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From the Dining Critic's Notebook

Continuing the Conversation About Sexism in Service

My column from July has spurred an interesting public debate: so where do we go from here?
By |
Kevin Marple

In the May issue of D Magazine, I ranked the 10 best steakhouses in Dallas.

In the July issue, I wrote a column titled “Animals in the House” with a revelation in the subhead: “How eating in 20 of the top steakhouses in Dallas gave me a bellyful of misogyny.”

The weeks I spent dining in 20 of our city’s steakhouses had given me insight no diner usually has—glimpses of patterns of behavior, subtle but insistent, that made me feel invisible and overlooked as a female in male temples of meat. As I sliced through dry-aged rib-eyes, I was seeing a culture. And it was making me ill.

That I could find such a glaring cultural phenomenon—even as it remained slippery and elusive—in a singular part of the dining landscape seemed worth illuminating. Particularly as it is one that this city—city of business meetings, city of great steaks— holds dear.

In a column published two weeks ago in the Dallas Observer, dining critic Brian Reinhardt took the next step in calling out discriminatory and problematic service. He argued that we shouldn’t be treating service separately in a review or ranking, and he took me to task. “Sexist service is bad service,” he wrote.

I agree.

But it’s not as clear as he makes it out to be.

In 1993, in what would become a reference-point article, the newly-appointed New York Times dining critic Ruth Reichl wrote her review of the famed Le Cirque in two parts: “Dinner as the Unknown Diner” contrasted with “Dinner as a Most Favored Patron.” The former began with the chilly question from the host, “Do you have a reservation?”, the latter, on a visit when she had been recognized, with the honeyed words, “The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready.” Such flagrant discrepancy was the main point of the review.

None of my cases were so flagrant. None were egregious to the point of ruining a meal.

A server at Pappas Bros. initially answered my questions as though to the whole table, while looking at the one male present—until he read us more accurately. After which, he offered one of the most inclusive and informative cases of service I had. Though as such, I still experienced the moment as part of the litany of gestures and actions that made me queasy. Because I am a woman. Because I was primed. Some things were subtle, ever so subtle, the kind of thing you notice only because you happen to be in a group with a man (which I wasn’t, always).

Other times, the customers themselves were the source of malaise. I begin my column with an anecdote from Nick and Sam’s, when two men make a comment about my appearance as I stand a foot away. It was unpleasant. But what if those men hadn’t been there that day at Nick and Sam’s? It was they, not the restaurant or its servers, creating the culture. And what would I have written in my ranking? “Provided no ungentlemanly, uncouth patrons make louche remarks about you at the bar …”?

The plot thickens: different servers, issues with customers, or issues with ownership that has, for example, responded to lawsuits filed against him for sexual misconduct, as in the case of Nick and Sam’s co-owner Phil Romano—some of this is so below the surface, or complex, that it renders lines murky.

It’s not a simple thing to separate out sexism—or any number of almost imperceptible prejudices—from the service one receives or the food one eats. Meanwhile, we’re coming to realize that we need to be demanding equal treatment, including in restaurants.

So, where do we go from here? As a dining critic, as a magazine, as a culture?

As a dining critic, I feel it’s important that I bring my experience to bear when I notice patterns. If nothing else, reader feedback has underscored that fact. I’ve received more responses to “Animals in the House” than almost anything else I’ve written. I returned from a few weeks out of the country to emails from women who found, in my words, a mirror of their own frustrations, an outpouring of #MeToo-style catharsis. But dining critics also need to bring that critical awareness to individual restaurants and decide how, when, and where to factor such issues into a review. That is where it is less clear how to proceed. It’s not a bright-line issue.

For myself, I endeavor to take all of this into account, proceeding with care, checking my assumptions, being vigilant.

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