The people seated here in the Grill Room have chosen this place because it's where they're most comfortable. I've picked it because it's where I'm most ill at ease. I grew up in Detroit, where lunch meat came on Wonder bread, the cheese was American, and I gulped it all down with a strawberry pop chaser. Consequently, I'm alarmingly familiar with phrases like "Peel back foil over dessert and potatoes" and utterly vexed by fish forks and finger bowls.
Enter Alex von Bidder. As managing partner of the Four Seasons, he is calm, cool, and connected. As my lunch partner, he is contemplative, solicitous, keenly aware, and deeply kind.
"So," I begin, "what's the proper etiquette for dining at a glamorous Manhattan restaurant?"
"That depends on the purpose of the meal," my new mentor replies. "Is it seduction? Is it friendship? A serious discussion? A celebration? You have to remember, Lisa, a meal is never just about the food."
The waiter comes to offer us menus and ask what kind of water we'd prefer. Before I can say that I'm a big fan of the clear kind, von Bidder jumps in with a specific brand.
"Does it really make any difference?" I wonder.
"It most certainly does," he assures me.
"Because," he answers, "the CEO of that water company is sitting at table 71."
The menu makes me dizzy. Do I begin with hamachi carpaccio with sea urchin and sour plum vinaigrette or galantine of foie gras with rabbit and pistachio? Would they make me galantine of Fritos and chicken salad with rye if I asked? As the purpose of this particular meal is to talk about etiquette, I choose not to fuss, opting instead for the special appetizer and entrée of the day.
"To me," von Bidder continues, "good manners are really all those things that protect us from insensitivity. Etiquette is about listening to and looking out for the other person." He nods in the direction of a table across the room. "I just had an extremely proper German banker sitting over there. He had invited a very young woman for lunch. I don't know the nature of their relationship, but she arrived dressed for a cocktail party, not a lunch. Her heels were very high; her neckline was very low. She got the entire room buzzing with their own conclusions about that relationship, and the man looked profoundly uncomfortable. Good manners," he concludes, "is behavior that puts everyone at ease, and that varies from culture to culture, occasion to occasion, and place to place. When I go somewhere and I don't know what to do, I call and ask, 'What do most people wear to your restaurant?' or 'Is this an appropriate spot for a business conversation?' Let's say I'm invited to a bris. I'm not Jewish, so I'm not sure what's appropriate. Do I bring a gift? Is there something I should know?"
At last I can advise him. "Stand way in the back," I suggest.
Our appetizers arrive. I should have paid more attention to the waiter because mine looks suspiciously like herring... probably because it is herring. I try to like it, but it tastes all herring-y. Cubes of beet garnish the plate, so I pick at them and hope nobody notices. As if on cue, the waiter notices. "Is something wrong?" he asks. "No, it isn't that," I say weakly, "it's just that, uh..." I'm such a bad liar, the only thing I can think to say is that as a young child I was once frightened by a giant herring. Von Bidder rescues me. "If you're a guest in someone's home, would you say, 'You cooked a miserable dinner?' No, you'd say, 'I didn't know what this dish was, and I wanted to try it.' The key is to be honest without being hurtful. In a restaurant—assuming there's nothing wrong with the way it was prepared—you can say something like 'I'm sorry, I didn't realize what this was; can you please exchange it for something else?'"
"I guess I'm a little intimidated by all this," I say over a sublime sole and caviar entrée.
I take this as my opportunity to say I don't know what to do with the fish bone I've got stashed in my left cheek. He mimes a discreet removal and recommends placing it on my bread plate. "It's far more sophisticated to turn to your dining companion and say, 'I don't really know anything about wine—can you teach me?' than to try to fake your way through. And how that person deals with my lack of knowledge tells me a lot. Does he laugh and admit to the same weakness? Does he pounce on it? And if so, do I really want to spend time with somebody like that?"
One strawberry shortcake arrives with two spoons, despite the fact that we'd each ordered our own. "Okay, Alex, now what?" I ask, hoping to sound sophisticated.
Gentleman that he is, von Bidder offers to have them bring a second dessert, but I demur. He smiles, hands me a spoon, and says ever so gallantly, "After you."
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