“I’ve had it with this m*****f***ing sexism on my m*****f***ing plate!”
Over on Feministing, Sailorman recently commented about an entry on The New York Times “Dining & Wine” blog concerning the increasingly infrequent practice of giving menus without prices to some patrons at restaurants. (Feministe has commented on this as well.)
The actual practices described varied from automatically giving a woman a menu “sans prix” when she dined with a man, to providing price-free menus only on request for people who wanted to treat a family member or business client.
I was most surprised at the comments to the blog entry, which had a surprising number of people bemoaning the loss of “class,” “chivalry” and “old world style” involved with this practice.
So sad to see yet another tradition dying out. I donâ€™t see how the practice is insulting at all. I remember being taken to Le Bernadin to celebrate a special occasion, and being given a menu without prices. I thought it was a very chivalrous gesture; and on a day-to-day basis we all split enough bills in the name of equality and fairness that I canâ€™t see how one old-fashioned gesture once in a while is something to decry.
Most restaurants Iâ€™ve met in Europe follow this practice (no menu prices for the guests), and I like it. Here in Florida, no such luck. I am often frustrated when taking my poor Depression-era mother to dinner and she goes into shock, ordering the meanest, cheapest salad instead of a meal. Absolutely no class throughout the state (but the winter weatherâ€™s nice).
Oh come on! Canâ€™t you see the charm in it? It has a hint of old world class. It takes us back to a time when men took pains to put a lady at ease.
Doesnâ€™t this make you long for the days when men still stood when a lady entered the room?
Here’s what I find wrong with price-free menus:
They Confuse the Customers
One recurring theme throught the comments to the post was that, despite protests that everybody knew more or less which entrees would be expensive (“chicken costs less than lobster”), many people whose menus didn’t contain prices made expensive mistakes as a result:
As he had prices, and I did not, I was unaware that I had ordered a $75 saladâ€“I donâ€™t remember for sure, but I think it was more expensive than our wine.
Then, after the meal, she asked for a copy of the menu, to remember the meal by. It came, autographed by the chef. She almost fell off the chair. She had assumed, not seeing prices on her menu, that we had a set prix fix meal with several courses, and naturally she wanted to taste all of them.
The most expensive meal I ever ate was at a restaurant where I â€” known to be the penny-pincher in the relationship and completely unaware that unpriced menus existed â€” assumed my price-less menue meant it was a prix fixe meal. My husband, shocked and happy, thought I was just caving in to the beauty of the experience. Well, hello! Iâ€™d never have spent that much money on a meal, and never have again. Though I sure did enjoy it, until the bill came.
The problem here is that these mistakes usually benefit the restaurant, which means there’s little incentive not to offer the menus, especially if they can play into class anxiety by doing so:
It seems the worst thing one can be called today is â€œcheapâ€. It is the most cutting insult of all. Liar, cheat, thief, addict, scoundrel, even racist or slut – these are forgiven and in some cases even admired. But â€œcheapâ€â€¦ cheap is the lowest.
But â€œcheapâ€ is often nothing more than a ploy by others to manipulate one to spend more. Once labeled as cheap, the only defense is to go further into opulence. Typically the accuser is the benficiary.
I think it’s telling that the most common use of the price-free menu was traditionally during a date, where there can be even more pressure not to appear “cheap.”
They Make the “Guest” Uncomfortable
I see a lot of talk about â€œIâ€™m the host and price-free menus are what *I* want!â€ but I donâ€™t see very much talk about what the guests want.
The idea behind the price-free menu is to put the “guest” (i.e., the person who’s not buying) at ease by letting him or her choose her courses without being influenced by price. Of course, that doesn’t always work:
If I were handed a host who insisted on price-free menus, my anxiety would go through the roof. I would worry and try to guess what was a â€œsafeâ€ choice. When I eschewed the chicken in favor of salad and then found, to my horror, that the salad was $75, I would be mortified.
Iâ€™ve been a guest and received a menu without prices. I donâ€™t care for it because, frankly, Iâ€™m not always sure what I want to order and use the prices to decide whether I really want the lobster if it costs $150. No matter how much money I have, certain things just arenâ€™t worth the moneyâ€¦no matter whoâ€™s paying for it. Itâ€™s not a matter of being cheapâ€¦more a matter of using the price to assist me in a sometimes difficult decision.
When I was treated to that ilk of restaurant by my father years ago, not seeing the menu with prices left me the task of guessing which might be the modest choices. It therefore brought more frustration than ease.
I have seen it cause distress with some guests who REALLY need to know what the prices are and are then made more uncomfortable by the lack of that knowledge.
