When Did Hospitality Get So Hostile?
HOSTILITY AND HOSPITALITY: how faint the line between them. The Latin hostis once meant “guest,” then became, through some shadowy slippage of language, the word for “enemy” — an etymological twist that might make some smile grimly, particularly those of us who have worked in restaurants as part of the so-called hospitality industry. For how else are we to think of the guests who flex their power from the moment they stalk into the dining room; who frown at the table they’re led to, aggrieved at the imagined underestimation of their status, and insist on moving to another, often identical table; who try to meddle with the kitchen, demanding that the chef subtract and substitute ingredients, to the point of creating entirely new dishes; who wrinkle their noses at a perfectly fine bottle of wine and declare it corked, just to pull rank on the sommelier; who snap their fingers at servers, leer, sneer or scream, “You can’t do your job,” a line attributed to the actor and late-night host James Corden last fall over a flubbed order at the downtown Manhattan brasserie Balthazar; who tip stingily or not at all, ignoring the fact that, in the United States, the federal minimum wage for tipped employees is only $2.13 an hour; or who book a table and then don’t bother to show up, as happens with as many as 28 percent of all reservations, according to a 2021 survey by YouGov and OpenTable, and which can cost a small restaurant hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars, if not an entire night’s profit?
“How can we distinguish between a guest and a parasite?” the French philosopher Jacques Derrida muses in “Of Hospitality” (2000). And yet the code of hospitality is ancient and nonnegotiable. When sulfur is rained down on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, the precipitating incident is not the sexual promiscuity for which their populations are usually blamed but the attempt by a mob to attack two foreigners who are in fact angels in human form; only the family of Lot, who shelters and protects the angels despite not knowing their divine origin, is allowed to escape. It is not so much that we should offer welcome and succor to the stranger at the door but that we must.
The hostility of hostis was not final. From it emerged the kinder cognate hospes, which came to signify both guest and host, a symbiotic duo, and to yield the names of places of sanctuary: hospital, hospice, hotel. Still, its etymology also reveals a threat, for hospes is an elision of hosti-pot-s, in which “pot” signifies “master” (hence “despot”), and thus translates more literally as one “who has power over the stranger,” as the German media theorist Bernhard Siegert has written. So defined, a host may be benevolent and generous or, with the slightest shift of emphasis, hold someone hostage. The ninth, final circle of hell in Dante’s “Inferno,” the realm of treachery, reserved for the greatest sinners, has a special place for hosts who abuse their power — by inviting visitors to a feast, say, then slaughtering them, which is essentially the plot of (spoiler alert) the haute cuisine horror movie “The Menu,” released last November.
But of course guests at a restaurant are crucially different from guests in your home: They are customers. They pay their way. This is the taint, the dank scent of corked wine. Hospitality, as it has been understood for thousands of years, is a gift, unconditional, outside politics, giving food, shelter and aid — whatever you have, however little it is — to a stranger who may not speak your language or know your ways, and asking nothing in return. The transaction upends the relationship. The diner who slaps down a Platinum Amex expects something spectacular in exchange. Dance for me. Make it worth my while.
AT THE START of the pandemic in 2020, governments around the world ordered the closure of restaurants to prevent mass contagion. When they were allowed to reopen, instead of rejoicing, some diners grew belligerent. In the United Kingdom in August of that first pandemic year, the government offered a monthlong enticement of 50 percent off meals at registered restaurants, to boost business — and reports of rude and even violent behavior spiked. Rather than delight, the discount seemed to make customers angry and abusive; to value both the food and the people who served it to them less.
