Good Taste Or Poor, Grazers Rule Dining

FRIDAY, MAY 3, 1996

I make my living tasting off other people’s plates. When I started reviewing restaurants, one of my concerns was that tasting four appetizers and four main courses would be so noticeable that I’d be instantly unmasked as a critic.

The fear was unfounded. What I’ve discovered is an epidemic of tasting. Everybody does it. So many butter plates circulate around with a little of the chicken with wild mushroom sauce and a bite of the chili-lacquered salmon that the wait staff must get suspicious of those sticking with their own entree.

Not all diners are happy with this state of affairs. In a letter to Ann Landers last month, a woman complained that when she ordered a chocolate dessert, the server brought extra forks and everyone at the table dug in. “I find nothing more annoying than a server who encourages others to eat part of my dessert. I ordered it, I’m paying for it and I’d like to eat it myself,” the letter writer, who signed herself “Contemplating dessert forks as lethal weapons.”

After some years of experience, I’d say this woman is a notetaker, one who keeps tabs on who eats what, who tastes too much and who pays. She has a point, of course, but she also could probably tell you almost to the penny which diner ate how much of her $6 dessert. There are several other categories of tasters I’ve noticed:

Grazers: These are the natural-born tasters, blithely ignoring the notetaker as they decide who else’s food they wished they’d ordered. No sooner do the plates touch the table than the grazer is asking: “Could I have a bite of that? It looks so good.” By the time the dish returns to its owner, all the choicest garnishes and most of the sauce is gone.

Hoarders: Then there’s the opposite type, the territorial sort who gets particularly provoked if a grazer or two is in the party. Doesn’t it always happen that way? Minutes into the meal all the plates are circulating wildly around the table, until they reach a roadblock. The hoarder has hunkered down with arms around his plate. “No,” he wails. “I want to eat it.” Grazers, of course, are wily and persuasive, so his plate, too, begins to circulate. Weeks later, he’s still miffed about those lost bites of wine-braised lamb shank with couscous.

The ravenous: These are the hearty eaters who can barely restrain themselves, fork poised, ready for neighbors to falter. He or she has finished a substantial pork loin and polenta dish minutes ago, mostly by talking with a full mouth. Now, it’s time for the third course - your garlic mashed potatoes. Can anyone resist those hungry eyes?

Dessert freaks: The dainty woman (or man) diner leaves most of the main entree, barely picking at the swordfish and pasta. Comes dessert, and suddenly the diner’s appetite reappears. “Umm, this bananachocolate bread pudding looks good. But then there’s French apple tart with cinnamon ice cream. And what about this triple chocolate cheesecake? Could we try all three?”

One-trick pony: Then there is the diner who, left to his or her own devices, would eat the same dish each and every meal. I have a friend who inhales pasta. Oh, she can talk about all kinds of food, many diverse styles, and knows foie gras and truffles as well as the next diner. But when it comes to ordering, she always asks for the linguine and shellfish. And although she’s a wisp of a thing, getting a taste from her plate is tricky - the pasta’s gone in the wink of an eye.

Ann Landers’ reply to the notetaker revealed her as perhaps a combination of grazer and dessert freak, at least of chocolate, which is an entire subset of its own. Her advice was to put up with the tasting or else order another dessert for the table to taste. Since the notetaker was annoyed at having to pay for a shared dessert in the first place, paying for another would most certainly send her into orbit.

But then a grazer like Ann would probably be oblivious anyway.


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