Like tails on our prehistoric human forerunners, when it comes to dining out there are certain physiological factors about restaurants that have diminished with evolution, aspects of the culinary experience which seem less prevalent today than in eras gone by.
These restaurant variables may not have disappeared entirely (just like that funny little nub along the lowest part of our backs), but they’re still pretty hard to find these days…
The Maitre d’
Since the mid-19th century, the maitre d’ was the ultimate gatekeeper at the finest restaurants across America. He (and it always was a he) would be the granter of those three magical L’s — location, location, location — if you were lucky or influential enough, that is.
Deign him with kindness (and maybe a greased palm) and he’d score the diner an A-table. For those deemed unworthy, he could just as easily relegate them to the Siberian spot next to the rest room.
Because of corporatization, and thus, the need to expand the responsibilities of the position, this once-lofty post has morphed into the title of Floor Manager. For those few maitre d’s still left, they cling to their refined traditions while adapting to the times, meaning, there’s very little if any air-sniffing indifference that was once associated with the job.
Alive & Well at: The Prime Rib, Philadelphia
The Bus Boy
Once a commonplace position throughout a wide spectrum of establishments — from greasy spoon diners to the finest dining rooms, these days most restaurant owners have either done away with their bus boys, or they never created the position in the first place.
Fortunately, there are still the stalwarts out there who value the benefits stemming from employing people assigned to clear and reset tables. Their wise rationale: if you have someone assisting the server, then it stands to reason the waiter will be able to take on a larger number of tables, which ultimately equates to more tips per shift, and thus, happier employees (and customers) all around
Alive & Well at: The Kimberton Inn
The Rest Room Attendant
This unique position can still be found within a small number of casino and night club bathrooms in our area. For the most part though, the job of mens and ladies room valet at restaurants has almost completely disappeared.
This is certainly not the case along Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. It is there, tucked away in the bottom floor of one of the city’s premier steakhouses where diners can find Johnny Webb. In his “Stall of Fame” as he calls it, Webb lends an unobtrusive hand to his new customers and a legion of regulars alike, everyone from corporate types, mayors (both present and former), sports stars and celebrities.
The man has what you need: dental floss, toothbrushes, tooth paste, mouth wash, toothpicks, combs, brushes, shave kits, colognes, sprays, gels, hand cream, spare cigarettes and lighters – so many sundries and a welcoming smile to match. No wonder it’s why he’s been called “Johnny on the Spot.”
Alive & Well at: Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse
Authentic snapper soup. Meat loaf. Beef pot pie. Rack of lamb.
These are four menu items served perennially at The Old Guard House Inn — since 1979, a true Main Line classic.
While so many other restaurateurs try to stay relevant by shedding their thematic skins every few years, the Inn’s chef/owner Albert Breuers keeps his German/Continental cuisine a constant at this storied Gladwyne old timer.
In an industry where “change is good,” sometimes, so is the ongoing act of remaining the same. Thankfully, as long as Breuers is behind the stove, locals will have their wiener-schnitzel and Dover sole as Continental comfort food.
Also Alive & Well at: Duling-Kurtz House in Exton
There once was a time when gentlemen would dress up to go out to dinner, and the reference here isn’t just those ultra-special occasion places like a cruise ship or the country club. As most retirement-age (and older) individuals can tell you, classy used to be commonplace.
The couture climate in restaurants has certainly relaxed throughout the last decade or so. In fact, if you listened closely a couple years ago, you may have heard the sound of the figurative collapse of Western Civilization when former Le Bec-Fin chef Georges Perrier began allowing gentlemen to dine at his French bastion of haute cuisine wearing sweaters and warm-up suits. (Quelle dommage!)
Today, style remains alive and well at the new Le Bec-Fin, where jackets are now definitely required for men. There, good taste isn’t dead. It’s sporting tweed.
Also Alive & Well at: The Fountain at the Four Seasons
The “Hiya’ Hon’” Greeting
What customer hasn’t heard this only-in-America welcome by a waitress? It’s as much a staple in a deli as kosher pickles; a part of the lexicon of dingy diners as the “Help Wanted” sign taped to the window.
Political correctness has pretty much done away with informal titles like “Sweetie,” “Doll” and “Hon.” Too, most Generation X twenty and thirty-somethings don’t typically use those words. Still, who doesn’t appreciate being called “Hon” by an ancient waitress, especially if those words are followed by “What’ll ya’ have?”
Alive & Well at: Hymie’s Merion Delicatessen
Photos credited to The Old Guard House Inn.