There are birthday celebrations that are given to you, and then there are the ones you give to yourself.
Always happy to take the wheel, I prefer the latter kind. A week before my most recent birthday, I called a restaurant on the Upper West Side to reserve a table for a party of five — my 20-something sons, the youngest son’s girlfriend, my husband and me.
When I gave the reservationist my name, she asked if I hadn’t dined with them before.
That’s nice, I thought. They must have me in their system.
Sure enough, she reminded me that I had been there for dinner six months ago. I gave the reservationist a run-down of the various nuts, seeds and grains that could cause anaphylactic shock if ingested by members of our party and the birthday reservation was complete.
As I walked into the restaurant, a man I did not know said, “Welcome back.” It struck me as unlikely that he recognized me from my last visit. My husband once got into my lane at a public pool and swam for 20 minutes before recognizing me.
At the table, we had started in on our artisanal cider and Old Fashioneds — the adults drinking the apple juice and the kids the cocktails. Although we had not been talking about Shelter Island when the server approached, she turned to me and said, “You live on Shelter Island, don’t you? It’s a lovely place, maybe you know …”
Maybe I did know her friends, but I didn’t hear their names because I was too busy processing the fact that somehow the server knew my name and where I lived, whereas I knew nothing about her except that I was a little afraid of her.
I looked across the table at my husband. His eyebrows were on high alert. My sons, media-savvy millennials, were smirking.
The server asked me if I knew what I would like to order. “No,” I said. “But I bet you do.” With that she retreated.
“You’ve been Googled,” said my older son.
“Maybe they ran a credit check,” said the younger, as he scanned the tasting menu.
I was in the land of asymmetrical information — the control freak’s nightmare. What else did they know? Were they aware of the 2002 incident at a café in Maine, when I was removed on a stretcher after missing the chair and landing on my tailbone? Was an ambulance idling outside just in case?
I spoke to a friend in the restaurant business and learned that my experience was not an isolated incident. There are now a number of restaurants where you can have a side order of the creeps with your meal.
It is increasingly common for the staff of a restaurant to conduct research on the names in their reservation book and to use that information to “improve” the service. They don’t tell their customers, so a diner from Tucson might wonder at the coincidence of a waiter from his hometown appearing tableside with an encyclopedic knowledge of hot peppers.
In April of 2014, New York Magazine reported that Eleven Madison Park tries to assign waiters to diners who hail from the same areas, and it also researches customers’ birthdays and anniversaries.
I was disturbed by the way the server at my birthday dinner used information I had not volunteered. When the reservationist welcomed me back, even when the manager apparently recognized me, I was pleased to think that they might actually remember me.
The inept remark of the server about Shelter Island showed I was wrong. The restaurant staff “knew” me through research, not personal interaction. And since they probably knew exactly how many candles to put on my birthday cake, I decided not to order dessert.
For most of the late 1980s and early 1990s my husband and I were Friday night regulars at Bob’s, a Shelter Island institution. They got to know us well. They knew what we wanted to eat before we did.
The waitress advised me on nutrition while I gestated two children (“Eat the fluke”), and later she got to know the boys. I think this sort of connection between the people providing a meal and the people eating it is beautiful. It’s a relationship that is built, and it may be what the restaurants that comb through my Facebook page are trying to replicate.
But it’s not the same. There is nothing creepy about it.