A general collapse of standards and an ever-lengthening list of restaurant-behavior horror stories sends our food writer in search of civility.

Share story

On a recent rainy day at a Seattle restaurant’s crowded bar, a guy brayed at excruciating length about his idea for a startup, then chose to loudly mansplain the wonders (and expense) of Pappy Van Winkle. “We should have some!” he said to his date, but then never ordered it. He seemed to have met his match. She couldn’t be bothered to move her wet umbrella from the bartop in front of me, then kept flipping her long hair into my face as she made purposeful eye contact with him, giggled at everything he said, and repeatedly touched his arm.

Neither the article she’d obviously read on Three Ways to Show You’re So Hot for Him nor his on How to Impress With Your Not-So-Arcane Liquor Knowledge seemed to have covered how to comport yourself unannoyingly in public. Etiquette, at least for the moment, was dead.

A new effort by El Gaucho to revive it — entitled “An Etiquette Revolution” — is, if anything, too restrained. Helmed by intimidatingly well put-together, hyphenated etiquette specialist Cortney Anderson-Sanford, the seminars deal with the niceties of the formal place setting (with 10 pieces of cutlery), how to properly dispatch a bread basket (offer to your left, then bread yourself, then pass counterclockwise) and the continued value of the handwritten thank-you note (a charming antiquation).

The attendees at last week’s inaugural steak-and-asparagus luncheon were pleasant, witty, professional human beings who seemed about as likely to invade one’s personal space or discourse on overpriced whiskey as they were to get naked and dance on the table. These angels of manners time-traveled together to a kinder, gentler past: Not a phone was seen or heard for nearly two hours.

Cynthia Voth, left, C.C. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
Cynthia Voth, left, C.C. Brown and Anderson-Sanford raise a glass to “An Etiquette Revolution.” (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Meanwhile, out in the trenches of restaurant-going, the decorum situation grows dire. The phone is at the ready; placing it facedown is the height of politesse. First dates respond automatically to a vibration or a beep mid-sentence, a social crutch that makes nervously drinking too much seem quaint. Whole tables full of friends take timeouts to enter their own digital worlds, oblivious to a server standing there who’d really, really like to serve.

Anderson-Sanford speaks of proper etiquette as a “bubble,” from inside which one may engage with others without ever giving offense. Those out on dates would customarily show how marvelous they were from inside their bubble, then gently bump it up against the other person’s bubble, with the eventual, consensual goal of bubble-joining, converting the shared dinner and drinks into a shared breakfast the next morning.

This intersection of food, manners and would-be relationships is fraught nowadays in shockingly basic ways. My colleague Tan Vinh, who spends a lot of time at bars (and covers cocktails for The Seattle Times), sees things that are jaw-dropping. The guy talking with his mouth full and fully spraying food onto the shoulder of his companion’s sweater. The guy reaching over to grab French fries off his companion’s plate, his date clearly taken aback, but, having been better raised than he, sacrificing the fries without protest. (“He dipped them in ketchup, even,” Vinh reports. “I guess that’s why he’s still single.”)

Another date Vinh witnessed at an upscale Capitol Hill cocktail lounge (we’ll leave all these places nameless — it’s not their fault) ended with the man just leaving while the woman was in the restroom, an extreme version of the practice that’s now common enough to be known as ghosting. Good manners are meant in part to save us from confusion and shame, to outline how we may treat each other with decency and a modicum of respect; imagine this woman’s mortification. It would be bad manners to wish that the man got hit by a car on his way out, but our dark thoughts may be kept to ourselves.

El Gaucho’s etiquette specialist Cortney Anderson-Sanford. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
El Gaucho’s etiquette specialist Cortney Anderson-Sanford. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

While it seems that the faux pas are weighted at one end of the gender spectrum, women are also out there being remarkably un-self-aware. I’ve also been proximate to two different groups of girls’ nights out who gathered for feeding purposes at the outset of their evenings recently, none of whom seemed to have the slightest idea of how very loud their shrieking enjoyment of themselves was. El Gaucho’s expert Anderson-Sanford says problems of this nature — say, someone quacking incessantly on their cell at the next table — should be quietly relayed to the staff so that they may alert the offending party, who will then presumably modify their behavior. This, however, seems like a large leap of faith.

I could go on, and you probably could too. Maybe Anderson-Sanford will undertake a remedial revolution of etiquette that will somehow miraculously find its audience. Meanwhile, the fabric of society wears thinner and thinner — I caught myself putting my phone on the table not long ago (face down, but still). At a friend’s dinner out on New Year’s Eve, a man showed up for the $195 prix fixe wearing a T-shirt and sweats. My friend reported that the attire in question was clearly high-end, and that as such, it was “kind of baller,” and that the man also ordered the very expensive wine pairings (another $145).

It’s true, when you’re rich, you can do almost whatever you want to do (except at Canlis; they still have a dress code). But life will be more enjoyable for us all if part of the social contract continues to be that a difference between dining in and dining out is real pants.