The Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
by Gal Proietta
From the student: I chose Dinosaur BBQ for my ethnography as it is a microcosm of society in Syracuse, New York. The people who walk through the doors represent all segments of society. The rich, poor, educated, uneducated, the diversity could not be more dramatic. Special thanks to Chris and Laura for sharing their time and assisting me in seeing things from the native point of view.
From the teacher: Gal's execution of the assignment was anything but typical. For one, she had studied ethnography previously in an anthropology class and was well aware of the need for careful analysis and rich description. And, her recent immigration to the United States from Israel prompted an ongoing effort to observe and understand the (curious) ways of Americans. Gal's employment as a hostess at the Dinosaur provided an especially rich site for study.
The Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is one of the most popular restaurants in Syracuse, NY. The Dinosaur, which features live Blues music six nights a week, offers its faithful customers a large menu based on North Carolina style ribs, a variety of spicy sauces, great booze, and a professional staff.
On the surface, The Dinosaur appears to be very chaotic, but, actually, this place has strict rules and regulations, like most complex societies. Getting a table on a busy Friday night is a time honored ritual to our regular customers.
This paper describes The Dinosaur, its people and the prevailing unique atmosphere. It's a reflection of The Dinosaur culture and policy. For over a-year-and-a-half, I have observed The Dinosaur and participated in its daily lifeŅas a customer, part-time employee and as a student researcher trying to see things from the native point of view.
I will refute the stereotype that different kinds of people, like bikers and business persons, do not mix well. Further, I will prove that women play an important role in this unique institution.
A Genuine Honky-Tonk Rib Joint
The first time I entered The Dinosaur was on a busy Friday night. The place was so crowded that I couldn't see the bar, let alone get to it. Moreover, people were being jostled by the crowd, so before I actually made my way through the door, I had to step back. A waitress was crossing through the crowd holding a big tray over her shoulders, shouting in a vigorous tone, "Hot food over your head!"She was on a mission to deliver food to the table in the corner. The smell of barbecue wafted through the sea of hungry people.
Although it was a cold night in mid-January, the waitress had nothing on but a black pair of tights and a sleeveless shirt. Soon, I had to get rid of some of my layers. My efforts to find a safe place to keep my coat were in vain. A feeling of disorientation came over me, so I tried to make my way to the bar to get a drink. I just had to find a good spot to stand. It seemed like no matter where I stood, I was always in someone's way. As a big Blues fan, I soon realized that the walls were covered with old black-and-white pictures of Blues musicians. Some are legends that played at the place (as I heard later on).
There must have been at least a hundred or more of those pictures. Once I noticed those photos, I discovered a happy celebration of a garage sale. Hand paintings, flags in different shapes and colors, posters, murals, license plates, neon lights, street signs and funny bumper stickers. Even the ceiling was decorated with vintage B-Movie posters and some other Hollywood memorabilia. As a first time visitor, you are likely to experience a sensory over load. There is so much to look at, it is impossible to take it all in at once. Your eyes are busy scanning the scene, music is always playing, whether recorded or live. You can barely see the walls--no empty spaces. The scene reminds me of ancient Greek painted pottery where superstition would not allow any empty spaces.
The Dinosaur creates a busy world of sights, sounds and smells. Every time a waitress would cut through the crowd with a heavy tray, she would leave behind mesmerized people and a cloud of the smell of barbecued cuisine in her wake. A group of happy guys focused my attention at a funny sign above the bar wall which said, "By order, SPITTING on floor or walls PROHIBITED. Missouri Prison Board."
On a busy weekend night, The Dinosaur is so crowded, it is like a river over-flowing. Most of the customers stand while waiting for a table since no more bar-stools are available. A few people actually eat while standing by a small high-top table in the middle of the bar.
The Dinosaur has a unique mix of people. It seems that every facet of society is represented here: young people and seniors, college students and professionals, heavy bikers and your everyday Joe. They all mix together and interlace in the eclectic atmosphere. Leather jackets, suits and ties, tattoos, baseball hats, short hair, long hair, white collar, blue collar--they all mingle in the crowd, looking for some good barbecue and entertainment.
