Sexism on a Plate (Classism, too)

“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 don’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 can’t see how one old-fashioned gesture once in a while is something to decry.

Most restaurants I’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 weather’s nice).

Oh come on! Can’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.

Doesn’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 salad–I don’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 — known to be the penny-pincher in the relationship and completely unaware that unpriced menus existed — 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! I’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 “cheap”. 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 “cheap”… cheap is the lowest.

But “cheap” 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 “I’m the host and price-free menus are what *I* want!” but I don’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 “safe” 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.

I’ve been a guest and received a menu without prices. I don’t care for it because, frankly, I’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 aren’t worth the money…no matter who’s paying for it. It’s not a matter of being cheap…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 “look how hard I’m trying to impress you, I must really, really need to get laid.”

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 can’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 this…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 “a good steak is like a good woman, juicy in all the right places”. 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.

It’s Classist

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 others’ 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 can’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 “my God, do they think we are at TGI Friday’s?” 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 ‘if you can’t afford it, don’t go,’ well, there’s more than one problem with that. Firstly, there’s often a considerable price range on the menu. Just because you can’t afford the most expensive items doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat there! Myself and a traveling partner have several times ’saved up’ 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 ‘treat’ 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 we’d like to know before we order it. If that makes us classless and vulgar, well, we didn’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! :)

Damn right.

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7 Responses to Sexism on a Plate (Classism, too)

  1. Nice dissection of the classist and sexist assumptions that go into the practice. I was glad that some of the comments on the Diner’s Journal pointed out the blatant stupidity as well.

    One more thing, about the pressure not to be “cheap”: as a Chinese-American, I’m well aware of the stereotype of Chinese people as cheap. (I do penny-pinch, but it’s only “in my blood” because I learned it from my dad, not because I inherited some ancient Oriental instinct to save money.) I always feel uncomfortable when I or my Asian companions ask about prices, use coupons, go to sales, etc. But my white companions? I feel fine when they do it. We’re all roughly of the same economic background, so class issues don’t really come into play.

    It probably wouldn’t be hugely difficult to just say, “screw it, I’ll be cheap if I want,” but … the worry is still there that I’m reinforcing stereotypes.

  2. Jeff, an excellent dissection, there.

    Sigel, I hear you on the stereotype. As a multiracial (Chinese/Scottish/English) Australian I always find that in my mind as well. Like you, I have perfectly good reasons to penny-pinch. I’m a student living by myself on a welfare income. If I don’t penny-pinch, it all goes a bit wrong. But the thought of reinforcing that ‘Chinese = cheap, etc’ stereotype worries me. However, for me it’s somewhat tempered by the fact that my Chinese relatives and companions will fight over who gets to pay the bill at a restaurant with a stubborness and vehemence that other companions rarely display, and I often point that out to people when they bring up the cheapness thing.

    At the same time, though, it feels weird making a conscious effort to *not* penny pinch because of the stereotype worry, because then I have to wonder whether I’m displaying a sort of “See? I’m not like the rest of them” sort of vibe; not to mention acting in a way that’s not particularly helpful to my own needs. I’m not sure if that’s clear enough, but it’s sort of a more general question of whether we really strip power from a stereotype by acting in the explicitly opposite way. Note, I’m not saying that you do that, but I’ve seen quite a few people who do act against the stereotype for the sake of acting against it, and I can’t help but wonder how useful that is. I don’t know.

  3. Ariella: I definitely agree about the “opposite” response to a stereotype. It can definitely perpetuate the devaluation of the behavior/characteristic. It’s like decrying traditionally feminine things; that perpetuates the idea that masculine is better, when what really bothers me is how femininity is interpreted as weakness. Similarly, I don’t see anything wrong with being frugal, and don’t see why throwing money around should be seen as “better.”

    Also, my relatives have some pretty spectacular fights over who gets to pay the bill as well. :D

  4. Steve says:

    I am of two minds with this

    One I do like the old world charm, manners and touch of class, but…..

    I can also see very well the class warfare, exclusion and rudness to ones income or spending habits.

    My solution would be to have a small disclaimer reading ” prices available upon request ” Or have the waiter spiel smoothly to the patron ” We are glad to assist your expierince and put you at ease regarding special needs alergies or budget constraints ”

    That to me would entitle the waiter, if he “or she ” followed through competently with the sentiment, to a large tip

  5. Sailorman says:

    What many of the commenters fail to realize when citing the “vulgarity” of prices is this: A truly mannered guest is (supposedly) capable of using their OWN manners. Which is to say, they can “order without a care in the world” if they feel that will make them/you comfortable. And they can refrain from doing so if the reverse is true.

    Respecting the wishes of your host IS mannerly. You merely need to trust your guests.

    There is one instance, though, when I wish I could always have priceless menus: When taking a non-foodie friend (or worse yet, someone like my grandmother) out to dinner. Some folks will always order the cheapest thing (as opposed to what they want) and it’s a pity. Nothing’s worse than seeing your friend suffer through a cheap dish of pasta because you couldn’t convince them to let you spend the extra $8 to buy their favorite entree. Priceless menus are a boon in those circumstances, as are prix fixe menus.

  6. jfpbookworm says:

    Nothing’s worse than seeing your friend suffer through a cheap dish of pasta because you couldn’t convince them to let you spend the extra $8 to buy their favorite entree.

    Sailorman: my solution to this is to ask them what courses sound appealing to them before they order. If it sounds like they’re ordering based on price, I can suggest some other courses I’d think they’d like.

    On the other hand, one of my favorite dishes at the local upscale Italian place could be classified as “a cheap dish of pasta.”

  7. Tony O'Rourke-Quintana says:

    While I agree that, in general, questions of money, finances, costs and the like should not be breached in polite company, it is always a benefit of wealthy privilege to never be concerned with such things. As is the case with most privilege, what is right in front of a person’s face is invisible to them.

    More importantly, nearly everyone here, no matter their stance in the issue, seems to allued to one universal commonality (we as Americans often have), which is that people, generally (and regrettably) do not spend much time with folks outside of their own socio-economic “caste.”

    I am proud to say that I have attended social gatherings with both the homeless and billionaires, and everyone in between, and thankfully, I have found only the middle class (in which I was raised) hopelessly caught up in the sort of control oriented social etiquette mentioned here.

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