Restaurant dishes

Restaurant meals prepared at the table, classified by absurdity

Table service is not common these days. When was the last time you were presented with baked Alaska or a Caesar salad in front of you? Like bar carts rolling to your table or gloved waiters, table preparations seem a slightly formal holdover from the gastronomic past. But with the Great Recession far enough in the rearview mirror, some fancier restaurants are bringing the spectacle back to the table: Bloomberg mention Sculpted prime rib, wild mushroom omelets and flambé desserts. (There are tuxedos involved, obviously.)

Yes, dining out, even in its most pedestrianized form, has always been as much about entertainment as it is about food. This is the only reason that places like Benihana and Hooters exist; we want a little treat for the eyes alongside our teppanyaki and our tangy wings. But here’s my very personal opinion: Table service is usually a high-end meal, and if I’m paying a lot for dinner, I really don’t need the three-track circus.

I can trace my discomfort with the table preparations at a specific dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant outside of Chicago (since closed). I was there on a date and ordered some sort of parmesan pasta. Later, there is a ripple of commotion around the dining room as a huge wooden cart creaks laboriously up to our table, forcing other diners to move their purses and feet as it passes. He carries a giant cheese wheel, in which our server deposits my hot pasta and enthusiastically begins tossing it. I was uncomfortable even being lightly in the spotlight. What was I supposed to do? Watch with great attention? Type? Stop talking in the middle of the story I was telling? The whole scene was overkill, and while the pasta was delicious, I really didn’t need to see the sausage being made.

It is even more unnecessary to show how dishes like omelets or guacamole are prepared. Maybe at one point the guac was an exotic indulgence, but now everyone in the suburbs Aunt Pam has her own recipe. I get it you add cilantro and onion and lime and mash them up, thanks for posting. Can I return to the slot for these tortilla chips now? Costs.

I will accept that some dishes prepared at the table have their merits, because of their theatricality and their marketing value for the restaurant. (“I will have what they have …”) But most are relics of the past, ostentatious, of a time when right-here-madam butlers in tuxedo belts were considered high society. What better way, then, to articulate this kind of old-fashioned gastronomy than in … the form of a list ?! Think of this as my 99 theses, nailed to the door of the fine kitchen in an attempt to reform archaic excesses. (This is graded from fair to vulgar.)

1. Flaming Saganaki

Fire. Alcohol. Hot cheese. a Opa! to punctuate the subject. If you want to make it into a Vegas revue, commit and a fireball shooting three feet in the air qualifies.

2. Peking duck

At the top of the list only because the Peking Duck is delicious.

3. Brazilian steakhouses

Interaction at the table is brief, at least. The waiter brings the steak, slices it and leaves. The meat swap is as it should be: fast and discreet.

Tie-4. Diane and Alaska baked steak

With Steak Diane and Baked Alaska, we start to veer into the garish and the vulgar. What is the point of flaming a sauce at the table? There is no culinary benefit to cooking these dishes near the restaurant. This is the very definition of pornography. Plus, the heat from the pan makes me sweat.

6. Dover Sole

Say, can you bone a fish in public? Great job, Alton Brown. Do you want to do my taxes next to the table too? It is also moderately impressive.

7. Guacamole

The less staging required of meals prepared at the table. You just take a dip.

8. Duck press

Let’s see if I understood correctly: you are about to extract blood and fluids from a crushed duck carcass, and you would like to do it five feet away from me? Sick bastard.

9. Caesar salad

Come out here, my 6 year old neighbor can make a salad.

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