The Art of Dining OutBecause Letitia Baldridge is no longer able to offer master classes in manners for the graduating seniors, Wendy MacLeod has graciously stepped in to fill the void. Although she was never secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy, Ms. MacLeod did write a play about people who lived next door to the Kennedys and has dropped a bundle in restaurants over the years. While working as a cater-waiter in New York City, she once threw an entire basket of crudités at a boorish New Year's Eve reveler and quit before they could fire her.
Do not wave a $5 at the maitre d' as if it will solve his money problems. Even a sly $20 won't put his kids through college. Charm is a valuable ally in the quest for a good table. Repeating the question, "Do you know who I am?" is not. Either he will not have the slightest idea who you are or he does indeed know who you are and will spread the word that you are a major bunghole. (Recent grads, take note: "Do you know who my mother/father is?" is also verboten. And never claim to be the illegitimate son of Sidney Poitier. It's been done.)
Use your liberal-arts education to transform your evening into a convincing narrative in the mythic Joseph Campbell sense. A life-changing job interview requires a quiet table, an ailing mother requires that you stay on the first floor, and an anniversary celebrating a monogamous relationship of impressive duration might earn you that table by the window.
Promptly put your napkin in your lap. Do not tuck it into your collar as if you were a guest star on Bonanza. If your date has a blob of food on his face, do not embarrass him by announcing "Big-time butter patty at four o'clock." Cue him to dab his face by delicately dabbing your own. A lively game of table charades might ensue.
Listen politely when the waiter describes the specials. Don't pretend the waiter's not there. He is there. (And he might be you, if you can't get those LSAT scores up). You may inquire as to the price of a special, but refrain from snorting your sticker shock. And at no time should you crassly use the term "quid pro quo," even if your date orders the lobster. Refrain from calling your waiter "My good man," particularly if he's a she.
It is acceptable to ask for your salad "undressed," but not if the notion unduly excites you and leads to nostalgic conversations about the When College Girls Go Crazy videos. Dieters, don't ask for so many things on the side that nothing is left in the middle. If fats and carbs are of paramount concern, may I suggest an evening at home with a packet of Lean Cuisine?
The Wine Tasting
Your waiter will present the bottle for confirmation, at which point he needs you to do more than shrug: "Whatever." If it's a wine you've enjoyed before, you should greet it like an old friend, minus the complicated hip-hop handshake and use of the word Adude." N.B.: "Three-buck Chuck's" is only available at Trader Joe's.
When the waiter presents the cork, just sniff the damn thing. Don't cross your eyes at your date in a zany Jim Carrey way to point out the emptiness of the ritual. If the wine is off when you taste it, there's no need for vivid body part similes about what it tastes like. If the wine is good, refrain from trying to impress your date by going on about its "nose" or "finish." She will suspect that you haven't got a clue, and even if you manage to fool her, you won't fool the waiter, who will soon be in the kitchen describing you to his colleagues as "the major bunghole at table seven."
Tipping has nothing to do with your financial situation. Regardless of how much you owe in student loans, you are still expected to tip 15 to 20 percent. Don't even try pretending you're from Canada. If you ask for a doggie bag, don't be overly amused when your food returns as an aluminum foil swan. This is the restaurant equivalent of a PT Cruiser. It's yesterday's news. If it appears in a Styrofoam container, don't loudly compare the restaurant to the Exxon Valdez. It's of environmental concern, to be sure, but it's nothing compared to not signing the Kyoto Accord.
--Wendy MacLeod is Kenyon's James Michael Playwright in Residence and an associate professor of drama. Her award-winning, widely performed play, The House of Yes, was made into a feature film. Based on a character who is obsessed with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the play received a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
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