I learned a great deal from the restaurant where I got my first training in fine-dining operations. What do different types of fuel do in an oven, and how do they change cooking technique and flavor? How do you time coffee service so there’s never a long wait for espresso? How does decanting wine off sediment work? I learned to retain which steak each guest wanted according to their seat position, how to memorize a table’s order without error. (This was in Milwaukee at a meat-focused restaurant, so everyone ate steak. Memorization was simple because of a culture that still irks me, where guests ordered by gender. Women ate 10-ounce filet mignon; men, 18-ounce rib eyes and even bigger porterhouses.)
One of the most affecting—and to me, troubling—lessons came from my general manager, who described why graceful front-of-house service was important: Dining is theater. The guest is at a show and you are onstage. You are the symbol of the restaurant and you’re the bearer of the kitchen’s work. Since you’re a performer, there are rules: Be professional, which means don’t show too much of who you are. Don’t get overly personal by complimenting a guest’s outfit or talking about your day. Be classy; this means uniforms are pressed, hair is pulled back, nail color is neutral. And please don’t use the guest bathroom: as you will be serving their food, guests shouldn’t have to imagine your bodily functions.
I tolerated these rules only intermittently, and as a result was scolded for bopping around and singing near the coffee station, in sight of the dining room. My personality showed too much. Though I was happy to learn in this environment, it didn’t take long before I concluded that fine-dining mores were bogus, nothing but etiquette and arbitrary rules to render the service “fine,” and hinted painfully at class divides. The interplay between commodity, performance, and labor was grating to me and clear. If dining was theater, it was indeed a graceful ballet, but a ballet about privilege—one where I as the worker was expected to be subservient to guests demanding one lousy industrial California Chardonnay after another.
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning newsletters and get insider intel, resources, and trends delivered to your inbox every week.
Given my resistance to that culture, some years later I landed in an industrial stretch of Brooklyn. There I took a position as the wine director at Roberta’s, the pirate-ship excuse for a pizza place operating in a former auto body garage. It goes without saying that this restaurant had (and has) its own issues regarding class, location, culture, and privilege. It is not flawlessly operated. Yet in spite of this, it was at Roberta’s that I began to develop my idea that restaurants can become hubs for culture—because something more than theater emerged there.
What I witnessed at Roberta’s was that, if you’re lucky, there can be moments when the activity at a restaurant among the staff and the guests stops being solely transactional. Through experimentation and play, hard work accomplished together in a convivial or even rebellious spirit, a different kind of space emerges. It’s a kind of space that combines the qualities of a town square, a laboratory, a classroom, and a mess hall. It’s a kind of space that encourages growth, creative expression, and community. In the social sciences, spaces that are neither home nor the workplace but have overlapping elements of both are referred to by some theorists as Third Spaces. And I believe this is what restaurants can be.
Roberta’s looks rough, rudimentary: irregular, thick wooden benches; a kelly green atrium dining room constructed from a shipping container; an outside Tiki Bar slapped together out of plywood, held up by spit and Narragansett. Despite the way Roberta’s looked, and perhaps because it looked so coarse, the pizza kitchen, back kitchen, and front of house accomplished unexpected things. In that restaurant, I watched my coworkers create dishes, an atmosphere, a beverage program, and ultimately, a culture that surprised and delighted many, as it annoyed and challenged others.
Over the years I saw many expressions of our chefs’ creativity at play with our quirky setup. Once on an icy winter night, one of our chefs de cuisine made a special chili that heavily featured Benton’s country bacon. Chef wanted to offer a special to guests waiting for their table in the wet, gusty, military-tent-encased Tiki Bar. The chili was served directly from the pot, which was kept on the wrought-iron stove in the tent. During summer, a later chef de cuisine demonstrated his love of local-caught fish and surf culture by offering a ceviche special composed of beautiful saltwater bass one of our bartenders had just caught off Long Island. Chef prepped the fish that day and served the ceviche—spicy, citrusy, genuinely local—out of a makeshift kitchen station in the backyard. I’m certain it’s not legal to sell your buddy’s catch of the day out of your restaurant, but the dish was delicious regardless.
I watched staff make guests happy with well-executed food and drink and smart discussion of the same. Both back- and front-of-house were rightfully proud of their knowledge: they could elucidate various styles of cheeses, our technique for coffee-roasting beets, and attributes of unique beers we offered on draft. I watched bartenders take shots of obscure amari or rye whiskeys with out-of-towners who could hardly believe the place was a restaurant. I gave tours of our gardener’s beautiful, inventive rooftop and backyard plantings to visiting Hungarian, Italian, and German winemakers. When I told Judit Bodó, a winemaker from Tokaj, in Hungary, that we employed about 200 people, she gasped. It’s like a village.
