Review: The Restaurants Book

The Restaurants Book: Ethnographies of Where We Eat

By David Beriss and David Sutton
eds. Oxford: Berg
(256 pages)

Reviewed by Leslie Carlin
Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Division of Primary Care and Public Health, University of Brighton


Many years ago, shortly after moving to England, I joined a group of other young expatriate faculty members for a cheerful dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the northern university town of Durham. We comprised a large group, representing many corners of the globe, but in the main from continental Europe. At the end of the meal it became clear we had over-ordered and there was a substantial amount of good food left on the communal plates in the middle of the table. Without really thinking about it I quietly signalled a waiter and politely asked for the extra to be packed up for us to take away. Amid the laughter and the chat and the attempt to divide the bill fairly, no one paid much attention, but when the waiter returned with several neatly-packaged containers, a collective gasp escaped. ‘What is that?’ several voices with Latin accents inquired. ‘Leftovers!’ I replied. ‘Who has room in their fridge?’

Shock and dismay reigned. I had transgressed, it seemed, and acted the crass American (again). I couldn’t understand it. ‘But we paid for the food. It’s ours. Why should we not take it home with us?’ I argued. Discussion ensued as my companions tried to work out why this arrangement made them uncomfortable. Eventually someone articulated the sentiment: ‘Well, if you were dining at the home of a friend, would you ask your hostess to give you her extra food when you left?’ ‘No,’ I responded, ‘of course not. But this isn’t the home of a friend; it’s a business, a shop.’ ‘But it’s like being in someone’s home!’ replied my neighbor. I understood at last: in my mind, eating at a restaurant followed the model of a business transaction; for my European friends, it followed the social model of hospitality.

I recalled this episode more than once as I read the papers comprising The Restaurants Book. Many of them explore the tensions and the convergences of the restaurant as a symbol of or even a replacement for home, for customers and for the staff. The introductory section (or ‘starter’) by the editors asks about where the whole idea of ‘eating out’ originates; an interesting historical puzzle. The 240-page volume, however, does not strive to answer that question but rather provides a sort of album of the life and times of the modern (mainly American) restaurant. A number of the papers emphasize the familial nature of restaurants and their workers, and even in those where the importance of family appears less essential, the tension between ‘home’ and ‘away’, and between ‘hospitality’ and ‘commerce’, remains a persistent trope. The book is divided into (tongue-in-cheek?) sections labelled ‘starter’, ‘small plates’, ‘mains’, ‘dessert’, and ‘digestif’.

While it may both emulate and supplant home (the ‘little tradition’ described by Jochnowitz), the restaurant is seen to hold sway as a major cultural force as well: as repository and purveyor of history, tradition, and nostalgia. This role emerges in the chapters by Yano (about Japanese-American food stalls or ‘okazuya’ in Hawaii), Jochnowitz (about Russian-Jewish restaurants in New York City), Beriss (about New Orleans), and Mars (about a northern Italian family’s restaurant). Interesting ideas surface from several of the papers, including Lem’s exploration of the darker side of the cozy-sounding ‘family business’ in Paris in which women and vulnerable men are kept subordinate and often exploited in the family restaurant business. Pardue and Hubbert also consider economic, political, and historical aspects of food service: Pardue through examining the corporate goals of ‘neighborhood’ chain restaurants that aim to supply a casual dining experience, and Hubbert in her beautifully integrated discussion of the phenomenon of modern restaurants in China that are themed around the Cultural Revolution, pointing out the ironic contradictions inherent therein. Such establishments ‘make literally palatable the troublesome nature of the past,’ she writes.

Ray challenges common assertions that a particular ethnic group has a special ‘affinity’ or ‘natural talent’ for hospitality, which he labels ‘ethnic sentimentalism,’ and instead records (in some detail) the history of American ethnic restaurants over the past 150 years or so. Jochnowitz considers restaurants as ‘great theaters’ in which ‘great traditions’ may be performed and observed by ‘culinary tourists’. Erickson also invokes the metaphor of theatre in her depiction of a Tex-Mex restaurant, describing the navigation of space and the similar, parallel navigation of the social terrain to show how servers and cooking staff develop intimate knowledge of each other and of the physical space (like a family home). Beriss unpacks the meaning of a city’s near-uprising against the sacking of a waiter at one venerated New Orleans dining establishment, Galatoire’s, and discovers that ‘The whole thing was about culture, after all’- a satisfying conclusion for an anthropologist. Sutton’s chapter (in the ‘Dessert’ section) about tipping discusses this economically-irrational yet near-universal phenomenon, and attempts to comprehend it via the commutative property in which gifts may become commodities and vice versa. He argues that there is an inherent clash around buying and selling meals; the tip attempts to resolve this by adding a social layer to the face-to-face (customer-server) commercial interaction as a gift from the customer to the server rather than a charge imposed by the server.

Herzfeld finishes off the book with a ‘digestif’ critiquing the preceding chapters and offering a salutary reminder that these articles are not in themselves complete ethnographies. While I agree with him on this score, I think that a number of the papers do very well to stand on their own. There are those that seem to have made too clear a choice between being particular and ethnographic, and taking a broad-brush approach, but most of them successfully tread a middle ground, and on the whole the book has left me hungry for more such ‘snapshots’ of food and culture.

As a postscript, or perhaps an after-dinner mint: the conclusion of my case of the leftover Chinese food involved a satisfying compromise. One of our number took the packed food to his college apartment. He invited us all to join him there the next evening; we duly gathered twenty-four hours later to consume the food, now transformed from restaurant product to hospitable offering. We brought along drinks and desserts, but we did not tip.

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