At Restaurants, Tableside Service Has Gone Too Far
The downside of all those rolling carts and servers with jazz hands at fancy places.
It’s hard to walk through a fine restaurant these days without jumping out of the way of a rolling cart.
Dining rooms across the country have taken to presenting food to guests as if servers had magnets attached to their jackets pulling them to tables.
Now, there’s a lot to love about tableside service. At its best, it celebrates a glorious era of dining out, with the ceremony of seeing an expert fillet a Dover sole in the time it takes most people to get a grip on their knife, or watching a baked Alaska ignite in high, blue-yellow flames.
And yet, as with all the best experiences, there can be too much of a good thing. Restaurants are getting more expensive and dressed up, and with that comes an expectation of a more indulgent level of service. Plus, shared photos and videos of dramatic flourishes such as a burning dessert can be great for a restaurant’s reputation on social media. As a result, carts are spinning through dining rooms, fast and furious. At some places they rack up so much mileage, the wheels need frequent replacement.
If you want an example of a good tableside experience, watch the waiters at Carbone from the Major Food Group in New York mix their “Caesar alla ZZ.” Wearing Zac Posen tuxedos, the servers make a fresh dressing with anchovies and egg, tossing chopped romaine and garlic bread croutons while telling 100-year-old jokes. It feels like a scene from a movie.
At the Grill, Carbone’s big brother Midtown restaurant, tableside service casts an even larger, cart-size footprint. Pasta a la presse manifests in front of guests as roasted vegetables and poultry pieces are “juiced” through a gleaming old-school duck press, then tossed with a nest of egg noodles and served; it’s one of the Grill’s most popular dishes. There’s also a trolley dedicated solely to carving prime rib for customers.
But it requires a certain level of skill to cut thick slices of pepper-crusted beef in front of an audience, and even more to execute a tender wild mushroom omelet and slide it onto a plate before a table of guests. Hiring and training those skilled servers costs money—perhaps all the extra eggs that get cracked in practice are why the price of a Grill omelet has gone up 52 percent, from $24 to $38, according to Eater.
James Beard-winning Houston chef Chris Shepherd is an unabashed fan of tableside service. He applauds the pyrotechnic flambéed desserts at Brennan’s in New Orleans and slices strip steak in front of guests at his seasonally changing restaurant One Fifth Romance Languages. But he’s decided that lines have to be drawn. “We talked about doing an omelet tableside,” Shepherd says. “I decided that it didn’t make sense. Can my staff cook eggs perfectly every time? I cannot make that guarantee. It’s like a show—if you’re going to be onstage, you have to do it right. And if it isn’t right, you can’t say, ‘I’ll be back in a few minutes.’ ”
Shepherd has an additional list of don’ts for tableside service. “Tuna tartare made tableside is just the wrong thing to do,” he says. “Tuna is a valuable ingredient, and it requires precise seasoning. Flavorings like lime and chiles, their intensity varies. I want to check the tartare that’s going out to guests to make sure it’s correct. If you have someone doing it for show at the table, who knows how it’s going to taste each time?” (At the Bourbon Steak chain, which has branches from Southern California to Washington, D.C., perfectly fine raw tuna chunks are tossed with flavorings in the dining room for no good reason. Likewise, lobster pot pie crusts are cracked open at the table for photo ops; restaurants used to trust customers to do it themselves.)
The chef is OK with tableside guacamole: “It’s a Texas thing. And it’s easy to adjust seasonings.” The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells is not. “I don’t like it,” he says.
But Wells allows that he, too, is a fan of flambé: “Doesn’t matter what it is. Go ahead and set it on fire, and I’ll be happy.”
Still, he rages against another dish that’s become a dining room fixture. “I hate tableside beef tartare,” Wells says. It might have tradition behind it, but, like the tuna version, flavors can be haphazard when it’s made at the table. There’s also the pleasure of being able to mix in add-ins yourself, to taste. The last place he had tartare is the restaurant with the most extreme version of tableside service: Nusr-Et steakhouse, aka Salt Bae. “Almost every dish there has some jazz hands,” notes Wells. Besides the tartare mixing and the expressive salt-sprinkling over steak by the famous black-gloved chef, there’s also beef sushi that’s lit up with a blowtorch while guests watch, phones recording.
Wells has one more ultimatum: “Do not mix my Caesar at the table unless you put an egg in there.” Caesar salad originated at the table, with a last-minute mix to emulsify the just-added coddled egg yolk into the dressing. (Wells did not weigh in on the Caesar served at the new Jack Rose restaurant in New Orleans; it’s made with salt-rubbed kale, raw cauliflower, roasted garlic, and white balsamic vinegar. But it does include a raw egg yolk.)
As for a simple salad like Greek, there’s literally no reason to toss it tableside. Yet that’s how they serve it at Baltaire steakhouse in Los Angeles. While there are no raw eggs in it, the Greek salad does come with other risks. An Open Table review noted that a server spilled the dressing over a diner’s back (an underreported hazard of tableside dining).
Baltaire does have a Caesar salad—it’s made with an olive oil dressing and isn’t served tableside.
Since it opened, Chicago’s Maple & Ash steakhouse has specialized in offering unconventional options for the table, some perhaps more reminiscent of a nightclub than a restaurant: for instance, the presentation of caviar “bumps” with glasses of sparkling wine as a “back.”
The James Beard-winning former wine director there, Belinda Chang, recalls a misguided effort to prepare miniature welcome cocktails for guests. “The chef insisted that we shake the drinks tableside. In the beginning we used real ice. But that became impractical,” she says, “and we started using fake plastic cubes to create the correct sound. But the drinks came out warm. It’s the opposite of what you are looking for with tableside service.”