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How Compulsory Approbation Has Changed the Dining Experience

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Eater's senior critic is sick of being asked leading questions at the dinner table.

[Compulsory approbation in action.]
[Compulsory approbation in action.]
Daniel Krieger

You’re sitting in a restaurant hungry as hell. You’ve placed your order and your app has finally arrived. Suddenly the waiter bounds up to the table just as you’re taking your first bite. "How are you liking that?" he asks eagerly, putting his hand on your shoulder. You set the fork down, and then in spite of an impulse to be sassy, say exactly what politeness prompts you to say: "Yes, it’s delicious." A few minutes later the service captain rolls up and enthuses, "Isn’t that wonderful! That’s my favorite appetizer," pointing at your plate as if he’s going to scoop up the remainder and eat it himself. Do you have to agree it’s wonderful? You decide to simply nod. A few minutes later as the busboy comes to clear the plate, he, too, asks, "How did you like it?"

My primary interaction with waiters is them angling for multiple statements of approval

This happened to me a few weeks ago at a New American restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. And it’s been occurring more and more lately: My principle interaction with the waiter and other members of the service staff is them demanding to know how I enjoyed something, not once but again and again in the course of a meal, angling for multiple statements of approval.

I call this phenomenon compulsory approbation. It’s when any restaurant employee approaches with the express purpose of soliciting praise for the food. As a polite person your hands are tied and you must express approval, the same way that when somebody asks, "How do I look?" the correct thing to say is "fine." And woe betide any customer who refuses to play the game. A negative comment sets off a chain reaction that may include your dish being yanked and brought back to the kitchen or at least a look of consternation or confusion on the part of the staff member. You’ve been identified as a problem customer.

In many restaurants this compulsory approbation has become a key part of the scripted interaction between waiter and diner. It is intended to set an uplifting tone of appreciation for the meal that casts the waiter in the role of cheerleader. During the course of the meal, the water glasses can remain unfilled, the plates uncleared, a dirty napkin unreplaced, but you can be certain the waiter will ask periodically, "How do you like that quinoa risotto?" or "Isn’t that flambéed Stilton great?" These are questions that have replaced the classic waiter questions you really want to hear: "Is there anything else I can get you?" or "Are you finished with your main course?"

Yes, the service in most restaurants I eat at is great, with the necessary tasks performed promptly and with good cheer. But even in places with otherwise excellent service, the frequent pestering questions about how you liked something persist.

Lately, I’ve been hearing hilarious variations. Not long ago at a fancy pizza parlor in Chelsea where the pies top out at $30, the waitress asked me as I downed a terrible pie squirted with squid ink, "How are we liking that?" as if we were eating it together. My head ached trying to figure out how I should respond. "We will be liking it just fine, as long as you eat a slice right now," seemed to be the logical answer.

And not long thereafter as I sat with a fellow critic from a Washington newspaper in a French bistro south of Houston Street, the waiter came up and, contemplating our prime rib with a beaming countenance, blurted out, "Is that tasting as good as it looks?" as if he were begging for some himself. My guest and I looked at each other and nearly burst out laughing.

But not all types of compulsory approbation are quite so creative. A few nights ago, dining in a newish restaurant in Williamsburg specializing in an American regional cuisine, I counted 11 more-prosaic requests for a positive response during a 90-minute meal, voiced by four separate staff members. Even the greeter by the door strolled over — seemingly at random — to ask how we liked something. Such frequent meal interruptions are annoying, and the fact that you’re being prompted to respond like a trained circus animal makes them doubly irritating. Your part of the script is foreordained, too.

It’s as if they’re trying to learn a new language

That evening my dining companion happened to be a sociologist, who, while admitting that compulsory approbation is annoying, had an alternate interpretation that I partly agreed with. "These are not experienced waiters," she maintained, "They have to talk to customers but they really don’t know how. It’s as if they’re trying to learn a new language." And the service was otherwise good and the meal proceeded expeditiously. But still, being interrupted continually and asked by a varied cast of characters how much we liked each dish had definitely marred the meal for both of us.

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