Lately I have noticed a recent and disturbing trend amongst some of our most fashionable nightspots; a phenomenon Ive tentatively dubbed "the Manhattanization of Melbourne," after the legendary rudeness of New York waiting staff. New York, after all, has turned hospitality into an art form so removed from its origins that most locals feel positively insulted unless they have been the object of sarcastic derision from the moment they sit down to the time they are handed the wrong coat. Gruff service and totalitarian doorwomen are only some of the perils that can come with a 212 area code, so while we Melbourne folk may not enjoy the same spectacular variety of clubs and restaurants as our distant cousins in Manhattan, we havemade up for this with the unpretentious benefits of great food, pleasant service, and a laid-back approach.
Some local establishments, however, seem to be particularly interested in importing the frazzled experience of New York nightlife to the humble CBD. Amongst friends and acquaintances I am beginning to hear a common lament, whose chorus goes something along the lines of "where once the customer was king and queen, we now face the guillotine". Which suggests that this current wave of Manhattanization is not about bad service (for indeed, the staff are usually technically impeccable), but rather its about hostile service. If you want to be simply ignored then you can go to any laminex joint on Brunswick Street, but to be soundly disciplined you must go up market. (And perhaps its no coincidence that this masochistic phenomenon is emerging during the post-Kennett era, as a kind of nostalgic flirtation with tyranny.)
Certain chic bars in St. Kilda and the city seem only too keen to exercise their right to scrutinize your clothes and hairstyle before nodding you through or barring entry (presumably a hangover from the olden days when peasants would try to gain access to a hip new tavern while covered in pig dung). And while it is nothing new for South Yarra nightclubs to screen the ugly and unhygienic, it is a New York novelty to actually sniff the customers aftershave or perfume before making a final decision (as happened to a student of mine). Indeed it seems that flashing a platinum American Express card no longer impresses todays pseudo-Manhattanite staffers: either you turn up with Jeff Koons and a twelve year old Russian supermodel or suffer the consequences (such as the humiliating fate of my neighbour, who was dryly informed that if she wanted chopsticks instead of a fork, she was welcome to use the ones holding up her hair).
One place in particular - which, in the interest of decorum, we shall call The Supper Club - seems to find the whole concept of customer comfort a tedious inconvenience. Recently a friend and I decided to have an after-dinner drink at this establishment and naively thought that we could sit wherever we want (given that it was early on a weeknight). Although several sets of seductive sofas beckoned our behinds, we were informed that we only had the choice of perching on a rickety chair imported from a Norman Rockwell painting, or a titanium cone fresh out of the pages of Monument magazine. Neither of these options appealed, so we asked why we couldnt sit on one of the sofas. "Because a party of four may come in soon," was the snippy reply.
I didnt quite have the energy to explain that this kind of logic - whereby the maximum amount of people are slotted in like so-many Tetras Bricks - does not suit the sophisticated atmosphere that this particular establishment is trying to project. If youre paying upwards of twelve dollars for a glass of wine, you dont want to feel that you have been relegated to the kids table, or that you might be shunted any moment by a group who are not so numerically challenged. I subsequently pointed to a chaise longuewhich looked like it had been bought at auction from The Museum of Chiropractic Disasters and tried to get comfortable. For the next half-hour my companion and I used some napkins and peanuts to plot a chair-swapping strategy so sophisticated that you would think we were trying to jump Checkpoint Charlie.
In isolation, this would be a trivial offence, but I have seen an emerging pattern of inflexibility creeping into the scene. Gaining access, changing tables or asking to split a tab seems to elicit the same response from waiting staff as if I had just signalled my intentions to seduce their grandma. Lord knows what bedlam could break loose if Im sitting on a sofa with a friend and am forced to actually converse with someone opposite whom Ive never met before. Surely this breaks some kind of unspoken laws of local etiquette whereby the purpose of venturing out in public is to reinforce the cliques we have formed in private.
Obviously the Manhattanization of Melbourne comes quite a way down the list of burning world issues, but that is precisely my point. Melbournites go out to drink in order to not think about the countless problems in the world, and in our own sad little lives. An accommodating ambience and an agreeable Merlot make things just that much more bearable, and I dont think we as a city need to go down the thorny path of New York.
So next time you go out and are given the choice of wedging yourself into a broom cupboard next to the toilets, or a rusty trapeze that they keep with the baby-high-chairs, stand firm and say in a loud, calm voice: "Just because you watch Sex in the City doesnt make you a New Yorker. So Ill sit on that comfortable-looking chair right there thank you very much."
Dominic Pettman writes at his house in Melbourne and teaches at the University of Melbourne (also in Melbourne). His Ph.D. was on pre- and post-millennial tension and was called After the Orgy: Towards a Politics of Exhaustion. He is currently killing time before taking up a research position later this year at the University of Geneva (which is in Geneva, and has been described as the Canberra of Europe).