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A Profession of Discretion

July 21, 2006
Restaurant owners and employees surely must be the most discreet of professionals. Without the physician/patient oath or the attorney/client privilege or the priest/confessor confidentiality, what happens in restaurants generally stays in restaurants (paraphrasing the apt, new Las Vegas promotional piece.)  Restaurateurs are inherently people-pleasing people or they could not remain in the business.  In fact, pleasing people and giving to others is often the raison d’etre of the decision to go into the hospitality business.  Accommodating the desires and demands of a fickle public can be draining but the rewards can be ever so rewarding.

The secrets of the rich, the famous, the infamous, the anonymous, the prominent, the regulars, the irregulars, the locals and the tourists are well kept within the confines of the hosting establishment.  Restaurant owners and workers understand the value of providing hospitality and the intrinsic value of providing discreet venues in which to enjoy that hospitality.  The well-known maitre d’s, hosts and hostesses (the orchestra conductors of the symphony that is restaurant dining in the theatres that are restaurants) throughout history have walked a fine line just fine in knowing where to seat whom, whom to introduce to whom, whom to encourage, whom to discourage, all the while maintaining discreet discretion.

As mentioned in my August Beverage Journal column, there was even a song in the 1913 Broadway production of the Follies Bergere about Rector’s, an extremely successful New York City restaurant. Entitled, “If a Table at Rector’s Could Talk.” Well, we can all just imagine what that table would but never did say.  Unfortunately, the table at Rector’s had to stop listening to the fun times since Prohibition necessitated the closing of that surely magical restaurant. 

In an insightful article in the Sunday, January 4, 2004 New York Times, “Waiting to Inhale,” by Michael Brick, it appears that the smoking prohibition is engendering the same type of lawlessness as precipitated by the attempt to ban alcohol. “Quietly, and without the contraptions or planning of Prohibition, the cigarette smokers of New York have created their own modern rendition of the speakeasy, where their outlawed pleasure can be enjoyed once more.  After a certain point, when only those well-known customers remain, the bartender, who has long since forsworn smoking and drinking, will sometimes lock the door.  And all who remain know the significance of the turning of the bolt,” an example of lips sealed by an accommodating hospitalian.

And speaking of lips and bans, another wonderful article on the absurdities of the attempted smoking bans also from January 4, this one in The Washington Post is entitled, “The Habit In Our Head” by neurologist and neuropsychiatrist, Richard Restak.  Dr. Restak states, “The simple truth is that smoking will always be with us, because it satisfies something in our brains.  And try as we might, and legislate as we might, we cannot free ourselves from our physiology.  For centuries, smoking has persisted despite unbelievably harsh efforts to eliminate it.  A case in point: In 17th-century Russia, the punishments included slitting the smoker’s lips, flogging, castration and (for the lucky ones) exile. And yet as anyone who’s been to Moscow lately knows, Russians did not forsake tobacco.”  Castration?  Hell of a way to promote smoking cessation and it still did not work.

Ignoring the segue, even some of the posturing Puritanical politicians of all jurisdictions are wont to behave in a relaxed, uninhibited manner while dining, possibly imbibing and God forbid smoking in one of our homes of hospitality.  God Bless them for exercising their God given right to enjoy daily life and God Bless the hospitalians who understand that discretion is the better part of valor. Restaurants, bars, nightclubs and taverns are centers of relaxation, conversation, democratization and socialization and should never be the source of canard or reputation debasement.

In our Nation’s Capital the situation is even more acute. For we have national-stage policy makers dining, maybe drinking, maybe smoking, maybe partying, no big deal. However, our area also has beaucoup media hounds and nannies breathlessly lurking, attempting to expose any newsworthy personage in any corner.  Fortunately metropolitan DC also has national-stage restaurateurs wisely monitoring their domains, never divulging their client’s hopefully, fun-loving ways and possible foibles.  Not that the behavior is necessarily untoward but in our culture a photo or publicity of an unsuspecting drinker or smoker could be devastating to some careers.

An Old New Orleans saying is to “drop a nickel,” meaning to dish a bit negatively about someone.  It is the rare hospitalian that dishes on their customers, instead adhering to an unwritten badge of discretionary honor.  Bonds of trust exist and are held as tightly as those aforementioned legal bonds by the honorable members of our honorable hospitality industry.  Hopefully 17th-century Russian hospitalians never divulged who was smoking since a slip of the tongue could result in a slit of the lips or even worse!!!