Tableside service isn’t common these days. When was the last time you were presented with flaming baked Alaska, or tossed-in-front-of-you Caesar salad? Like bar carts that roll up to your table or gloved waiters, tableside preparations seem a slightly formal vestige of fine-dining past. But with the Great Recession far enough in the rearview, some fancier restaurants are bringing back the tableside show: Bloomberg mentions carved prime rib, wild mushroom omelets, and flambeed desserts. (There are tuxedos involved, obviously.)
Yes, dining out—even at its most pedestrian—has always been about entertainment as much as it is about food. It’s the entire reason places like Benihana and Hooters exist; we want a little eye candy alongside our teppanyaki and hot wings. But here’s my completely personal opinion: Tableside service is generally a part of higher-end dining, and if I’m paying good money for dinner, I really don’t need the three-ring circus.
I can trace my discomfort with tableside preparations to one specific dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant outside Chicago (since closed). I was there on a date, and ordered some sort of parmesan-topped pasta. Later, there’s a ripple of commotion around the dining room as a massive wooden cart laboriously squeaks over to our table, requiring other diners to move purses and feet in its path. It’s carrying a giant wheel of cheese, into which our server deposits my warm pasta and proceeds to toss it around with gusto. I was uncomfortable being even slightly in the spotlight. What was I supposed to do? Watch with rapt attention? Clap? Stop talking in the middle of the story I was telling? The whole scene was over-the-top, and while the pasta was delicious, I really didn’t need to see the sausage get made.
It’s even more unnecessary to demonstrate how dishes like omelets or guacamole are prepared. Maybe at one point, guac was an exotic indulgence, but now everybody’s Aunt Pam from the ’burbs has her own recipe. I get it, you’re adding some cilantro and onion and lime and squishing it around, thanks for the display—can I go back to housing these tortilla chips now? Cool.
I will accept that some prepared-tableside dishes have their merits, on account of theatricality and marketing value for the restaurant. (“I’ll have what they’re having...”) But most are passé, ostentatious, relics of an era when right-this-way-madam maitre d’s in cummerbunds were considered high society. What better way, then, to articulate this outmoded genre of gastronomy than in... list form?! Consider this my 99 Theses, nailed to fine dining’s door in an effort to reform antiquated excesses. (This is ranked from acceptable to vulgar.)
1. Flaming Saganaki
Fire. Liquor. Hot cheese. An Opa! to punctuate the point. If you’re going to turn this into a Vegas revue, commit to it—and a fireball shooting three feet into the air qualifies.
2. Peking Duck
High on the list only because Peking duck is fucking delicious.
3. Brazilian steakhouses
The tableside interaction is brief, at least. The server brings the steak, slices it, and is gone. The meat exchange is as it should be: quick and discreet.
Tie-4. Steak Diane and Baked Alaska
With both Steak Diane and Baked Alaska, we begin veering into the gaudy and vulgar. What, exactly, is the point of flambéing a sauce tableside? There is no culinary advantages to cooking these dishes in close proximity of the diner. It is the very definition of pornography. Also, the heat from the pan is making me sweat.
6. Dover Sole
Say, you can bone a fish in public? Great job, Alton Brown. Wanna do my taxes tableside too? That’s also moderately impressive.
The least showmanship required of the prepared-tableside dishes. You are just making dip.
8. Duck Press
Let me see if I got this right: So you’re about to squeeze blood and fluids from a crushed duck carcass, and you’d like to do this five feet away from me? You sick bastard.
9. Caesar Salad
Getthefuckouttahere, my 6-year-old neighbor can make a salad.