The Everyday Indignity of Dining Out

This article was featured in the One Story to Read Today newsletter. Sign up for it here.

Like anyone who has ever navigated a high-school cafeteria, I can instantly clock the merits and demerits of a given restaurant table. Is it tucked into a sad corner for the socially dispossessed? Should I be proud of where I’ve been seated, accept it grudgingly, or make a play for something better? I perform this silent psychodrama in the desperate moments as the host walks me over, while there’s still time to object—the kind of neurotic calculus that Larry David understands deeply and pays tribute to in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm titled “The Ugly Section.”

As its title implies, the possible existence of a “hot or not” policy for the sorting of restaurant patrons is the central plot of “The Ugly Section.” Larry—who created Curb and stars as its lightly fictionalized antihero—visits a voguish “kitchen • bar • market” called Tiato in various social combinations, attempting to get a seat among the attractive people near the windows. Even a good-looking date doesn’t sway the smug maître d’, played by an extra-punchable Nick Kroll, who consigns both her and Larry to the ugly section when he realizes they’re together. At one point, Larry yells, echoing the anguish of many a diner, “How did I wind up here?” Meanwhile, the episode’s other storylines include a death by suicide and a robbery at gunpoint—dramatic developments that in any other show would be the main event.

Lovers of Curb, currently in its 12th and final season, have followed Larry’s dogged inquiry into all kinds of social customs; he spends much of the show questing after a brand of democratic fairness in interpersonal situations that often (and not coincidentally) ends up with him on top. But no custom has received the attention he devotes to the experience of eating out. Curb revolves around an endless succession of places to break bread: diners and coffee shops, Brentwood trattorias and quick-serve sushi spots, at least one saloon. Respect for a life spent at a table with friends forms the basis of Curb’s broad appeal, sweetening a show whose instincts run bitter and occasionally validating Larry as the champion of the common man he imagines himself to be.

The classic Curb episode mixes tart, outlandish, and sometimes disturbing scenarios with plenty of restaurant hijinks. But these dining scenes are never treated as simple interludes. That stands in contrast to other ensemble comedies, which tend to use bars and bistros as natural, neutral spaces where dialogue can flow unhampered: think MacLaren’s Pub (How I Met Your Mother), Central Perk (Friends), or Monk’s Café (Seinfeld). Those sets may inform the plot, but they’re background art—fixed way stations that help us digest the real stories of an episode.

By contrast, the drama David is most interested in unfolds across a cluttered table, reflecting a shared reality with the show’s audience. Restaurants are essential to Curb because they are essential to its viewers: We, too, suffer weekly indignities at work or at home (or on our commutes), and then make a reservation to debate and discuss them. “Most modern urban people mark their lives by their moments in cafés and restaurants, just as ancient people marked their time on earth by visits to the local oracle, or medieval people by pilgrimages,” Adam Gopnik wrote in his 2011 book The Table Comes First. For Larry, a secular Jew who goes to temple only reluctantly, dining out is spiritually restorative. And, like the rituals observed by sports fans or book clubs, its conventions can be as meaningful as the underlying meal.

Certain motifs recur nearly every season of Curb: run-ins with staff, who invariably pop up to place bureaucratic limits on Larry’s pursuit of happiness; skirmishes about who pays the bill; the politics of which friends to invite. These incidents skew petty, much like the show itself, but matters of great consequence happen too. In “Lewis Needs a Kidney,” Jeff, Larry’s close friend and manager, tells Larry in the parking lot of a Jack in the Box about the health issues of their mutual friend, the comedian Richard Lewis; Richard himself slyly solicits one of Larry’s kidneys over lunch. In “The Black Swan,” Larry’s cousin, Andy, played by Richard Kind, orders his onions well done at a golf-club dining room, initiating a causal chain of events that results in the death of the titular swan and, possibly, a fellow club member.

Every once in a while, a restaurant will provoke the kind of soul-searching Larry refuses to do elsewhere. The deliciousness of a chicken dish at a Palestinian restaurant entices Larry into a new community that applauds his abrasive tendencies toward other Jews, and allows him to meet Shara, who rewards him with “the best sex [he’s] ever had.” When the restaurant opens a second branch next to a Jewish deli, it draws protesters and counterprotesters: Larry’s friends on one side, his appetites on the other. The episode ends with Larry stuck in the middle of warring factions—and between his own split impulses—unable to decide which people are truly his.

Again and again, the rituals of dining out insinuate themselves into Larry’s life. The show makes a feast of these themes in Season 3, when Larry invests in a new restaurant and tries to bring a “first principles” approach to the perfect dining environment, litigating every trivial feature—down to the urinal splash guards. In his book, Gopnik notes that the restaurant, which dates back to the decades before the French Revolution, is one of the oldest examples of the kind of private-public institution that came to dominate modernity. This makes it the ideal petri dish for Larry’s social experiments, which have everything to do with how people should conduct themselves in a shared world. Ironically, the food itself is rarely addressed. (Even the selection of a chef comes down to other criteria: Larry hires a bald applicant out of camaraderie, then fires him when he discovers that the man wears a toupee.) When Cheryl, Larry’s then-wife, asks him why he wants to back a restaurant in the first place, he speaks for the many who have indulged in this particular daydream: “You know, we could hang out there.”

It’s a relatable feeling: Despite Larry’s centimillionaire status and celebrity stature, his desires are refreshingly ordinary. He wants what most people want—good company, good conversation, a spot near the window—and he is sometimes stymied, sometimes successful. (At the end of “The Ugly Section,” Larry gets the table he craves through some old-fashioned favor-trading.) Curb treats eating out as a lifelong pursuit that resists mastery and rewards strong ties. It celebrates the thrill of minor victories: a well-delivered anecdote, a sweater that wins compliments. The show will be remembered for its forensic send-ups of social norms, but its lasting message is that wherever we sit, we’re all human. Even Larry David.

The Atlantic