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The Whine List

[whitespace] short picture description Disturbing Behavior: For this food writer, traveling with a ready-made table setting would be easier than dealing with restaurant idiosyncrasies, like foil-wrapped butter, SweetN' Low packets and lime slices in the Pellegrino.

Who has not felt bent out of shape by some irritatingly disrespectful restaurant practice?

By Christina Waters

IT'S HARD to tell just exactly when it got to me, this annoying restaurant habit of providing butter in those little foil-wrapped rectangles. Maybe it was when I discovered my left hand completely covered with semi-melted butter after one of my more vigorous encounters with a slab of francese. Perhaps it was when I noticed that there was no obvious receptacle for the mounting body count of used wrappers. Is this a test? I wondered, making several attempts to locate the edge of the foil with my fingernail and trying to open it in such a way that most of the butter would remain in a single mass, rather than amputating itself into four or five small dabs clinging to the inside of the foil.

Finally, I just plain lost it. Here we were in a high-end establishment--white linens, solid wine list, high prices--and yet we were asked to negotiate this manual obstacle course, cover our hands with butter, fumble and basically get bogged down in the task of opening this small slippery packet instead of enjoying the meal at hand.

What an insult to the patron, I thought, as I threw the fresh-baked sourdough roll back into its basket. What's the deal here? Is this place spending such a fortune on floral displays that it can't afford to provide a plate of butter? Is unwrapping butter such a specialized process that kitchen staff would demand double wages just to attempt it?

I can't stand foil-wrapped butter, and I have a hard time taking seriously a restaurant experience that begins in such a cheap, patron-insulting manner. I'm not talking about self-serve places, where the participation required of customers is well understood in advance. I'm talking about asking patrons to spend big chunks of serious money on fine dining and at the same time make a graphic show of stinginess by cutting corners on foil-wrapped butter.

Two restaurateurs I spoke with about this were candid. Yes, it is a habit born of cost savings. If we provide one of those little porcelain ramekins filled with butter--the ones that the patron simply dips a knife into and comes up with exactly the amount of butter he or she desires--there might be some butter left over. And that means waste, costly waste.

If we have a member of our kitchen staff actually slice a section from a large brick of butter--or worse yet, make butter curls--that gets us into a labor-intensive, i.e. wages-are-involved-here, situation. So, they both said without a whole lot of shame, we just get the prepackaged foil packets and figure that the customer doesn't really mind unwrapping them.

This customer does mind.

BUT THAT'S not the only food faux pas that burns me up. Cell phones at the table. Please! The first time I saw a sign in a Peninsula restaurant that read "No cell phones," I laughed and said, "How very Palo Alto." I'm no longer laughing.

The practice of making and receiving phone calls in restaurants is permissible only by cardiac surgeons awaiting word of a fresh heart donation. Otherwise, it's not only rude and pretentious--a flagrant and pathetic cry for attention--but it holds everybody in the restaurant hostage (and we're all paying for our dinner here). I am not impressed by how well your Amazon.com stock is doing, I don't want to hear you bullying your divorce attorney into action and I don't need to listen to you laughing loudly over some naughty joke allegedly told to you by someone in another country.

Then there's loud music in restaurants. Again, notice that this comes under the "cry for attention" category, only this time it's the restaurant insisting on its hipness, its coolness by putting on the latest Andrea Bocelli/ Celine Dion throb-fest at top decibel. If the art of conversation had any life left in it, it would commit suicide after 10 minutes in one of these "louder is better" establishments.

Now that I'm warmed up, I'm about to dispatch the big guns.

Restaurant managers: You've spent some money to lay in a good wine selection. You've got a wine list that tempts. But once your patron has decided on a decent bottle of wine, you pour it into small, cheesy glasses. And you pour the wine all the way to the top. No. Wrong. Please don't do that.

Wine is a living creature. It needs to breathe. In order to develop its full potential, its flavor, it needs room to grow.

Please invest a few dollars more--even Longs Drugs stocks stemware with bigger bowls than many dinner houses'--and give us large goblets. Then train your staff to pour the wine just to the one-third or maybe one-half mark.

A word to servers--stop keeping everybody's wine glass full. Stop it! Ask patrons if they'd like more wine poured. Sometimes it takes a half hour to get that particular glassful open to just the right point.

And how about that omnipresent lime slice that shows up in your glass of San Pellegrino? Did you ask for it? Nope. Do you want the flavor of lime with your other food or drinks? Probably not.

I'm begging restaurants to stop automatically bringing glasses filled with ice cubes and topped with citrus when people order sparkling water. One restaurant provides lime wedges on a small plate--that way customers can actually have their drinks the way they want. What a concept.

NOW FOR SOME fine tuning. Isn't it a bit tacky to have a container prominently filled with packets of Sweet'N Low, plus various sugars, sitting right on the table? There it is, right next to the fresh flowers and tiny brass hurricane lamp. Doesn't quite go with that beautiful custom-made cappuccino, does it?

Packets of artificial sweetener--waiting on the table, ripping and shredding any attempts to set a tasteful tone. Let the patron ask for artificial sweetener if he or she wants it; otherwise, put real sugar (not wrapped) into a real container and set it on the table. How hard can this be?

Perhaps the nondairy Nazis could back off--we're sick of those saucers of olive oil, the less-expensive and healthfully correct alternative to the aforementioned butter fiasco. Sick of it. As far as what to put on bread is concerned, I'm pro-choice.

And while we're in the realms of upscale dining, could we also lose the paper napkins and paper table coverings? Restaurants that demand respect should look like they can afford to cover laundry costs. And to those coffeehouses out there, and they know who they are, please give us real ceramic cups for those yummy double lattés. Paper cups are fine for carryout, not for lingering over the newspapers.

Good morning--it's not 1954. Could waiters finally stop automatically presenting the check to the male at the table? Also, I loathe and detest the assumption that only the man is capable of tasting the wine, and as a result he is offered the first pour. The person who ordered the wine should get to taste. And whenever possible, the check should be placed in some neutral territory between diners.

In the end, it's the customer who pays the bills--please treat us with a little respect.

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From the June 2-9, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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