Political Organization: The Blue Neon Light
The blue neon light is the landmark to the hostess station. Each night, two hostesses welcome customers: one takes names, the other does the seating. The first hostess is referred to as the Door Hostess since she sits by the door, and the second hostess is called the Floor Hostess or Rotating Hostess. When customers enter the restaurant, the owners and employees direct the disoriented customers to give their names to the hostess under the blue neon light and point in its direction.
The Floor Hostess plays an important role and uses the Public Address (P.A.) system in order to seat people. The Door Hostess constantly writes names and numbers of incoming parties down on a special hostess pad, designed for lunch or dinner dining patrons. By 7 PM, on a cold Friday night, there are already over thirty parties on the list, and people lined up on the sidewalk. The Door Hostess constantly answers patrons' repeated questions of, "How long?"and "Did you call my name already?"When one of the new customers tries to bribe her (holding a twenty dollar bill in his hand) to bump his name up to the top of the list, the hostess, Molly, smiles, nods her head and responds, "We don't do that here."When the customer sends his friend to try his luck, she says, "I don't take bribes although you can try to bribe all the parties that are ahead of you,"and points at the growing list of would-be diners. They both laugh and she advises him to get another drink, "or two . . ."Meanwhile, the recorded music plays in the background and the Floor Hostess announces the No Camping Policy, since the list is long and some parties are staying at their table after they have finished dessert. The hostess reminds them that there's a long list of hungry people, and that they were in this position not too long ago. She asks them to, "do the right thing."The Floor Hostess, Chris, has a deep voice and a unique style. She has a big tattoo running down her back, and she is one of the senior employees. While explaining the rules and the policy of the place, Chris uses a good sense of humor with sassiness. It seems that most of the customers are conforming to the unusual atmosphere and responding to her P.A. announcements.
After listening to the P.A. announcements for a while, I begin to understand that the street signs and the murals on the walls are there for a specific reason. The hostess announces the name of a party and directs them to their table, "Joe, party of four, you're table is up on Elvis Presley Blvd. under the dancing dinosaurs."
The Dinosaur has a unique organizational system which is a clear reflection of the nature of the place--working while having fun.
While the band is fixing the equipment on the stage, Chris, the Floor Hostess, gets the patrons attention on the microphone to participate in the album cover ritual:
"Okay, folks, for those of you still waiting for dinner, you're gonna want to pay attention to the next announcement. Once the band starts playing, I can't use the mike to find you for your tables. So, once I get done speaking, this is what you've gotta do. Send one member of each party to the bar door. We're going to give you a paper copy of an album cover. When it is your turn to sit, I'm gonna walk through the bar with the actual album cover held over my head illuminated by a flash light. If this matches your paper copy, please flag me down or signal me, so I can seat you. If I go through two times and I don't find you, I'm going to go on to the next party. In other words, if you snooze, you loose!"
The band's gig starts, and the horns section welcomes the singer. Patrons are lined up by the hostess station. The album cover system works very well, and people are entertained by it. The order for tables is not strictly first-come-first-served. The hostess is matching tables with sizes of parties. According to Chris, it doesn't always make sense to follow the list in the exact order. For example, if the next party on the list is a party of two but a table for six people is open, the party of six closest to the top of the list would get the table. The reason behind it is that smaller tables open up more frequently and according to Chris, if the bigger party would not get priority, they might stay to wait another hour or more. "We try to seat people as quickly and as efficiently as we can by maximizing the seating as much as possible."Meanwhile, the band parties with the crowd. The singer holds up a bottle of beer, and tells the people, "The more you drink, the better we sound."Laughter follows. Someone in the crowd yells toward the heavy musician, "The better you look too . . . ."The party goes on and the Blues make people happy.
In the past, many anthropologists have tended to gloss over the lives of women in studies of society and culture. When you enter The Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse, you can not ignore the role of women. As one of the waitresses stated, "Women run the show."
