At some restaurants, bread is no longer free, which makes sense, given the price of quality ingredients, the investment of time in baking and how much goes to waste (an environmental concern, since food that winds up in landfills releases greenhouse gases as it decays). Requests for tips — a tradition that took root in the United States only after the Civil War, in part as an excuse for white bosses to underpay Black employees, as the Pullman Company did on its rail cars with Black porters, who as late as 1934 were officially paid an average of $16.92 a week for more than 73 hours of work — are now built into payment systems even at outlets that don’t have table service, like doughnut shops and coffee carts, with the default often starting at 20 percent or higher. It’s a crafty tactic, the company offloading the cost of labor onto the customer, who then directs ire at the worker standing there with averted eyes, trapped behind the touch screen. In an economy in which everyone is constantly being ranked and rated, one-star reviews on Yelp are weaponized to punish restaurant workers for slights, perceived or real, while bad customers are outed via bootleg videos on social media, to howls of public condemnation. But here again the playing field is uneven: Where a string of nasty Yelp reviews can cause a dangerous drop in business, public shaming of individuals, while intense, is fleeting and, except in extreme, isolated cases, rarely has a sustained financial impact.
The New York restaurateur Danny Meyer has argued that empathy is essential to hospitality. A bad customer is just an unhappy person. In truth, we all have our griefs, our thwarted desires. But in the vulnerable hierarchy of the service industry, only some are allowed to wallow and indulge; others must sublimate. In “The Menu,” the chef draws a distinction between “those who give” — his staff — and “those who take” — the diners, swaggering, entitled, pretentious know-it-alls and trophy hunters, including a number who are interested not so much in tasting his food as in saying they’ve tasted it. One guest’s crime is misremembering what fish she ate the last time she came to dinner. “What does it matter?” she asks. “It matters to the halibut,” Slowik replies, taking the side not of the consumer but the consumed.
And yet have we not all, at different times, been takers and givers, server and served? The ancient mandate of hospitality rests in part on pragmatism: We were historically taught to give comfort to strangers because we might one day be strangers ourselves. Or perhaps it’s more instinctual, a memory of our defenseless beginnings: The writer and activist Priya Basil, in “Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity” (2019), notes that we enter the world as guests, “helpless little creatures whose every need must be attended to, who for a long time can give nothing or very little back.” Is this not the arc of a life, to slowly become aware of the people around us and the labor required to make our survival and happiness possible — the spills quietly mopped up, the food materializing as if out of thin air on the table — and to learn, if we can, to do the same for others?