Do you know what I mean? Sure, there's the Ferris Bueller one, an absolute top-notch example:
But there's also the one in Blues Brothers:
And I think Kids in the Hall's "Dipping Areas" merits inclusion in the genre, even though it doesn't share the "rowdy blue-collar diners shake things up a bit" element, because it shares a fundamental fear of the really nice restaurant:
Same goes for Monty Python's old "Dirty Fork" sketch – there's no Jake and Elwood type present, but the specter here is still terrifyingly polite restaurant behavior:
You can picture at this point the sort of scene I mean without further examples, I should think: The movie gets suddenly and comparatively quiet, there are numerous shots of crystal glasses and dessert trolleys, well-dressed older couples speak in flamboyantly-hushed voices, and the audience is presumably thrilled with the twinned pleasure and fear of seeing the china shop before the bull enters.
This is not just any scene where something funny or uncomfortable happens in a restaurant, like the diner scene in Five Easy Pieces or the deli scene in When Harry Met Sally. You can still see that kind of thing all the time onscreen. That's a good third of Albert Brooks' Modern Romance, but Modern Romance isn't on this list. This restaurant is markedly, terrifyingly fancy; the audience is introduced to it like the shark from Jaws, with a leitmotif and an atmosphere of dread. There will be a maître d'. He (always a he) will speak with a French accent. Odds are greater than 80% that he will be disgusted, even horrified, by the protagonist's arrival. But he will be unable to deny the protagonist entry, either because of some trick of etiquette or because the protagonist has successfully outwitted him.
Odds are greater than 50% that the scene will be remarkably homophobic, but unfortunately in a really fun way, where the queer somehow stands in for staid, repressive order, and the boisterous, unkempt heterosexual male diner represents freedom, the green world, chaos, and the individual. I don't know how they manage to pull it off, but they almost always do.
And maybe you still get that sort of scene every once in a while in a Mr. Bean movie (I think they're still making Mr. Bean movies), but in my memory at least, this sort of scene showed up in movies all the time when I was a kid, and I hardly ever see them now. Steve Martin almost had one in The Lonely Guy, but although the snooty French maître d' is present, Martin's Lonely Guy is too crushed by his own embarrassment to upend the atmosphere, and I think "upending the atmosphere" is a necessary element of the Snooty Restaurant scene.
The Boisterous Diner doesn't have to literally send the dessert trolley flying, or open a bottle of champagne such that the flying cork knocks an old lady sitting nearby unconscious, or flip the table or leave without paying (although all of those certainly help), but he does have to emerge victorious in the battle for atmosphere. The restaurant has to lose, and the maître d' as its representative has to know it has lost, like a Scooby Doo villain. The scene can't end until we see his face crumpled in anguish, his mustache askew, his uniform rumpled, his order plunged into disorder.
I couldn't swear that all of their movies had one, but I can imagine any number of stars from the 1980s and 90s who could be relied upon to produce a "snooty restaurant" scene – Adam Sandler, obviously, but also Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eddie Murphy, possibly early Ben Stiller. I could imagine Michael J. Fox in one!
My suspicion is that this once-ubiquitous scene fizzled out sometime in the mid-90s (it's definitely characteristic of early Sandler; I don't think it's the sort of anxiety present in Uncut Gems). But why? Why did the nation's moviegoing public stop being afraid of fancy restaurants sometime around 1997? And what did we begin to fear instead?
My best guess is that the Snooty Restaurant scene flourished between the 1970s and early '90s, with most directors and screenwriters having grown up in the 40s/50s/60s, when most Americans ate the majority of their meals at home, and going out to a restaurant was still a pretty big, possibly intimidating deal. While it's not like there weren't still dauntingly expensive restaurants by the early 2000s, the dining-out experience was no longer mystifying to generations who had grown up watching chefs on TV (Jacques and Julia were on PBS in the 80s, Emeril and Martha Stewart in the 90s). And the share of personal income Americans spend on food at home has dropped sharply since 1960; for "away from home food" (an admittedly broad category that encompasses fast casual dining, takeaway, fast food, fine dining, etc) it's risen slightly.
I don't have any charts or numbers on the percentage of restaurants with French, male maître d's to share, although I'd also be willing to guess that in most places they've been replaced with the less specialized (and less well-paid) "hostess," and as a result maître d's no longer figure as efficient, highly-trained, intimidating gatekeepers in the collective cinematic imagination.
Besides which, there's now such a widespread understanding of waitstaff generally being underpaid that any scene where a protagonist "triumphs" over a restaurant employee runs the risk of looking like bullying. This is probably why the closest contemporary example I can think of (Charlie Day trying to order a "milk steak" in an early season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) involves a fake interaction with Dennis-as-waiter, rather than a real waiter:
I know the past is a foreign country, and they do things differently there, but I can't help but feel we lost something, cinematically speaking, when we stopped being afraid of restaurants. I don't mean I want to go back and start baking johnnycakes and baked beans from scratch all the time, either – I just worry we'll never be afraid of anything as funny as the things that scared our parents.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]