Segregated Dining

“…a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”  This grab from US President Barack Obama took on a new slant as I dined at Botafumerio Restaurante in Barcelona last week.  This was a seafood restaurant of muy grande proportions with a reputation of similar stature – 300 plus covers boasted the waitress.

I was seated in a section where the tables were festooned with reserved signs and separated from other diners by a shoulder-high frosted glass partition. By the time I left, all the tables in the section were occupied. With the exception of the last arrivals – an exotic pair (she with a backless, sideless dress) – all were foreigners…Chinese, Germans, Italians, French, Brits and American. The show-stopping couple spoke Spanish fluently – but without the telltale lisp of the locals. Conceivably they were South American. Whatever the case, we had been cleverly segregated and physically partitioned off from the other diners. We had been given away by either by our accents or through bookings via our hotels.

President Obama made reference to segregated dining in terms of racial discrimination, something we have also been guilty of in Australia.

But this wasn’t a prelude to a form of culinary inquisition it was segregation of a different kind. Positive segregation. We received service from multilingual – certainly English speaking staff.  There was nothing malicious about it – it was good business. Courteous business. Barcelona is a city that is bilingual at the best of times juggling Catalonian with Spanish and menus that can be a confusing nightmare as they shuffle between the two.

Perhaps the service may have had a hint of cultural type-casting in the bias of dishes translated. I didn’t witness any of the waiters enthusiastically recommending the barnacles. In that respect it was not dissimilar to waiters in some Australian Chinese restaurants when you order a regional specialty they think, as a qwylo, you won’t like.

It made me think of the language barriers facing overseas visitors to restaurants here. It must be pretty tough unless you frequent your own cultural eating haunts – which hardly makes for a rewarding and informative culinary visit, which in itself is a window into a cultural way of local life.

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