The compulsion to act the tyrant isn’t confined to high rollers at expensive restaurants. (After all, fine dining and fast food both rely on low wages.) According to a 2021 study by the Fight for $15 and a Union, more than 77,000 conflagrations at fast-food outlets in California led to calls to 911 between 2017 and 2020, with 13 percent involving physical or sexual assault. Workers were choked, stabbed and beaten so savagely that they sustained concussions. All up and down the restaurant economy (indeed, across service industries: on airlines, at hotels and in hospitals and public schools), antagonism is on the rise. During the pandemic, the idea that certain workers were essential took hold, but that gained them little respect beyond a brief spate of nightly applause in big cities. If anything, the opposite happened: The people on the front lines, from emergency rooms to meat-processing plants, came to be seen as disposable, their lives and labor of worth only insofar as they benefited those privileged enough to be able to shelter at home or otherwise stay out of harm’s way.
Ours is an era of rage. Equal-opportunity rage: Even people with power and capital (social, cultural, financial) perceive themselves as not having enough. And while this has been exacerbated by our past few years in thrall to a virus — something tiny, invisible, insidious and still incompletely understood — it started earlier, with the society-wide turn to consumerism, the mimetic pursuit of status through acquisition, the elevation of wealth to a gospel, the patronizing and dehumanizing of the have-nots and the growing rift between rich and poor, which is now close to an abyss. The brilliance of the system is that it pits us against each other rather than those above us; it encourages us to worship and seek to imitate our overlords, not depose them. Note how, in the wake of the pandemic, corporate chains like Starbucks and Chipotle hiked prices and put the blame on workers, citing the need to raise wages in part because of a labor shortage — as if it were their workers’ fault for wanting to be paid what the free market will bear. (At the same time, profits and in some cases executive salaries have gone up, the higher prices simply feeding into company coffers.)
The restaurant has become an arena for both sides, the servers and the served, each wary of the other, each suspecting themselves undervalued and taken advantage of. From the perspective of the customer, the hostility can manifest as early as the booking process: To curb no-shows, a number of restaurants now require a deposit or “prepaid reservation,” as they call it, often equivalent to the baseline cost of the meal or a significant fraction thereof: 300 British pounds (around $365) per person for the parade of small plates at Kitchen Table in London; 4,444 renminbi (around $640) per person, depending on the evening, for the technology-enhanced, “avant-garde figurative” experience at Ultraviolet in Shanghai (which announces on its website, “We eat more myths than calories”); $1,200 per person for a caviar and black truffle dinner at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. Don’t expect to get your money back if your plans change at the last minute; Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare in New York requires eight days’ notice for modifications or cancellations, otherwise deposits are forfeited, although they may be applied to a future reservation — provided it’s made within three months of the original date. Other places charge a booking fee that cannot be applied to the cost of food and drink, like the $2.50 per person at Au Cheval in New York simply for the privilege of guaranteeing yourself a seat. (That’s less than the price of a subway ride, for what it’s worth, and that comes with no such guarantee.)
YOU ARE WELCOMED to dine but are also warned. In a society that has come to expect consumption on demand — whatever we want, whenever we want it, delivered via apps like Uber Eats that charge fees of as much as 30 percent of each order, cutting into restaurants’ profits — battle lines are drawn. At the time of booking, a restaurant may note that accommodations cannot be made for vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, disavowers of salt or sugar or those who claim allergies to anything from alliums to gluten. In what might be a cri de coeur for restaurant kitchens everywhere, the “Menu” chef Julian Slowik, played by Ralph Fiennes, bellows, “There are no substitutions,” gazing wild-eyed into the vast dark surrounding the restaurant, before he metes out what he considers an appropriate punishment (death) for someone who violated that cardinal rule.
In the language of food service, a diner is not a customer but a guest. This suggests that when you show up at a restaurant, you will be treated with honor. People will be nice to you. Your needs will come first. Perhaps it’s this veneer of welcome that can make the nickel-and-diming of a meal — which at base is a primal, intimate event, the entwined acts of feeding and being fed — seem jarring, especially to those who seek in dining out a kind of reprieve, not just from doing the work of cooking and presenting the food and then cleaning up but from having to think about that kind of work at all, and who might be required to do it, if not you. It’s a desire “to be served rather than to engage,” as the essayist Alicia Kennedy has written.
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?