Waiters have always been multitaskers, but now a new chore is being added to their job descriptions: Food Explainer. It’s not just “here are today’s specials” and “our plates are meant for sharing” anymore — chefs and managers are asking waitstaff to deliver little speeches about almost every dish. Before the speechifying gets out of hand, we might want to hit the brakes and think about when, and how much, this practice is really needed.
Nowhere in Dallas can you get more gab-for-your-buck than the recently opened Top Knot, the casual tapas-style bar perched atop Uchi. “Would you like to hear about some of our most popular items?” our waitress asked. When we said “yes,” we didn’t realize she would be detailing 12 dishes, over one-third of Top Knot’s offerings, including some which merely got an out-loud reading of menu descriptions we had already seen.
(Quick aside: Don't blame the waiters; they don't write the scripts. Ours was kind, helpful, excellently trained and even asked about food allergies.)
The parade of speeches continued as Top Knot’s food arrived. Potatoes topped with salsa verde came with a reminder that there was salsa verde. A pork katsu slider, onigiri and a panna cotta dessert all came with waiters listing off ingredients which had already been named on the menu. One drink was served with an explanation of the garnish.
The problem with these speeches is that eventually you start tuning them out. “Be sure to mix in the horseradish,” our waitress said before I dipped a crispy sunchoke into the sauce and inadvertently ate about a teaspoon of horseradish. “You should have listened to the waiter,” my friend told me. True. But it was the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. By the time we got food that really needed a warning on how to eat it, I was ignoring everything the staff said.
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I can relate to the chef’s desire to talk about food — and there are times when it’s welcome. There are some dishes you take special pride in, certainly. Others arrive with surprise side dishes and garnishes. One of my favorite Dallas food trends is the dinner plate that comes with Surprise Awesome Veggies. If you are serving “deconstructed” food, or an item where the cream and horseradish look alike but haven’t been stirred together, then guidance is welcome. If your guests ordered a dozen plates and are getting tipsy, they might appreciate a quick reminder, though maybe not a full oration.
But these are specific cases, and selectivity is required. After the fourth or fifth detailed exposé of what we’re eating, we start to feel like there will be a pop quiz for dessert. If you fail the quiz, no chocolate for you! An explanation of “how our menu works” ought never to feel like cramming for a test.
In a way, the speechifying is a good sign. Dallas diners are expanding their comfort zones and eating more eclectic, exotic foods. We’re more eager to try unfamiliar cuisine, and we’re receptive to novel kinds of dining experiences. That’s good news. So is the apparent willingness of trendy new restaurants to invest lots of energy in the quality of their service. Done right, this kind of conversation can make diners feel welcome to a close-knit group.
But, restaurateurs, beware the impulse to explain away every last molecule of food on the plate. We did read the menu, and we will be using our taste buds to confirm that those really are apple slices. And after a few too many mini-lectures on what you’re about to eat, having food come as a surprise sounds romantic, even fun. An unexpected twist can be a treat. Discovering a dish for yourself? Imagine that.