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Winning the Restaurant Game
by Jay Jacobs

(McGraw-Hill, 1980, 198 pages)

Jay JacobsWinning the Restaurant Game has been an incredibly valuable asset to me over the years. It was published in January 1980; I purchased my copy in April of that same year; and it has retained a prominent place on my bookshelf – well-thumbed and lovingly & copiously underlined – for the past thirty-three plus years.

Jay Jacobs, who passed away in October 2008 at the age of 86, was the restaurant reviewer for Gourmet magazine from 1972 to 1986. In the early ‘70s, Gourmet’s ground rules for restaurant reviews prohibited negative criticism… But Mr. Jacobs still managed to get his well-aimed swipes in; and the magazine – and the reader – were far richer for his erudition, rapier-like wit, and delightfully humorous use of language.

Winning the Restaurant Game is Jay Jacobs at his amusing best. To wit: “In 1782, while the American Colonies were still struggling to rid themselves of the yoke of British oppression, a Parisian named Beauvilliers devised a form of bedevilment with which most American still haven’t learned to cope: He opened the first true restaurant… The average American restaurant-goer considers himself lucky if he manages to pacify his hunger pangs Chez So-and-So without making an utter ass of himself… Often a commanding presence on his own turf, he is the quintessential nebbish at table. Bullied by popinjays he wouldn’t allow in his club, cowering in some obscure corner (usually within earshot of the kitchen or nose-shot of the lavatory) of a world he never made, he offers up a silent prayer: Just let me get fed and the hell out of here.”

According to Mr. Jacobs, while Americans are dining out in ever-increasing numbers in 1980 (today, the average U.S. adult eats 4.8 meals per week in a restaurant) not only are they not realizing a reasonable return on their investments, they are also deriving little real enjoyment from an activity that numbers among life’s more pleasurable experiences. “According to Brillat-Savarin’s best-known aphorism, beasts feed and men eat, but only the man of intellect knows how to eat. To judge by the caliber of eating observable wherever Americans dine out, there are precious few intellectuals at large among us.”

Singly or in combination, Mr. Jacobs notes, five stimuli impel us to restaurants: Pleasure, Prestige, Profit, Obligation, Seduction… But whatever your purpose, or amalgam thereof, your efforts are unlikely to succeed if you end up making a fool of yourself at table. However, the author notes, a simple familiarity with the rules of the “Restaurant Game” can easily turn you into a winner.

All of this, of course, may seem like just so much fluff and nonsense… and there is no question that, upon occasion, Mr. Jacobs does seem to have his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek – but only occasionally. On the other hand, there is a great deal of valuable information here that, if anything, is even more relevant in today’s modern restaurant world than it was three plus decades ago. If you enjoy dining out, you will not only find this book immensely informative, but also incredibly entertaining and, more often than not, downright hilarious. Mr. Jacobs’ way with words bordered upon semantic sorcery. The chapters in the first part of the book, “The Rules of the Game,” acquaint readers with certain tactics & strategies and restaurant structure & personnel. Of particular note is the chapter on “Infighting,” which takes the reader through the complete restaurant experience, from the making of reservations to the payment of the check and beyond, offering tasty tidbits of advice along the way.

RE: Cocktails & Aperitifs – “Short of inflicting measurable brain damage on oneself, there is nothing reprehensible about taking strong waters as a prelude to a meal, the precious carping of prigs notwithstanding.”

RE: Ordering Fish – “The establishment that stocks every known edible species from albacore to yellowtail is either none too particular about freshness or massively committed to cryogenics as a means of cutting its losses.”

RE: Lackeys – “Unless one is, or bears a striking resemblance to, a major charitable foundation, a homicidal maniac, Niagara Falls or Sophia Loren, engaging the attention of a wanted lackey is a notoriously tiresome procedure in most restaurants. Like the proverbial cop on the beat, the waiter is never around when he’s needed.”

RE: Settling Up – “The player who waits until the presentation of the check to ask ‘Uh, do you take Bank Afghanistan cards?’ is a loser. The winning player makes it his business to know in advance which cards are honored at a given establishment.”

The chapters in the second part of the book, “Breaking the Language Barrier,” should be especially helpful to restaurant goers, as they explore the meaning and proper pronunciation of frequently used menu & kitchen terms in French, Italian, and a host of other world cuisines. The final chapter, “The Grapes of Wrath,” elucidates the mysteries of wine procedures and wine terms.

Like all that has preceded, these chapters are also punctuated with Mr. Jacob’s outrageous wit and linguistic high jinks. A few gems…

Aïoli (aye-oh-lee): “The garlic mayonnaise of Provence, or any dish in which it figures heavily. Aïoli never figures lightly and its ingestion as a prelude to anything more intimate than a long-distance phone call is not recommended unless the party of the second part shares your perversion.”

Alfredo, fettucine: “An enormously popular dish since its introduction to Americans, and one that has done more than any other to wean losers away from spaghetti and meatballs – a dish unknown in Italy.”

Book CoverA Few General (Wine) Principles: “The player who orders a wine not by its name but its number on the list is a loser… Champagne’s virtues as an aphrodisiac may be altogether psychosomatic but that’s no reason for discounting them… ‘Chinese’ wines are usually Algerian, sixth-rate, and unsuited to Chinese dishes… All wines are unsuited to Chinese dishes, except for a few authentic Chinese rice wines, which are unsuited for human consumption.” If you enjoy dining out, I highly recommend Winning the Restaurant Game. Both informative and entertaining, it is the definitive guide for fun-loving restaurant goers.

Jay Jacobs’ WINNING THE RESTAURANT GAME (McGraw-Hill, 1980, 198 pages) is available from www.amazon.com in both hardcover and paperback editions.

November 2013
The Artful Diner

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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