Captain’s tavern

A couple of blogposts ago, I wrote a linguist’s restaurant review. I enjoyed myself writing it, and so, I thought, it’s still summer, why not write another one. Here it is. This time about a restaurant which is all about communication rights. Also, about how well they communicate.

I discovered Tawerna Kapitańska (Captain’s tavern) outside the small Lower Silesian town of Oława through friends who took me there about a year ago or so. I enjoyed myself and decided to go back. Over the last months I’ve been there quite a few times and every time I enjoyed myself very much. It was achieved mostly by the ever-present owner of the place and the way he communicates.

Before I start, let me tell you that in contrast to Nolita, the food at the Tawerna is not fancy, it is to the point, without the frills. If there is a Polish cuisine (which I doubt) they serve it (for the most part – they also serve an excellent version of the Thai tom khar soup, but that’s an exception). It’s never fancy, it’s never particularly surprising. You will not get a prosecco soup or pine seeds sorbet there. But you will get dishes you are likely to know (if you eat Polish stuff), except that they will blow you away. They will be the best you’ve ever had. Over the last however many weeks, I’ve had ‘botwinka’ (a soup made of beet stems and leaves, normally served cold) every time it’s been on the menu. It was irresistible. Or the simplest of Polish soups ‘rosół’ (normally, a sort of chicken broth), except it’s made of duck and it’s amazing. And no doubt such food is key to going back there (let’s face it, who wants to suffer eating mediocre food), but the experience of the Tawerna is mostly linguistic and it’s about who has control over which part of the channel of communication. Who gets to start a conversation, who gets to initiate the topic, who gets to ask questions and so on, and on? That’s communication rights for you.

It all starts when a few minutes after you sit down, the owner (well, the co-owner, the restaurant is owned by him and his wife, who is the chef) comes over and starts chatting. And there is something disarmingly genuine about how he starts the conversation. Yes, it’s food, yes, it’s wine or any other topic (probably, very wisely, apart from politics). The man opens up the communication channel as if you had just come over to his house and he was welcoming you, his favourite guest. The waiters, all professional waiters not students, understand it very well and only very rarely do they interrupt when he’s talking to the guests. There is a very clear pecking order with regard to communication rights. The boss controls communication, the servers observe closely, so that they won’t disturb a conversation that their boss had just started.

And so, there is an interesting and unequal distribution of speaking rights. The owner claims most of the rights. He starts conversations, he asks questions, probably takes some liberties, it is always done with extreme charm, but he’s always highly alert to any signals that that the client might have had enough. There is little worse than the waiter who doesn’t stop talking, and the ‘captain’, as his staff call him, knows exactly when to stop and withdraw. It is almost uncanny. Every time I thought, OK, we would like to talk now between ourselves, he was ahead of me. The servers, on the other hand, are  more withdrawn. They do ask you questions about the food, but they don’t start conversations. They respond to your questions, sometimes with a longer story, but you must, more or less explicitly, ask for it. When you do, they will oblige, also always on the lookout not to overstay their welcome at the table.

Last Sunday, my companion and I were having a bottle of wine. Towards the end of our meal, the owner visited our table again and I asked him whether he would like to have a glass of our wine. He immediately produced a glass, I poured, although he was clearly, albeit very subtly, controlling how much went into the glass. We clinked the glasses and had the wine, the bottle went into the cooler upside down. And literally a minute later, to my surprise, he jovially suggested another glass from a bottle he had just opened. We had already paid and were ready to leave, so there was no question of paying for it. He moves so well between respectfulness, joviality, sarcasm, very often right at the edge of what’s appropriate, but never crossing the line.

Incidentally, when I ask for a bottle of wine, the owner simply brings a bottle, normally saying, you’ve never had this here, how about trying. I realised some time ago that I never asked the price, it’s a matter of trust. In case you wonder, I am allowed not to like – I once asked for a different one.

But then there is the chef. She rarely comes out  to see the guests. However, last time, she came to our table and as my companion and I were singing her praises (her food is truly wonderful), she insisted on how simple the food was, I do nothing, it’s the ingredients we grow ourselves, it’s the great salt. At first you think, oh, please, come off it. You’re a well-known chef, with awards. But you quickly realise that this unassuming manner is genuine. And you feel grateful that she answers your questions about how to prepare the food. Or recommends other restaurants (you should also try….), which was very surprising, I must admit.

Maybe I’m slow to understand, but when I thought about restaurants as communication spaces, I was always thinking about talking over food. And, indeed, food is well known to be a communication context (see research by Sally Wiggins, for example). But here I am not talking about eating over dinner. No, I am talking about eating before or after dinner, and between the meals. About someone not at the table who opens a conversation uninvited, but does it so well, you not only don’t mind, but you also wait for another helping. It’s about communication which makes you welcome.

The question that I often ask myself at a restaurant is who I am there. At Nolita I was an anonymous customer, with no face, only a wallet big enough to pay the bill. After that, they were probably happy to see me go. One table fewer to wait on. At the Tawerna, on the other hand, I am not just a customer. No, I am a guest who already on the second visit was recognised as coming back. On the third visit, I was already taken to the table I like. All this, together with the Captain who appears a few minutes after one is seated, making you feel like you have come to a friend’s house.

And so, if faced with a choice of dining at Nolita, admittedly, with great and sometimes surprising food, and the Tawerna, I would always choose the latter. Always. I will never go back to Nolita, I will probably dine at the Tawerna many, many more times. And it’s a lot to do with how they communicate, not only with how they cook.

PS1. I suppose, at the end of this post, I should stress that there are conflicts of interest underpinning this post. I don’t benefit from this text in any way. It results from (mostly) sheer joy of brilliant restaurant experience in a little Polish village not far from the middle of nowhere.

PS2. Another trip to Warsaw is being planned. The restaurant has already been chosen. I am only waiting for the confirmation of the date.

  1. What a delightful post Darek! It reminds me of a Bengali restaurant in Llanrwst (also close to the middle of nowhere in Wales) where I returned after a year and the co-owner (wife of the chef) said to me “You haven’t brought your twins this time?” but with genuine disappointment, not to show off her good memory.

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