardly anybody notices, except perhaps for probing eyes who have very little to pay attention at their own tables.
What would drive me crazy, however, would be if Calvin and Blanche — on a first date, or four decades into their marriage — were heard asking each other, “What does that taste like?” “May I have a bite of that?” or, worst of all, “You’re not going to eat all of that, are you?”
Such questions suggest a hunger that cannot be healed by the size of any portion on any plate. They also bespeak disturbing lacks of self-confidence, self-reliance and self-discipline.
In such cases, the fellow diner is perfectly correct in asking — even if it’s something he’s been asking for the past 40 years — “Would you like to order something else?”
The answer, almost inevitably, will be, “No. Of course not. I’m loving my poached tripe on cheese grits. I’m sure the second bite will be wonderful.”
To which the well-thought-out response will be, “Waiter! May we take another look at the menu?”
Even amongst the closest of friends, the trading of tidbits is a questionable practice. Who will know, at the end of the meal, how to divvy up the tab? Who will have been keeping track of the spoonfuls of boeuf bourguignon? Who will be counting the shrimp in the scampi?
Friendships have been parted over smaller things. Reputations have been ruined by considerably less.
“How late may we linger at a restaurant?” friends ask me, trying to put a little parley-voo-spin on the obvious question.
What they’re actually asking, of course, is, “If we just sit at the table, ordering nothing but coffee re-fills, and more water, and stay there for 90 minutes, without even asking for a second round of cognac, while 27 couples are lined up at the check-in desk, will the servers hate us?”
I’ve conducted a brief, relatively random survey of restaurant servers. The servers claim they don’t care, as long as they’re tipped considerately — not just in terms of their percentage of the bill, but also with some consideration of the time they’ve spent re-filling coffee cups and water glasses, while old friends simply reminisce, long after the plates have been cleared.
Every server in my random survey is a liar.
Unless we’re ordering a third or fourth round of drinks, or another set of Choc-o-mania Brownie Upsets for the entire table, any rational server with a rent payment to make would clearly prefer that we move on. They hope to see us again, very soon; but they hope to see another table-full of patrons even sooner.
This is one of those moments when the relationship between diner and server devolves into a sort of unspoken arithmetic. The tally, at the bottom line, is the tip.
At a fine restaurant, where reservations must be made weeks in advance, and where the tables are spread with linen, and the silver truly is silver, patrons may linger as long as they wish. (The expense of their lingering is built into the final tab; the customers get to tip on top of the charge for lingering.) And, even at a restaurant where wanna-be diners are lined up, waiting for the hostess’s next available, every patron — even if he’s only headed to the salad bar — should feel free to ask for an extra cup of Catalina, on the side. Everything should happen in its own time. But everything in life, if we are closely attuned to it, also has its own rhythm.
The other night my friend Lynette and I were the last two patrons in a restaurant. As we got up to leave, one of the servers was waiting to plug in the floor-waxer.
I had tried to be kind with the tip. I even blew out the candles at the table next to ours.
“Do you think they hate us?” Lynette asked, as I helped her into her coat.
I said, “I don’t know.
“I usually eat at the bar.”
Let’s work the math on this:
My friend Maurice doesn’t drink anymore. (He orders club soda, with a 50 % mix of cranberry, with a fresh squeeze of orange tossed in, to make the cranberry tasty.) My friend Morris takes a beer, and sometimes a second one; but that’s all. My friend Malcolm may take a glass of wine, or two, or three. He may follow it with a brandy.
They have dined together, for ages past. When the dinner bill, including the wine, beer and cocktails, is plopped down, Malcolm (with a half-bottle of a fine Cotes du Rhone in his belly) is likely to say, as a free-wheeling gesture of cordiality, “Why don’t we just split this thing three ways?” Neither Maurice nor Morris seems to know what to do; each of them ends up paying an inordinate full-third of the tab. Then they fret (one-on-one), after the fact.
Such unpleasantness is not obligatory.
The best option, always, is to ask the server, “Would you split us out, separately?” (In most restaurants this is common practice, since the kitchen computer already knows what each of us is eating and drinking, the moment we approach the table.)
Among good friends, especially, it’s best to lay down the law, sternly and firmly. When the bill comes around, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Morris saying, in a frank, but good-old-friendly way, “I had a couple of beers. Maurice didn’t drink anything. You had the four glasses of wine. Let’s all figure out what we owe, and put the tip on top of that.” If Malcolm doesn’t pitch in appropriately, and if they are close-enough friends, Morris may say, ” Do you have another 5? That would be more like an equal share.” (He never says, “I think you owe another 5, otherwise Maurice is gonna get screwed.”)
If Malcolm doesn’t pitch in his share — and if his chintziness makes Morris and Maurice crazy — they always have the option of asking him only for drinks, with everybody keeping a separate tab. Or not asking him for anything at all.
Ultimately, he may find it much more economical (friend-wise, if not money-wise) to eat, and drink, at home.