A few weeks ago, when I was in New York, I went to Momofuku Ssäm Bar in the Village. You already know what that place is? One of the David Chang restaurants? For $200 and with about a month’s leeway, you can order bo ssäm, a slow-roasted pork shoulder served with a dozen oysters, lettuce leaves for wrapping, rice, two sauces, and kimchi two ways.
If you already knew the answers to my rhetorical questions, you are an insider, and therefore, cool enough. If you did not, you are neither of those things. Already knowing things about restaurants—that is, enough to pose as if you’ve been there when you haven’t—is how you know you’re cool. The key is to walk the line between being cool and being pretentious.
The organizer of my Momofuku experience sent out a preliminary detailed email, to invite his 10 guests (you must have a minimum of six people for this huge hunk-o- pig). He sent another note about a week before the event to tell us we had to all be there before we would be seated, and that if we were 15 minutes late our reservation would be forfeited, and they would only take four debit cards on the check, so please bring cash. He had to give his credit card to even make the reservation.
I had to tease him a bit about what color I should wear and if we would be allowed to use real names. But, the restaurant itself was unpretentious, and the meal more than lived up to its hype. Though I did find it interesting that many people, Philadelphians and New Yorkers alike, knew all of these Momofuku rules and even knew that the really-in-the-know go directly across the street to Milk Bar (also part of Chang’s empire) for “Crack Pie.” For the most part, these people were not even “foodies.” Is this another thing we can blame the Internet for? Leaking insider knowledge? (Wait. It became uncool to be called a hipster once hipsters could be easily labeled and there were just too many of them. Has the same thing happened to foodies?)
About a month ago, we went to Osteria for the first time. Gasp. Yes, it was my first time; there has to be a first time. When I needed to go to the bathroom, I was pointed the way. The “way” seemed way too “in the kitchen”—I was the only one walking through who was not an employee, and with each step, I was more sure that I shouldn’t be there.
When I got to the end of a short hall, a young woman in a pleated skirt, standing with her hands folded behind her back, stood outside the doorway to a very dim room. I could see four more doors. I assumed I was in the right place, and that those four doors led to bathrooms, but I asked her anyway and she confirmed. I also assumed she was an employee and was going to guide me through the next step of this journey, and yes, I just wanted to pee. When a man finished and came out of one of the doors, I assumed Pleated Skirt was going to turn to me and say, ”Number 3,” and direct me to the right door, in a slightly hushed, but efficient voice. She didn’t. She just went in door three herself.
She didn’t work there, and I was embarrassed, but also incredulous. How would anyone who had never been there know that all four unlit, unmarked doors are unisex bathrooms? I could not have done advance research and found that info on the Internet.
If Pleated Skirt hadn’t been standing there to answer my question, I would’ve plundered right in and tried door knobs, or more likely turned around and asked an employee where the bathroom was.
Because I’m not that afraid of asking. Sure, I used to be intimidated in places, try to act like I knew what I was doing when I didn’t, but several things have happened. I’ve gotten a lot older and therefore give far less of a fuck what others think of me. But I’m not so old that I cannot remember what my friend Carolyn Schlitt told me when I was in graduate school. I talked about being intimidated by the Banana Republic on Walnut and said that I didn’t like going there unless I was dressed well. She locked eyes with me, and spoke very calmly, saying, “Kathy. Just think this when you walk in and the clerks give you snarky looks: You work in retail.”
Her advice has helped me immensely, so now I am merely aggravated, not intimidated, when the hostesses at Village Whiskey act not only like they are doing a favor by seating you, but that they are put out by it.
I’m young enough that I can remember , very clearly, getting served in bars when I was underage, pretending I knew what “well drinks” meant; I can even remember pretending I knew what the other eighth-grade girls meant when they talked about grinding, what the boys meant when they talked about pearl necklaces.
I will admit that I sometimes feign knowledge now, and may have, on one or two occasions, have fake-texted a la Charlize Theron in Young Adult. But mostly, I’m not afraid of asking. I’m just afraid of getting back the answer, “Google it.”