Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Will you be taking bread service with us today?"

Bread service at Shaw's Crab House
    "Will you be taking bread service with us today?" asked the maitre d', a young lady I had never seen before.
     My immediate reaction was to burst out laughing, but I manfully suppressed that.
     My college pal Cate and I were in Shaw's Crab House last week, sitting at a small table in the bar, where we have met for lunch for the past ... gee ... several decades. Since the woman offering us "bread service" (where's that term derived from? Table service? Funeral service?) was doodling on her desktop in kindergarten. 
     Shaw's is off my usual round of restaurants. A few blocks too far from the office, and I'd have to walk past Harry Caray's to get there, and why would I do that? Harry's is cheaper, and the food is better, and they somehow manage to retain their staff, thus it's possible to get to know them. I've been going to Shaw's since it opened, but still don't know anybody there and never did, nor do they know me, which takes the blush off a place.
    "Will you be taking bread service with us today?" 
    Maybe its the carbs, Cate suggested, during our immediate post-query analysis of this puff of pomposity. Maybe so many diners are now leaving their bread untouched that it seems a waste to just bring it out then throw it a way
     Pretty to think so. I suspected economy. Bread costs money, money not spent if you don't bring it, just as some restaurants have stopped automatically bringing water, to save themselves the expense of washing the glass. 
     Still. A salad at Shaw's is nineteen bucks. They should just bring the damn bread. "Will you be taking bread service with us today?" while pinning the needle on the orchid-sniffing feyness meter, is only the polite form of "We're withholding your bread basket unless you specifically request it," which is just wrong. What's next? The napkin menu? "Could I interest you in a fine bleached white 300 thread count Egyptian cotton?" 
     I think that's what makes the phrase so noxious. A strange marriage of thrift and pretense. Usually, elegance involves luxury. "Would you care for some caviar?" To try to nudge something that heretofore standard into that camp—"And will you be purchasing full restroom access this evening?"—it becomes a ludicrous insult. 
     What I actually said was, "I was thinking about that bread this morning." Which is true. Always really good bread at Shaw's, though we never had to beg for it before. They brought us a pair of fresh cheese-topped rolls and few flats of crackers topped with some pungent seed, anise or fennel or some such thing, that were quite good.
     Somebody ought to rate downtown restaurants by their bread. Petterino's has the best: a warm glazed Parker House roll, with a slice or two of complicated black Russian bread thrown in. Gene & Georgetti bread is your basic French bread baked that morning at D'Amato's. Cold, a little dry on the outside, which is just as well because you don't want to waste your appetite on bread there anyway. Harry's has an Italian bread, warm, worth the indulgence. They never ask you if you want it. Of course you want it. The challenge is not to order seconds.
     "Will you be taking bread service with us today?" The right answer, I see now, is "I don't know, will you be giving it?"   


  1. Years ago there was a place called The Oak Tree which served a great banana cream pie. After a movie at The Esquire my girlfriend and I decided to indulge. The waitress brought the pie but we had no silverware. We flagged her down and told her of our predicament and she said "Oh, did you want a fork?" My friend answered "No we thought we would just lick it." which sent us into uncontrolled laughter. Your bread story reminded me of that and I smiled again. Thanks Neil.

  2. I don't understand why everyone in the U.S. has celiac disease and avoids bread. When I go to Paris everyone is still carrying their loaf of bread home. They usually are tearing off hunks to eat happily as they walk. Barbara Palmer

  3. A little Italian restaurant we frequent serves a very nice bread which, we were told, comes from a bakery called Casa Nostra. I once got a startled look, and then a laugh when I got my Italian pronouns mixed up and asked if we could have another basket of the Cosa Nostra bread.

    I've probably mentioned this before, but was surprised to find on my first visit to Tuscany, that Tuscan bread has no salt, apparently a custom of long standing, since it is mentioned by Dante. As a practical matter, Italians tend not to eat bread while downing pasta, but use it instead to "fare la scarpetta." The scarpetta is a "little shoe" that walks around the plate sopping up what remains of the sauce. That doesn't explain why only the Tuscans give a pass on salt. I asked an old man once why no salt and he said "because it isn't needed."

    Tom Evans

    1. Half way thru our first trip to Italy, my wife commented, "You know, the Italian bread in Chicago is much better than the bread here."

  4. "A salad at Shaw's is nineteen bucks."

    "Christ, the soup is f*ck*ng ten dollars" -Blues Brothers

  5. In the early 80's I worked at an Italian restaurant in suburban Boston. The waitstaff removed any uneaten bread from the dining tables and threw it into a large bin in the kitchen. We ground that uneaten bread into crumbs for the veal and chicken parmigiana. So now I always lick the bread that I don't eat.

    Also, I heard that in France, they just call french bread "bread."

  6. We went to Sander's Restaurant on Touhy in Skokie a while back. Needless to say, we didn't have to walk past Harry Caray's to get there. ; ) It's a typical Greek diner-type place with the huge menu, soup-to-dessert dinners, etc. Pretty good, I'd say, for what it is, though it's not setting Yelp on fire. The reason I mention it is because of the bread basket (which the waitress brought with no snooty, needle-pinningly fey inquiries first), which had bialys and standard dinner rolls. What I'd never seen before, having gone to many such restaurants over the years, is that they were all individually wrapped in plastic.

    My first thought was "how nice, keeping them nice and pristine in the basket." Followed by "how nice, this probably keeps them fresher as the day wears into night." Before I finally settled on what I've concluded may be the actual rationale for the plastic wrap. "Ah, this thrifty owner's figured out a way to not have to throw out all the rolls that come back from the tables uneaten!"

    BTW, Neil, if you didn't have to PAY for the "bread service," you and your companion are ahead of the game. I understand that that's the trend at the REALLY snooty places, and that's where I figured your post was headed...

  7. My late Godfather, literal not Cosa Nostra, Bob Arp ran restaurants back in the 1970s-'90s: Grover's Oyster Bar, on Irving at Oakley and in Berkely ("Just a lifestyle away from Elmhurst). Charged for bread. Always. Bread cost money, you want it, you buy it. You don't want it, you don't buy it. Patrons were either enraged or bemused. He also said he'd buy a drink at the bar for regulars when Dominick's gave you a bag of groceries for free because you were a regular. It worked while it lasted!

  8. It's even worse at Pret-a-Manger - they won't give you a bag for your $7-9 sandwhich. "Is that for here or to-go?" "It's to-go." "Do you need a bag?" "I don't *need* a bag but I think I'm entitled to one." I've had this exchange more times than I care to think about.


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