Ready for another cocktail? You know, that sauvignon blanc will be fine, but for another $20... Yesterday, Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema called out a development in restaurant service that he thinks is becoming too dominant: narrative upselling.
How many times have you heard the question, delivered in a wheedling tone, "Have you eaten here before?" Friendly-enough sounding, but the minute you make the mistake of answering in the negative (and often also when you answer in the affirmative), out flows a torrent of advice, pre-programmed. "This is a restaurant where the dishes are meant to be shared, so we suggest you order at least two or three per person." What the waiter doesn't tell you is that two or three dishes per person is way too much food, and the busboy will be taking half of it away.
The centerpiece of Sietsema's story is a galling sales pitch on a bottle of wine that, had the critic not blocked it, would have bumped up the check $100 more than he was willing to pay.
In SF, narrative upselling is just as rampant as in New York. SFoodie has had meals at high-end bistros where the waiters were more pushy than the women who roll around dim sum carts at Gold Mountain. Who wants to feel like we've spent a night out at the Amway cafeteria? Who enjoys the disapproval of a service person over what they've ordered?
To us, the rise of narrative upselling is a side effect of our insistence that we control how much we tip, instead of paying a flat service fee. Americans like to pretend that our tipping culture gives us a carrot-stick system to reward and punish servers, but the truth is, there's very little variation in what individual tippers dole out but huge variation in how much we spend on food.
Waiters know that selling more food, instead of giving better service, ensures bigger tips. And as one reader pointed out in the comments, managers at some restaurants monitor waiters' sales closely, and write the scripts they expect servers to recite. Dining out these days, means learning how to wield a "no" as comfortably as we do a fork and knife.