Case in point: In France, waiters leave you alone. Many foreigners interpret this as laziness or arrogance, but they're wrong. For the most part, French waiters ignore you because your interaction with the food and your fellow diners is supposed to be more important than your relationship with the staff. The waiter is not your friend. Your dining companion is your friend. And most importantly, no amount of saccharine sweetness from the waiter is going to make up for a sub-par meal.
But beyond this there are other, larger, departures from standard restaurant philosophy at work in France, and in other European countries, too. In fact, we met with one of the most novel of these approaches in Germany, at a restaurant called Perlin, in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin. Though it's technically labeled a wine bar, the classification is misleading on several fronts. To begin, you pay a one euro deposit on your wine glass, which gives you unlimited access to a selection of red and white (albeit German) wines. If you would also like to eat, a fixed two-course meal is available. There are no prices listed for food or wine, instead you are asked to pay what you think the meal was worth after you have finished eating. This is an interesting idea, but must sometimes lead to a little awkwardness for the patrons.
First, it must be said that the wine is totally unremarkable. The food is simple, but well made. The ambiance is nice and the staff friendly and helpful, but you may feel obligated to pay more than you otherwise would because the restaurant is putting so much faith in your generosity. In addition, with liberal access to wine, you're likely to be at least a little drunk by the time the purse strings are loosened, perhaps letting out a few more euros than intended.
In talking to the staff, it appears that customers from more food-oriented countries tend to pay less. It is not hard to imagine people from France, Spain, or Italy being unimpressed with the wine. The selection is similar to what you might find at a budget brasserie in France, though the mood is closer to chic bistro. Perhaps this is a sleight-of-hand to trick people into parting with their money in a competitive restaurant environment?
Instead of offering a novel payment system, the Parisien bistro Ober-Salé focuses on the food. With only one chef (Stéphane Corcessin) and one waitress, and thirty seats (seats, not tables), this isn't hard to do. A veteran of other well-regarded bistros (Villaret, Bristol), the owner-chef is alone in the kitchen, and it shows. Lacking the delegation of duties of multi-person kitchens, every dish at Ober-Salé is fabricated from start to finish by one very skilled, technically adept chef with a very real monetary stake in the satisfaction of the clientele.
The food is stunning without being pretentious. Flavors are refined, and they harmonize perfectly without being muddy. The presentation is delightful without being overly artsy or minimalistic. Artichoke soup with poached egg evokes the very essence of the artichoke. Having cooked both baby and full-size artichokes, I still can't imagine how much labor went into producing this dish to obtain a flavor that an artichoke itself dreams of.
Your local cafe's spinach-artichoke dip, this is not.
Overcoming the battle between food-obsessed chef and tight-fisted owner is no small task -- imagine the stress involved when they are one and the same! Let's hope that trying to do double duty never begins to detract from the delightful flavors constantly coming out of his kitchen.
Ober-Salé was the site of my second food-epiphany, changing the conception of what food can be and extending the limits of what is possible. The first, not surprisingly, was also in Paris, at the now closed (and soon to be reopened elsewhere in Paris) Un Drôle d'Endroit Pour Une Rencontre (trans: "A funny place for an encounter").