As Adam Gopnik points out in his absorbing new book The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, cooking has changed radically over the last 200 years, but service standards have remained remarkably constant. While their uniforms have changed, servers today still come and go from the table in rhythms pioneered by their 18th-century predecessors; still stay mostly mute on the subject of money; and still strive to flatter their customers' egos.
Frequent diners may quibble over whether it's better service to remove a plate when a diner pushes it away or delay clearing until his tablemates have finished eating, but the broad parameters of good service are clearly defined. When a server sloshes soup on a guest or refuses to honor an appetizer request, I know that's a service error.
Bar etiquette is considerably less evolved, as I discovered while reviewing Canon, Jamie Bodreau's new whiskey-and-bitters temple. Like many serious cocktail bars, Canon has formalized its bartender's choice program, putting a $10 "shrouded roulette" on its menu. "Tell us your base spirit and we'll create the mystery," the description explains.
Well, that sounds like fun. But as I twice tried my luck, I realized I wasn't sure what constitutes good service in the bartender's choice arena.
Bartenders can take one of two approaches when concocting an off-menu cocktail: They can lean on one trusted recipe, or they can cross their fingers and start pouring pell-mell. (I've also encountered bartenders who present classic cocktails such as Manhattans or Sazeracs as "bartender's choice," a conceptual corruption about which nothing more needs to be said.) I would assume that in both scenarios, the bartender would have a pretty good idea of what he put in the drink, either because he'd made it many times before or because he was honestly curious whether Chartreuse and hemp bitters were worth combining.
But, as I wrote in my review, a Canon bartender had no clue what he'd put in a rum-based roulette when we prompted our server to ask. That confounded me, since I can't fathom forgetting what I did at work mere minutes ago. I clearly remember the phone interview I just finished, and could probably quote back the last six or seven e-mails I've sent.
I didn't love the rum drink, so I wasn't terribly disappointed I wouldn't be able to reproduce it at home, but would have liked to better understand the cocktail's flavors. So did Canon come up short when it failed to provide me with an overview of my drink's ingredients? Should its bartender have been inquisitive about my likes and dislikes, or paused before sending out a cocktail that teetered on the edge of unpalatable? I don't know. The bartender's choice rules haven't been written yet. What's most exciting about Canon is it seems like a bar where those rules could be ratified, and universally-accepted cocktail service standards set.