"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Demise of Room Service

Jacob Tomsky, a former employee of the hospitality industry, writes (New York Times 6.10.13) that the New York Hilton Midtown, the city’s biggest hotel, is discontinuing room service.  It makes no sense, argue Hilton executives, since take-out has expanded far beyond greasy Egg Foo Yung and now includes gourmet dishes from every continent.  A quick check on Yelp or Urban Spoon to find out what’s nearby, a flip through the e-menu, a few clicks, and soon you are sitting down to a savory chicken vindaloo, fatty tuna, or bulgogi.

I, for one, will lament the passing of the rolling room service tables, white linen table cloths, polished silver, and single red roses.  I will miss the flourish of the waiter as he lifted the shiny, domed lids off each plate, displaying with élan and flourish the simple, but mouthwatering staples of the hotel kitchen.  I loved the theatre of room service as much as the food.  I waited for the sound of the creaky cart rattling down the corridor and the knock on the door.  I enjoyed the assembly of the table, and the slight bow of the waiter as I tipped him.  There was always an element of the romantic in room service, something of the single diner alone at an elegant table on the Queen Mary, or at the Lido in Venice; and nothing hermetic, forced, or lonely.

The best room service by far has been at the great hotels of Asia – both the old-style grande dames like the Raffles or the Grand in Calcutta – and the new, super-modern, luxurious and client-attentive hotels like the Mandarin Oriental in Jakarta or the Oberoi in Delhi.  These hotels have many kitchens, first class international chefs, and a variety of Asian and European cuisine.  Why would anyone brave the heat, traffic, and choking pollution of the streets when an elegant meal could be served with style and panache in the room?

I travelled alone on most of my trips to Africa, Asia, and Latin America; and for me room service was not only a Victorian pleasure, but a way to avoid the awkwardness of single dining in big, not-so-elegant hotels.  The sight of a hundred salesmen staring at the ceiling or inspecting the salt shakers was very depressing.  Reading at the table was worse.  It reeked of solitariness and preoccupation and the hard-bitten, defiant resignation of the lonely road warrior.  In my early days I looked at these single outings as an adventure – the beautiful lone diner who might be at the corner table, slight décolleté and a whiff of perfume; but as I got older and travelled more, I became resigned to the overwhelmingly male Lone Rangers, and the crabbed, unhappy looks of the few women who were tired fending off advances from Rajiv, Ahmed, or Jose.

There were some exceptions. There were corner tables that overlooked the sea at the old Lagon I in Dakar where one had privacy and a view of the shipping lanes.  The outdoor cafes in Amman were lively and inclusive; and a single diner could join a big table at the kabob places in Old Delhi.

Eating out at lunchtime was a different experience altogether.  In many countries of Africa, the French routine of long, leisurely meals at noon was still respected when I travelled there.  I worked from 8 until noon, then broke for lunch until 3:30.  I would have an aperitif, a three course meal, a bottle of wine, and a digestif at the Dagorne; or fresh lobster, a crisp Sancerre, and a swim in the pool of the Teranga.  I ate fresh hearts of palm, grilled grouper, and a good Argentine rose beachfront restaurants in Copacabana; baked capitaine overlooking the Niger River in Bamako; and filet of sole amandine at a Belgian inn on Lake Tanganyika in Bujumbura. These ‘civilized lunches’ were more than just an acceptable variation of single dining. They were romantic interludes. I could imagine nothing better than dining at a well-set table in the countryside looking up the lush, green mountainside to Kigali; or eating on a bougainvillea-decked terrace watching the hippos in the river beyond. 

It was room service in the evening, however, a retreat to the comfort of the creaky cart, the air conditioning, the comfortable bed, and an early sleep.

Room service saved my life many times.  When I had epic squirts in Islamabad, laid low with fever and vomiting, the trays of fresh lime soda, soft-boiled eggs, tea, and toast were a godsend.  When I thought I was going to lose every drop of my precious bodily fluids in a London hotel, having eaten salmonella-laced eggs in Tbilisi, I was rehydrated and nourished thanks to room service.  When I woke up in my Dhaka hotel room after a drugged, jetlagged sleep, wide awake at 10pm, there was my fish curry, rice, and dhal rattled in on a wobbly cart.

I don’t stay in grand hotels anymore since I gave up my international travels; and the Super 8 or Motel 6 is as good as I need to break up the long trip from DC to Mississippi.  I can’t face the sticky buns, sweet yoghurt, bananas, and rock-hard bagels offered in the lobby and happily tuck in to eggs, grits and bacon down the road; but I do miss the great European airport hotel buffets – smoked salmon, pickled herring, ripened and hard cheeses, caviar, croissants and pain au chocolat, fresh strawberries and mangoes, and good, strong coffee.  A good all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet is worth leaving the room for.

As my old Third World haunts catch up with the rest of the planet, I am sure room service will disappear there too.  I will miss my breakfasts on the balcony at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo overlooking the sea; or even the greasy eggs, strong tea, and buttered toast-and-jam eaten above the goats and washing up in the courtyard of the Shreyas Hotel in Poona; but I am back to being a real American now eating diner food on the run, take-out, and bar fare.  I was lucky to travel when I did, on the cusp of the colonial period when old pukka traditions were still respected; when the great British hotels still served in the old way; and when French ex-colons still hung out at funky African bars drinking Pernod and ate five-course Sunday meals of lobster, cheese, and oysters flown in from home.

I was also lucky to have eaten room service in its heyday – excellent food, proper presentation, impeccable service – and to have been able to relax in luxury and comfort.

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