When it comes to gastronomy I live vicariously.
No one could eat at all the restaurants in the suburbs and Chicago. And there are some I wouldn’t want to eat at– too expensive, too far from home, for instance.
But, I like to know what’s out there to discover restaurants I can afford or get to and just generally to be restaurant-literate.
I turn to TV, of course, and watch restaurant review shows. My favorite is “Check, Please!” on WTTW. The show profiles and reviews three restaurants in each episode. The “regular people” who do the reviews are serious foodies who share a love of good food, dislike eating with older people and share the belief that suburbs are uncivilized bogs.
What doesn’t seem to bother the reviewers is a general trend I have noticed at several restaurants featured that is a tip-off to me not to go there.
It is what I call the “Sardine Syndrome.”
In these (usually pricey) restaurants, diners are seated along a wall with virtually no space between tables. Or, diners are plunked at what looks like a fancy version of a picnic table.
This sardining of diners forces them to eat with strangers.
Diners may luck out and be seated next to someone with the wit and wisdom of George Bernard Shaw. But they just as likely may be seated next to a bore, a drunk or a foul-mouthed boor.
Whoever they wind up with, one thing is certain: They did not choose their dining companion. The choice of who to eat with has been taken away from diners.
Restaurant owners will say that sardining diners is a good thing, that diners make new friends, have new experiences.
Accidentally eating with a stranger one time might, or might not, qualify as a pleasant experience.
But that decision should be the diner’s, not a restaurant owner whose motive for sardining may be to cram as many diners as possible into a given space.
Truly enjoyable dining requires space.
There are three requirements this regular person has when evaluating a restaurant: quality of the food, quality of service and quality of space – that is, room to relax, eat and converse.
When I see sardined diners on TV, I mentally cross that restaurant off my list of possibles.
Pay to suffer the Sardine Syndrome?
No, thank you.
Paul Sassone is a freelance columnist.