I decided to break up with a restaurant this week, but they don’t know it. They may never know it, because I am only one of their many partners (note to people reading this who are my friends who have restaurants — it isn’t you). We — this restaurant and I — are in a polyamorous relationship, which means that we are both okay with having multiple partners, and if we break up with each other we still have others to love. I refer to my adoration to the multiple eating establishments within a three mile radius of my house as Big Restaurant Love. The ones I love the most are ones where I like what they cook, I like how it feels to be in their presence, and they like having me there (or they pretend really well). Setting aside the problematic analogy of an economic exchange with a relational one, the big picture here reveals that they are in more relationships than with just me, and I am in more relationships than with just them.
But I can’t quite say that our relationship roles are the same. Because I am mortal, I participate in Restaurant Serial Monogamy, which is an academic term that means I am physically present in at most one restaurant at a time. But they get to have multiple partners in their presence at the same time.
In the case of my recent restaurant break-up, I thought about leaving a post-it note on the table with the phrase “It’s not me, it’s you. We’re through.” But instead I left a tip, I left a smattering of chicken bits, and I left the premises. Besides, I didn’t have any post-its.
So what went wrong? Because I am a card-carrying member of the Clean Plate Club, I did eat most of my food. It cost more than my previous two lunches combined, after all. Plus, I was hungry and the server never returned to ask me how it was until I had tried most of it. Despite eating it, I found the chicken to have the texture of rubber, I wondered whether gray was the new hip color for pico de gallo, and every time I looked at the guacamole, it made me think of a little pile of boogers. And I’ve never even seen a pile of boogers.
Anyway, more than the food texture and aesthetic, the problem at this restaurant was that the food was overpriced, the server seemed mostly annoyed that I was there, and there was no appropriate response to my eventual reasonable complaint (which did not include reference to boogers, by the way — that was just in my head). And it was evidently enough to make me decide I am not going back.
Sometimes when I teach about relationships, I talk about the principle of least interest with my students. This concept can be loosely defined to mean that whoever has less interest in a relationship actually has more power because they can afford to leave. While this grossly oversimplifies relationship struggles, removes all semblance of romance from intimate relationships, and is technically grammatically incorrect (it should be the principle of less interest, at least if there are two partners), there is something to this.
Let’s pretend for a minute that breaking up with a restaurant requires the same consideration as breaking up with a person. In the deliberation of either, you can wonder what criteria should be used to decide a break-up is in order. If it’s a short-term relationship, it’s easier — the other party hardly knew ye. If you’ve become a loyal customer and then figure out you hate the place, you may turn that seething hatred that grows over time into a decision to give a long passionate speech at an opportune moment and storm out the door. “This is the last time you forget the paprika on my Eggs Benedict! I’m through with you!”
The moment of truth for a restaurant comes when there are too many people with the least interest. The moment of truth for the patron is when she realizes that her angry departure will have little to no effect on their well-being.
I was a waitress for half of one shift at a steak and eggs joint in 1991, so I know how hard it is to work in a restaurant and establish high quality relationships with customers. Okay, I don’t, but I do leave generous tips. It only takes me about 90 minutes to establish empathy for any given occupation if I try it. (note to self: write blog post about how mosquito bites make it particularly difficult to have a job that consists of evening neighborhood canvasing for an environmental organization in 99% humidity, a job which I held for 90 minutes).
In the town of 5,000 people where I grew up, we customers had a lot to lose by disliking a restaurant. Since there were so few, disliking one meant removing huge degrees of freedom for our weekend nights. But where I live now and with the resources I now have, I live the luxurious life of restaurant choice, which means I have the privilege to pick and choose. And I can go to multiple places in one week and they don’t even question my loyalty!
But then again, if I never come back to some of these “choice” places, they may not notice. So, who has more or less interest now?
I’ll tell you who has the least interest in my well-being — the one who decides that a pile of boogers can pass for guacamole.