A friend of a friend returned from vacation, gushing about a place she and her husband had gone out of their way to visit. She rated the experience as one of the highlights of their trip, but, for the life of me, I can't figure out why.
I've tried, I've really, really tried, to understand the enthusiasm that would prompt someone to make such an effort -- but to no avail. Maybe I'm examining the experience through the wrong prism. Maybe I'm just a humorless stick-in-the-mud.
The couple visited a restaurant chain known as much for its rude wait staff as for its greasy Southern cooking. The eatery serves insolence along with a side dish of Ass Byte Burgers and Crabby Balls. Patrons love it. So much so, in fact, that this couple reported the place was packed.
With masochists probably.
But Dick's Last Resort must be on to something. When its owners originally opened the restaurant as a fine dining establishment many years ago, it flopped. After bankruptcy, they re-tooled the idea. Now they have more than 15 establishments known for their "outrageous, surly, and energetic servers who dish out good grub, cold booze, and heaping helpings of sarcasm."
Hmm. For my daily comeuppance I can stay home or walk into any newsroom. Apparently, however, many people don't have these free uplifting opportunities, so they're willing to shell out some bucks to be verbally abused. What's more, the idea of courteous service, of feeling special in a special place, is too 20th Century. As passe as an analog clock or two-tone wingtip shoes.
A polite wait staff is simply not cool enough to stand out in a crowded field of tablecloth, candlelight and neo/fusion (fill-in-the-blank) dining.
Of course, Dick's Last Resort is hardly the only place that purposely insults its customers. (Those that do so unintentionally could fill an entire other column.) Patrons also expect the daily special of surliness at a famous hot dog stand in Chicago and at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, both of which are touted in tourist guides.
Online videos of customers getting a dress-down at the Wieners Circle in Chicago can be outrageously funny, if you've got the stomach for that kind of thing. It's not my cup of tea -- or in this case, my kind of char-grilled hot dog. Yet, Zagat has rated Wieners the Best-Value Late Dining in Chicago.
Restaurants insulting their diners have become popular enough to rate a story by the BBC, which noted that "the demand for explicitly obnoxious service can be found in the United States, where the custom of tipping has made have-a-nice-day culture otherwise ubiquitous."
Right around the time my acquaintance was lauding the insults she had been served, a Harvard study revealed that U.S. adolescents think their parents care more about high achievement than kindness. The perception among our youth is that nice finishes last.
Which brings me back to the platter of crude. Sure, it's served with the intention of clean, boorish fun. Sure, squirming patrons and a clever put-down can be entertaining, sometimes. But if insults are the only way to rise to the top, if the recipe to culinary success requires rudeness as an ingredient, is that a verdict on dull food or on a society dulled to good manners and civility?
(Ana Veciana-Suarez is a family columnist for The Miami Herald. Write to her at The Miami Herald, One Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132, or send e-mail to aveciana(at)herald.com.)
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