Those in the restaurant business know “amateur hour” doesn’t refer to an old-time talent show. The term is about the busiest nights — Saturdays, Valentine's Day, New Year Eve, and other holidays — when tables are filled with people who tend to dine out only on weekends and special occasions. It originated with servers and bartenders at high end establishments and it was meant to be derogatory, differentiating the rookies from the regulars. Amateurs, in the opinion of these industry insiders, don’t know how to tip, have pedestrian palates, and always want to substitute this for that to the annoyance of everyone in the kitchen. I think the conceit is snotty and mean, given that these so-called amateurs help keep restaurants in business and staff members gainfully employed. But I suppose a case can be made that it’s rooted in the reality of what these folks deal with on a regular basis.
However, the concept has morphed into something snarkier, a them-versus-us insult adopted by a self-important subset of diners. Apparently they believe that going to a nice restaurant and spending a lot money on a weeknight gives them some kind of bragging rights. In conversation and online these culinary cognoscenti set themselves apart from less savvy and sophisticated customers.
That was apparent in a post titled “When Vulgar Amateur Diners Ruin Dinner.” It was written by Washington City Paper’s assistant managing editor Michael E. Grass. He gets his shorts in a knot about a group of women sitting next to him in a restaurant who are inconsiderately loud. When they also have chocolate martinis with food, their status as rank amateurs is confirmed. It’s a nasty bit of euphemism and reveals more about what's wrong with him than the ladies he labeled.
His attitude of superiority irritated me. I’m a paid eater. But there aren’t many in my line of work anymore. Which makes most everyone else, including Grass, an amateur. And you’ll often find me in a restaurant on Friday or Saturday nights. As a reviewer I want to get a firsthand impression of what it’s like when the dining room is packed and hectic. If a place can deliver a good experience under those conditions, and many do in this town, it’s a measure of overall skill and ability. But I'm also there even if I’m not on the job. Like all you non-professionals, I enjoy going out at the end of a long work week, indulging my taste for good food and drink knowing I don’t have to get up early and get to my desk the next day. I don’t mind being with the amateurs. Actually I’d rather sit beside them than a bunch of foodies snapping pictures of every course with their cell phones, madly texting and tweeting their whereabouts and trying to impress each other by telling stories of the incredible meals they had someplace else. On a Thursday.