Originally published in Travel + Leisure, June 2004
Now there are seven kinds of Coke
Five hundred kinds of cigarettes
This freedom of choice in the USA drives everybody crazy
—X, “See How We Are”
DO YOU LIKE SHEETS? At the Palazzo Sasso hotel in Ravello, Italy, a new Sleeping Menu lets guests select one of three different bed coverings: Indian percale, Italian linen, and 300-count satin (all from Frette, of course).
Perhaps you’re finicky about baths. Check into the Abigail Stoneman Inn in Newport, R.I., and you’ll be handed a leatherbound catalog of 25 soaps, foams, salts, sands, and oils.
Or is it your pillow that keeps you up at night? New York’s Benjamin Hotel proffers 11 varieties, including buckwheat, magnetic therapy, anti-snore, and jelly-neckroll. “Some guests ask for all eleven,” says Eileen McGill, the Benjamin’s recently installed Sleep Concierge.
At Maastricht’s La Bergère hotel, guests can actually choose their furniture. Need a bigger desk? A dozen ottomans? A waterbed? Why, certainly, sir.
Personalized service used to be restricted to the filthy rich, the only ones ballsy enough to ask for it. Now it’s available to all of us, and we’re each expected to be as fickle as the chump on “The Bachelor.” Today’s guests, it is assumed, won’t accept just one bath oil or pillow type. We demand an alternative—or three, or twenty. As a result, critical (and not-so-critical) decisions are now being made by individual customers, rather than by general managers, chefs, designers, or those nominally “in charge.” In the new equation, the latter function more or less as waitstaff, dutifully taking your order, then tailoring an experience to suit your preferences: Lavender bubbles, extra jelly neckroll, hold the armchair.
Now you’re even asked for preferences you didn’t know you had. At the Ritz-Carlton Boston, a butler presented me with a menu listing five distinct firewoods for my hearth (aromatic, crackling, maybe a nice slow-burn). Taking afternoon tea at New York’s Four Seasons Hotel, I was presented with nine different vials of artisanal honeys, from desert wildflower (“complex, with lily notes”) to saw palmetto (“thick and citrusy, with woody overtones”).
Restaurants, too, are getting in on the bespoke racket. These days, you’ll find a menu for pretty much everything, from tequilas (choose one of our 500 brands—or try all of them!) to olive oils. In Manhattan, the restaurant Salt give you a choice of fleur de sel, Chinese white salt, or gray sea salt for seasoning. Servers at Alain Ducasse New York used to present a caseful of knives for your choosing—and when the bill arrived, so would a gleaming array of pens. (The practice was abandoned when both kept disappearing.) And across the country, restaurants are trotting out “water sommeliers,” who might recommend a bottle of, say, sparkling Blú with the yellowfish, but definitely Evian to go with your steak.
I’m not sure I know anyone who’s quite that particular about his firewood or his table salt, but clearly someone is, and now there’s a whole booming subindustry designed to indulge his every whim. For the rest of us, however, isn’t this all going a bit too far? Granted, it’s a relief to find just the right linens on your bed and just the right juice in your minifridge. And for anyone with chronic control issues, it must feel nice to be at the wheel for a change. Yet when a hotel or restaurant offers you more options than a California recall ballot, reaching a decision can be an anxiety-stirring ordeal—especially for those misguided souls who aren’t privy to, say, the subtle distinctions between Evian and Blú, or the burning properties of oak versus maple.
In this consumer-empowered marketplace, we’re expected to become what the writer David Brooks calls “experts on small details.” Unfortunately, for every detail the consumer has an informed opinion about—the wine, the rareness of his salmon—there are countless others about which he knows, well, jack. (The customer is always right, yes, but sometimes he isn’t.) Short of breaking out The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bath Salts or Knives for Dummies, he winds up lost in the details, faced with the agony of selection.
And therein lies the problem. Inherent in the deal we strike with our chosen hotel or restaurant is a certain abnegation of further choices—a pleasant form of surrender, at least for non–control freaks. The words “freedom” and “choice” are usually paired, yet there’s also a freedom in not being asked to choose. Instead, we breathe easy knowing that someone is making wise decisions on our behalf. “We’ve tested over two hundred different bed linens,” your hotelier might say, “and these, our experts have concluded, are simply the best.” The sum total of their choices (all 8,243 of them) becomes the basis for their failure or success.
When those decisions are passed on to the guest—when your meal or vacation becomes a series of multiple-choice exams—consistent quality may be forfeited for quantity of options. My own worry is that I’ll compromise my experience through blind, dumb luck: choosing the incorrect knife, the wrong pillow, or the absolute worst possible firewood. If I mistakenly pair the saw palmetto honey with my oolong tea, will the mixture spontaneously combust? My whole afternoon could be ruined. Worse, it’d be my own damn fault.
The DIY trend hit a new low for me when I was asked, by a waiter at a big-deal restaurant in West Hollywood, “how the gentleman would like his chicken cooked.” I had no idea what to say. “Skillfully”? “Salmonella-free”? Since when did roast chicken come with options? And shouldn’t the chef have his own strong feelings about that? Going out for dinner in L.A., I’d already eliminated 15,000 choices simply by showing up at this place. The last thing I wanted was to spend my precious downtime second-guessing a chicken.
As Barry Schwartz notes in his clear-eyed new book, The Paraadox of Choice, “The fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better.” The sudden availability of alternatives can create anxiety where there was none. The more details we’re told to care about—i.e., the more options we’re given to choose among—the more neurotic we become over our (potentially wrong) decisions. In a simpler time, you might have been perfectly happy with the fleur de sel. Now, faced with a choice, you worry whether you’ve maximized your experience: If only I’d chosen the Chinese white salt. “You can generate if only’s indefinitely,” writes Schwatz, but “each one you generate will diminish the satisfaction you get from the choice you actually made.” Furthermore, “increased choice among goods and services….may impair freedom by taking time and energy we’d be better off devoting to other matters.” Like, say, eating your dinner.
Fortunately, there are still places offering refuge from the madness. Places like Manhattan’s great Pearl Oyster Bar, where diners can choose between the oyster of the day or…no oysters. The kitchen serves only one variety each night. “There’s not nearly as much difference as people like to think. An oyster is an oyster,” explains chef and owner Rebecca Charles with a shrug. (Did I mention she runs an oyster bar?)
“Anyway,” she adds, “you don’t want to spend your whole night deciding on the food, do you? God….there are more important things to talk about.” •