Old-School Tableside Service Is Making a Comeback
Finally, the return of fresh-mixed steak tartare and on-the-spot Caesar dressings.
At one time, tableside preparation was a hallmark of white tablecloth dining in America: fish would be deboned in front of you, bananas foster would be flambéed at the table and Caesar dressing would be emulsified before your eyes. Perhaps you haven’t experienced any of this—the trend started to decline in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But in recent years, this practice we’ve inherited from the French—like so many other dining standards—has a loyal constellation of adherents that seek to differentiate themselves.
Dr. Paul Freedman, a history professor at Yale University who has written extensively on dining trends, says there’s probably been a “modest increase” in tableside preparation in recent years. He points to New York restaurant The Grill, for example. The glitzy mid-century style chophouse, which opened last year, is housed in the former Four Seasons space in Midtown Manhattan. After debuting in 1959, the then-hotel was pretty much a power lunch and celebrity hotspot for over half a century. It follows, then, that chef Mario Carbone’s new concept is heavily and intentionally reliant on tropes of ‘50s and ‘60s New York fine dining—when tableside preparation was at a zenith. At this theatre of meat, servers carve prime rib in front of you; there are carts being wheeled around with various attractions; desserts are being flambéed. New York Times food critic Pete Wells, however, was rather unimpressed; “Peach Melba doesn’t get better when you set it on fire,” he wrote. Still, he heaped praise on the actual food itself, giving it three stars.
At New York’s Beatrice Inn, it's duck, not just dessert, that is ignited at your table. The restaurant is a meat- and seafood-heavy circus of delights that, like The Grill, prides itself on hints of luxury, albeit in a very unusual way. There are apple pies with foie gras, and whiskey-soaked aged steaks that sell for upwards of a grand. There are dollops of caviar and shavings of truffles everywhere. Tableside preparation here drives home a very clear message: this is the best of fine dining, just as it used to be.
That’s not to say that tableside preperations are relegated to prohibitive price points. Sometimes, the performance is not so much a statement of refinement as it is a gesture of hospitality. At Employees Only, one of New York’s more popular craft cocktail bars (now with several locations worldwide), the steak tartare is prepared to order for diners, mixed with fresh egg yolk, lemon, Worcestershire and shallot.
“My negroni is not going to be different from the negroni down the street,” co-owner Dushan Zaric tells Food & Wine. Service, he believes, is the chief differentiator for his bar—and will continue to be for concepts across the board as the industry gets more competitive.
Freedman agrees. "Places that want to make a statement can't make more flannel shirts and pickles than everyone," he says. "Tableside preparation allows you to make that memorable impression."
If it's such a valuable differentiator for restaurants, though, why did it ever go away? To explain that, we have to trace the trend's trajectory through American history—and its birth in France. Basically, Freedman explains, the practice has been handed down to us from the Middle Ages, when a royal steward would have carved meat in a great hall with pomp and ceremony. It was here that serving became a ritual in itself, as a prelude to eating.
Fast-forward some centuries to France, to the rise of the chef. He held his own court, as it were, in the restaurant: he would carve meat at the table, and sometimes even elaborately finish the cooking process there. Canard à la presse is an example of one such dish: it utilizes a dome-shaped steel contraption that allows you to manually compress the odds and ends of a cooked duck. Out through a tiny spout pours a precious tincture, then, of savory grease, juice and blood. This liquid is then further cooked down to make a roux-based sauce, often lit with Cognac for prime effect and flavor. It's often reduced on a burner right on a cart right in front of guests. The sauce is then plated in the kitchen with the good parts of the duck—that weren't pressed down—and brought out.
Freedman recalls going to France with his father in the 1960s and eating at a fancy restaurant. "I remember being amazed at how much the waiters did," he says. "Things came out of the kitchen like a whole leg of lamb or a bird in its whole state, and they would take it apart. They did it silently, and there were many of them."
Feats like these were once the provenance of chefs, but now they're in the realm of waiters. And the restaurant industry labor sector is one that, in the past several decades, has come to be viewed less and less as specialized.
"As a pre-condition of tableside preparation, you need to have a skilled and motivated waitstaff," Freedman says. Starting in the 1960s as restaurants began to strip down fine dining, he explains, they started hiring waiters "more for looks than for technical skills."
This is not to imply that being a waiter today does not take mastery; anyone who's worked in the service industry can tell you that there are few jobs more demanding. But from a statistical standpoint, there are fewer and fewer waiters who treat it as a long-term career that merits extensive training.
L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold agrees that, in the past several decades, there has been a relational shift between back-of-house and front-of-house staff. "One of the tenets of serious post 1970s cooking," he tells us, "is that plating is the provenance of chefs, not waitstaff." So as chefs have grown in esteem—especially in the past two decades, thanks to the proliferation of food media—they have assumed fuller control of their creations.
The fall of tableside preparation in the '60s and '70s was also catalyzed by some of the dated associations it held. "Flambéeing bananas foster or Crêpes Suzettes was felt to be inauthentic and silly," Freedman says, "and restaurants wanted to present themselves as grown up." Today, the tableside flambé is still more the mark of a cruise-ship party than a contemporary dining experience.
For his part, Gold isn't so sure that tableside preparation is having a resurgence. "I haven't seen a particular uptick, at least not in California," he tells us. "There is perhaps a post-Achatz increase in waiters over-explaining things, but not in deboning sole, tossing Caesar salads or igniting deserts at the table."
Uptick or no, the vestiges of tableside performance, like the hip bones of whales, are still with us. Servers still grate cheese over our pasta at Olive Garden, though it would be less time consuming to provide a small side of it freshly grated. They still crack pepper for us, sometimes with ostentatiously oversized mills, even though the spice is on the table.
The most ubiquitous takeaway from tableside dining, however, could be the open kitchen concept: it shatters the fourth wall of the kitchen and allows the food to be theater, giving diners a view of the stage. Food is, and always will be, an act of spectacle.