I also watched guests get irritated, confused, and really drunk. A three-hour wait for what—fucking pizza? A prominent restaurant critic never got silverware when his salad arrived, and it took him a really long time to flag someone down. Backwaiters conveyed just-polished silverware clenched in their bare fists across the dining room, and managers put their fingers into empty cocktail glasses to clear them from tables. Our wine list was full of alien entries, lacking in “house red” or Chianti. The music was too loud, too metal, too rap, or too weird. The benches gave people splinters. Haggard-ass servers wore T-shirts thin as cheesecloth, and some guests made known to us their disdain for the staff’s tattoos, which were legion.
All this is to say that at Roberta’s we did things that were beautiful, and we did things that were rough and gross. In French they say jolie-laide. Pretty-ugly. We made mistakes; we often weren’t polished. We were endlessly frustrating to people accustomed to the norms of fine dining. But we were surrounded by creative people and people who cared and people who contributed to the whole thing even if they didn’t think they cared. There were hand letterers, street artists, and painters; musicians, DJs, and dancers. There were chefs who were good teachers, with teams happily hand-rolling pasta; chefs who were gifted with vegetables; a pastry chef who made the most gonzo, somehow-balanced, basil gummi bear desserts. There were bartenders who essentially did improv behind their bars every night. I had the warmest, humblest, most crackpot team of rookie sommeliers. There was a lot of bullshit too, problems that all restaurants as places of commerce have, but a special space emerged—in a rare and impermanent perfect storm.
Before I hear the response I often hear when I describe these contradictory, lovely possibilities—which is the protest that for a restaurant, That’s not real life—let me answer yes, these things can all be done. Yes, the bottom line can be accomplished, and well. But there are some things you sacrifice in order to get in the black while genuinely nurturing culture. For one, you can’t have skyscraper real estate. You can’t pay $2 million or even $200,000 annual rent for your restaurant. As a proprietor, a Wall Street salary is out; probably a dentist’s is, too. You can’t have design firms lavish effort on fairytale rooms—you yourself will have to paint, decorate, and be inventive when it comes to the feel of the space. You can’t serve caviar, even if you downplay it by sourcing domestically; you can’t serve true Dover sole or Idaho Waygu beef that’s been dry-aged for 500 days. Or sometimes you can, but with restraint, making up for high-end goods with plenty of comforting, low-cost menu items. Here, I mean items that bring everyone joy, on which you can obtain great margins, sell a ton, and then pay your people more than minimum wage. You know—items like good dough with red sauce and cheese on top.
I realize I’m only running through some very basic principles of restaurant P&Ls, but I think it’s worth arguing that things can be done differently from the way they often are. Restaurants don’t have to be absurdly funded, highly designed, corporate operations where a ballet is what’s being sold. More and more hit restaurants, cafés, and alternative dining spaces are not high end—on the contrary, the dining public is changing, and what the restaurant workforce wants has changed. To underscore the point, here are several restaurants and all-day cafés that fit the bill, a bill I dub Dining Is More Than Haute Theater. Some of these are brand new and some have been around for a while, but all express different dimensions of what composes a Third Space, a place of camaraderie or experimentation or a meeting room for work and ideas: State Bird Game Provisions, Mission Chinese, and Rich Table in San Francisco. Sqirl and Night + Market in Los Angeles. Zahav and Pizzeria Beddia in Philly. In my home city of New York, St. Anselm, Diner, Wildair, Estela, Lilia, Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar…I could go on. I haven’t even touched the cities I don’t know well—this has also been happening for the last 10 or 15 years in Chicago, Austin, Oakland, Nashville, Portland, and Providence.
This is what I want from restaurants: I want them to give a home to the talent—the offbeat, the shy but gifted, the funny, the fucked up. I want the operators to make it an integral part of their job to genuinely mentor and guide their staff. No lip service to “education”; I want the real deal. I want restaurants to be a Tiki Bar where people come and sit in the sunshine during warm months for long afternoons because there’s enough space for everyone during the day and no one is kicking them out after only two hours for the next reservations. I want people to be able to drink hard-to-come-by grower Champagne without having to wear a suit or having to pay three, four, or five times markup on the wholesale price. I want gardeners to have resources to plant and teach us more about our food, about how the Earth works. I want staff who can avoid burning the underside of dough and identify volatile acidity and discern differences in coffee—without having their manner of speech or dress or place of origin censored. I want porters actively encouraged to train on the line or in front of house. I want costume Fridays—I want it proved to patrons that a dining experience can be excellent even if executed by a woman dressed as Spock. For people who want to work and play, to be creative, to acquire new skills, to share: I want more restaurants that are like a village, and fewer like a theater.
Sign up for our award-winning newsletter
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.
Amanda Smeltz works as a sommelier in New York City. She spent several years as the wine director of Roberta’s Pizza and Blanca in Brooklyn and a year as the head sommelier for two Daniel Boulud restaurants. She is also the author of the poetry collection Imperial Bender.