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Perfect!

7-Biggest_Burger_2I belong to a generation that ate in restaurants only on special occasions. You know: Mom’s birthday. Or after visiting Grandma in the hospital. Or maybe in the airport restaurant, the one with the white linen tablecloths, when we went to fetch someone who was actually flying into town to visit us. So there wasn’t a foodie culture, much less a running dialogue on the language of menus or waiter-speak.

Today, while I find much of the observations about the language of restaurants fascinating—I can no longer regard a description of a “fresh” item without calculating the venue’s place in the pecking order of eating establishments—the tone of the commentary gets a little wearying. Doesn’t it? Enough with the complaining about typos in menus. Enough with the whining about the ways in which those who wait upon us (and no, I do not care if they are called waiters, waitresses, waitrons, or servers) say you’re welcome. These people are trying to serve us food, and for the most part, they’re not getting paid enough to do it, and with the lousy system of tipping in this country, they are continually trying to “read” the customer and angle for the best approach to coax a livable wage supplement out of the stranger at the table.

So when I wonder whence arose the response of “Perfect” to a customer’s order, I do not mean to snark. Rather, I’m trying to recall what waiters used to say and puzzle out why the response has changed.

I’m not sure they used to say anything. Much depends on the establishment, of course. But for the sake of longitudinal study, let’s imagine a high-end hamburger place. In my memory, the response to a person’s food order in this sort of establishment—any establishment, really, was the quick series of gestures following Billy Crystal’s request for the Number Three in When Harry Met Sally: a nod, a smile, a turn to the next customer with eyebrows raised expectantly:

The server was not expected to make a comment on the food order; in fact, it seemed such comment was studiously avoided, as if it would be in poor taste to suggest that the customer had chosen an item that would be preferable to another item on the menu, as if all items on the menu were not equally preferable.

When someone taking a food order did respond, it was more along the lines of the waiter responding to Terry Crews’s nervous, insecure order of champagne and oysters in White Girls with “Very good, sir”:

In fact, I begin to suspect, the more unsure the patron, the more reassuring—and quickly conclusive—the language of the serving staff, at least back in the day. Thus you have Jerry Lewis’s bewildered character in Cracking Up, confronted by an endless array of salads from which to choose, saying hesitantly, “Watercress is the, uh … ” and the waitress responding quickly, “Watercress it is. Good choice. You got it”:

Which brings us to “Perfect.” Menus have evolved faster than most of our abilities to comprehend them. Among the many features on the menu of my local high-end burger joint are Romesco aioli, Comtè cheese, cilantro crema, truffled mushroom spread, housemade kimchi, a quinoa-sunflower burger, and Elemakule Tiki Bitters. Sometimes we ask about things. Other times we simply plunge. We get tired of having frisée defined for us again; we knew what frisée was, we just forgot. Or we forgot what edamame was, or pepperoncini. So we go ahead and order. But I strongly suspect there’s an anxious wrinkle on our brow, a hint of worry very different from the high command of, say, Jack Nicholson’s order of the chickenless chicken sandwich in Five Easy Pieces.

And what does our server want? She wants a tip. She needs a tip. Which means she needs for us to feel we have not just communicated our wishes (Very good, sir) or received her approval (Good choice), but set everything in order. Perfect! I don’t believe the response—irritating as it may be to bloggers like the comedian Ken Levine—has anything to do with the wisdom of one’s dining choice. No one’s recommending the Fatty Melt, or whatever it was you ordered. No, we are saying you’re perfect. You’re perfectly OK. As your friend will be, when she finishes ordering. Now sit back. Sip your beer. And remember: Restaurants may not be perfect. But they’re better, by far, than they used to be.

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