Why We Love Restaurants That Hate Us

Rachel Tepper Paley
March 28, 2014

Photo credit: Flickr/yurilong

Would you like a side of abuse with your fries? It’s all part of the shtick at countless restaurants across the United States, where the disgruntled waitstaff has no patience for you and service is surly as a matter of course.

At Weiners Circle in Chicago, the staff is foul-mouthed (lots of F-bombs flying) and fights sometimes break out. Also in Chicago is Ed Debevic’s, where the ethos is best summed up as “eat and get out.” (It’s also, in case you forget, plastered on the wall.) To say the brusque staffs at Shopsin’s in New York City and Pat’s King of Steaks in Philadelphia are touchy is an understatement. A seemingly innocent misstep—such as  asking for a different table or not ordering fast enough—could get you the boot.

And of course, the phrase “no soup for you” needs no introduction. (But we’ll give you one, anyway: those words were famously spoken by “Seinfeld“‘s tyrannical ”soup nazi.”)

Why do people return to these establishments (or enjoy watching them on TV) in the face of such treatment? Is the food so gobsmackingly good that we’re willing to endure any manner of meanness just to get at it?

“[C.F. Folks’] food is so good they don’t have to be nice to customers,” one person who has dined there to us, referring to the gruff Washington, D.C. luncheonette that last year won an America’s Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation. “They will always have business!”

Surely this can’t be the case with every rude restaurant. Plenty establishments famed for their churlish, impatient service offer up fare similar to that at friendlier restaurants. (C.F. Folks’ owner Art Carlson doesn’t think the food is all that special anyway; he once admitted to The Washington Post that the “beauty of being an American classic is that you don’t have to produce very good food.”)

So something else is at play.

"[At] Weiner’s Circle, it’s funny drunken times, and they’re in on the joke," offered one fan, which might explain this video.

“Shopsin’s is great because they are truly funny. And they only pretend to be rude to discourage the kind of clientele that doesn’t appreciate New York honesty,” wrote one regular. “My friend asked for soy milk for his coffee and instantly was nicknamed ‘bok choy.’ Seemed only fair.”

But perhaps, on a certain level, we enjoy the abuse. Or rather, we go to these restaurants in the vain hope that, against the odds, we will secure the favor of a glowering waitress or line cook. Isn’t a hard-won acceptance the most validating sort? Or maybe it’s simply the thrill of passing through the griddle fire and coming out the other side unscathed, hot dog in hand.

Psychologist Dr. Carey Heller, who is an assistant clinical professor of clinical psychology at The George Washington University, thinks that most people go for the spectacle. A restaurant experience so outside the norm is part of the draw. “It’s something different, and I think that’s appealing to people … [and] there’s certainly a comedy component.”

But a small number of individuals may have more toxic motivations.

"There are some people, if they have interpersonal issues, it makes them happy to be around people who stir up drama," Heller said. "You may also have people who have low self-esteem, and for them it reinforces things. In a way, they’re putting themselves in a situation where they’re going to be abused."

Adrenaline does make the heart grow fonder. Perhaps even when it really, really shouldn’t.