Should restaurants put salt shakers on the table? A variety of food writers weigh in on the question here.
The naive argument is that salt shakers give diners more control. They know their own tastes and can fine tune the salt to their liking. The problem with this argument is that salt shaken over prepared food is not the same as salt added to food as it is cooked. A chef adds salt numerous times through the cooking process to different items on the plate because some need more salt than others.
So the benefit of control comes at the cost of excess uniformity in the flavor. But beyond that, there is an interesting strategic issue. When there is no salt shaker on the table the chef chooses the level of saltiness to meet some median or average diner’s taste for salt. All diners get equally salty food independent of their taste. Diners to the left of the median find their dish too salty and diners to the right wish they had a salt shaker.
A reduction in the level of saltiness benefits those just to the left of the median at the expense of those far to the right and at an optimum those costs outweigh the benefits.
But when there is a salt shaker, the chef can reduce the level of saltiness at a lower cost because those to the right can compensate (albeit imperfectly) by adding back the salt. So in fact the optimal level of salt added by a chef whose restaurant puts salt shakers on the table is lower.
So the interesting observation is that salt shakers on the table benefit diners who like less salt (and also those that like a lot of salt) at the expense of the average diner (who would otherwise be getting his salt bliss point but is now getting too little).