The idea that less information will put someone at ease doesn’t make much sense to me. If I’m being treated by someone I care about, the price is going to matter as much to me as it does to them, because their comfort is important to me. If I’m worried it’ll be a problem; it’s going to worry me as much, if not more, if I don’t know how much of a bill I’m racking up. If I know it’s not a problem, I’ll get what I want regardless. If I’m not sure if it’s all right, I’ll ask. (I’ll probably ask anyway, because I’m used to everyone sampling each other’s courses at restaurants.)
Besides, as one waiter points out:
It never works.
The other guest(s) always excuse themselves at some point and ask to see a menu with prices outside the watch of their host. I rarely sense they feel this was any sort of compliment to their company and it usually signals a first and last date.
It’s Sexist as Practiced
Quite obviously the practice of assuming that a man will pay for a woman’s meal is a sexist one, whether that assumption takes the form of handing the check to a man, or giving a woman a menu without prices. (Many commenters also pointed out that the assumptions get even more muddled when dealing with non-heterosexual couples.)
This is one of those things that straddles the border between chivalrous and â€œlook how hard Iâ€™m trying to impress you, I must really, really need to get laid.â€
If my attempt to pay for my meal is refused within a dating context, I want to feel less beholden than more, so again, not seeing the prices is an annoyance rather than a luxury.
May I also add that this is not sweetness or chivalry – this is taking the chattle out for a little treat, and since she canâ€™t earn money (or drive, or vote, or think) why should she see the prices?
Another comment shows how this sexism intersects with other forms (in this case, emphasizing the cultural narrative of the date as an exchange of dinner for sexual favors):
How about thisâ€¦I invited my husband and another couple for a wonderful steak dinner at La Queu de Cheval in Montreal. I was appropriately presented the bill but when I casually turned it over there was a quote imprinted, which equated something like â€œa good steak is like a good woman, juicy in all the right placesâ€. This is not a verbatim quote since it was years ago and I have never been back.
However, I don’t think the sexism entirely goes away when the policy is made facially neutral (though you’re less likely to find such an offensive quote on the check), such as the proposed practice of asking who the host is. It’s akin to citing “asker pays” as a non-sexist alternative – while facially neutral, it’s not actually equal outside of a culture in which the idea of “asker” is not gendered.
Throughout the comments, there’s a strong element of “it doesn’t matter,” with an implied accusation of cheapness on the part of the people who do complain.
if I am inviting guests to a meal at a restaurant, I greatly appreciate the option of being able to set aside the vulgarity of money, and enjoy each othersâ€™ company for its own sake.
If you find money so vulgar, how about letting those of us who don’t find it so relieve you of that burden?
Other commenters agree that being focused on money – i.e., not being sufficiently rich – is bad manners:
To me, it clearly [shows] the decline of proper etiquette and good manners.
Why must it be so hard to just be a guest and leave it at that? If you think your host canâ€™t afford it then suggest someplace else. Jeesh this is not rocket science it’s called civilization.
Some commenters go so far as to insinuate that the riff-raff should know their place and stop trying to dine at “high class” restaurants:
It always strikes me as tacky / low rent when a server in an otherwise good restaurant is quoting prices for the specials. Turns any fine dining experience into a â€œmy God, do they think we are at TGI Fridayâ€™s?â€ moment.
I agree with the post above that asks why you would go to a restaurant you could not afford in the first place?!?! If the $600 check is going to make you gag, then you should have gone to the Shake Shack with grandma!
Fuck you both, and the luxury cars you rode in on. I routinely go to restaurants (even that bastion of plebeianism, TGI Friday’s) with the assumption that I’m not going to get the high-priced items on the menu (if I did, I couldn’t dine there routinely).
As for the comment â€˜if you canâ€™t afford it, donâ€™t go,â€™ well, thereâ€™s more than one problem with that. Firstly, thereâ€™s often a considerable price range on the menu. Just because you canâ€™t afford the most expensive items doesnâ€™t mean you shouldnâ€™t eat there! Myself and a traveling partner have several times â€™saved upâ€™ for a meal at a nice restaurant at the end of a trip. We always chose nice places, even if we could only afford a glass of wine and mid-priced entree, because it was a â€˜treatâ€™ as much for the ambience as the quality of the food.
I think a lot of the classist “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” folks underestimate the difference between low-priced and high-priced entrees. Even taking extreme outliers like lobster off the list, it’s not uncommon for the high-priced entrees to be over twice the cost of lower-priced ones, which can be a very big deal when you’re eating at a restaurant where even the low-priced courses will stretch your budget.
If a slice of pie is going to be $8, then weâ€™d like to know before we order it. If that makes us classless and vulgar, well, we didnâ€™t inherit our money – we earned it. It took a long time, a lot of care, and more than a few coupons. I guess that makes for vulgar people who like to know the price of things before buying!