Since Chris stands out in the crowd and seems to have a lot of experience in hostessing, waitressing, and supervising, I chose her to conduct an interview with about the social organization and the gender differences of the place. According to Chris, there are probably an equal amount of men and women working in the restaurant in general. Those working in the restaurant's bar, and on the floor, however, are primarily women. "Most servers here have always been women. I don't ever recall a male server here. I don't think it's a matter of discrimination. I think it's a matter of fitting in with the ambiance and the atmosphere. I don't believe that a male waiter would be successful here."According to Chris, the basis of this place came from men wanting to cater to men, using women as a form of catering (just like in the old days). In addition, Chris and Molly agreed that it is much easier for a woman to get the respect to get through the crowd while raising their voice and yelling, "Excuse me please,"or, "Hot food over your head, coming through!"They both tend to believe that a male customer would take it better from a woman.
Patterns Of Behavior
The waitresses in The Dinosaur are known to be friendly and witty. The funky atmosphere allows them free reign to be themselves. As a result, I would say, a very fine line exists between keeping a sense of humor and being rude. Laura, the night manager, agreed and said that this fine line can easily be passed.
The waitresses in The Dinosaur are very spicy. When I asked Laura what type of spicy food she would compare them to, she responded, "I would have to say as spicy as the sauces."According to Laura there are three different kinds of Dinosaur sauces which the restaurant markets nationally and which reflect the character of the waitresses, "You've got the regular Bar-b-que for the more laid-back person. You've got the Mango Tango which is a little bit hotter, a little bit spicier. Then you've got your little bottle of Devil's Duel running around the place, and those are the ones who write the fine line."
Just as The Dinosaur offers the real thing--authentic barbecue, real Blues and real service--the waitresses are encouraged to show their real personalities, and the menu's cover reflects the same attitude. It contains lists for the first time visitor who is not familiar with the nature of the place which says, "things we do,"and, "things we don't do.""We don't do valet parking, schmooze too much or sing 'Happy Birthday.'""We do spice 'ya right, play nothing but the Blues and ride Hawgs."
The Recipe For Success
In the course of a-year-and-a-half I have explored The Dinosaur's recipe for success. Many places in Syracuse offer similar features. Thus, I could only ask myself, what makes this place in particular so unique and popular? How does The Dinosaur distinguish itself from other restaurants in Central New York? What makes the atmosphere eclectic and friendly? Why do bikers and suits mix here?
Chris assisted me in exposing some of the reasons for success. Besides hard work, "one thing has always been allowed in The Dinosaur, and it is a certain amount of personal freedom."This freedom enhances the enjoyment of both patrons and the employees. Freedom in The Dinosaur takes many forms. For example, no dress code is recognized by either employees or customers. Staff are encouraged to wear whatever they want. This reflects the casual aura that permeates the place. The objective is to reinforce an acceptance of non-conformity or individualism.
Individual expression is encouraged beyond mere clothing. It also takes the form of graffiti. Poetry, Haiku, bad jokes and political statements tinged with feminism all appear on the rest room walls. Whereas most restaurants and public spaces discourage this form of expression, The Dinosaur actually promotes it.
Linguistic diversity, further, mirrors the diversity of the clientele and staff. Visitors will observe the spectrum of language from street slang to the most proper English. Waitresses refer to customers as sir, ma'am, or hon and babe, followed by a touch on the shoulder.
According to Chris, there is one more important factor that draws people to The Dinosaur: curiosity of the strange and eclectic place. "The guy in the suit wants to know about the biker, the biker wants to know about the guy in the suit."Just because they are wearing different clothing and possibly living different life styles doesn't mean they can't enjoy the same food and music. Thus, once they start to talk, they find a common ground. It doesn't matter what they wear, it doesn't matter where they work. Jeff, one of the owners, stated that The Dinosaur has no socioeconomic boundaries, and everyone is welcome.
All the factors contained within the environment of The Dinosaur contribute to its overall success. All the ingredients make for the special recipe that is The Dinosaur. The graffiti on the walls and the language used by the hostesses on the mike are not just forms of communication, they are important entertainment forms that keep the customers in the restaurant waiting for a table for two hours and coming back time and time again.
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