San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, who regularly publishes and responds to reader emails on his blog, last week ran a rant from a diner who’d had an annoying experience while having the tasting menu at Bellanico, a local Italian restaurant. The patron had wanted to add a little salt to his or her vegetables but had quickly run into an obstacle:
Looking around, I noticed there was no salt or pepper at any table. I asked our waitperson for some salt, which was promptly brought. However, on the way out, I inquired as to why there was no salt or pepper on tables. She said that the chef did not think it was necessary.
The reader found this attitude “pretentious,” and Bauer agreed, writing, “I don’t like it. I think it smacks of arrogance.” Predictably, Bauer then got an inboxful from the restaurant’s chef, Jonathan Luce, who wrote, “The reason we removed salt and pepper shakers from our tables at Bellanico was plain and simple: table real estate. Our tables get crowded very quickly with plates, bread plates, wineglasses, and share plates, not too [sic] mention flights of wine.” Luce claimed that while he aims to season every dish well enough that diners won’t need to add extra salt, “taste is subjective,” which is why his restaurant provides sea salt to anyone who requests it.
It’s interesting to compare this debate to the press that Boston Market received a year ago when it announced that it would remove salt shakers from its tables as part of a broader, health-inspired, sodium-reduction initiative. With more than 490 locations, and “family-style meals” that get proportionally cheaper the more people you order for, the fast-casual chain is a far cry from eateries like Bellanico that serve $25 entrees. And though you might think people’s reasons for adding salt to their food (or not) are universal, the rhetoric surrounding Boston Market’s decision had a strikingly different focus from Bauer and Luce’s conversation. Boston Market’s chief executive cited “social responsibility” and a “promise to deliver wholesome food” in an interview with the New York Times last year, and also said, “We are removing the temptation to put salt on food right away without even tasting it.” Never mind that the medical case against salt consumption is hardly ironclad (and that people get only about a tenth of their sodium intake from salt shakers)—Boston Market’s attitude was indisputably paternalistic, ostensibly stemming from a concern for public health. Meanwhile, the back-and-forth between the restaurant critic and the classically trained chef was all about aesthetics, with nary a peep about hypertension.
I personally don’t have a strong feeling about whether restaurants should automatically offer salt—as long as no one gives you a hassle for adding salt to your food, either approach seems defensible. (That said, Luce’s claim that there’s just no room for salt shakers on his tables strikes me as a bit weak: If there’s no space for a salt shaker on your standard four-top, you need bigger tables.) But I do wish there weren’t a double standard in our public debates about salt shakers. Health concerns aren’t exclusively the province of people who eat fast food, nor are taste concerns exclusively the province of people who have the time and money for four-course tasting menus. What’s arrogant isn’t the eschewal of salt shakers—it’s the implicit assumption that people eating at affordable restaurants need to be protected from their own bad dietary decision-making, and that people eating at expensive ones don’t.