There was the following sentence in the New York Times (April 5) article titled, “Steak for Two, Please, With a Side of Bribes” dealing with a recent bribery case of a New York State Congressman and a City Councilman. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/06/nyregion/steak-for-two-please-with-a-side-of-bribes.html?nl=nyregion&emc=edit_ur_20130405&_r=0

“The link between corrupt politicians and steakhouses would appear to be so obvious that corrupt politicians would avoid them altogether, especially since there are apparently as many hidden microphones as shrimp cocktails at a given table. But still they come. Experts on either side of the napkin offered theories. “They’re men,” said Ben Benson, the owner of a steakhouse. “Men go to steakhouses. The power lunches, the power dinners — it’s what the steakhouse is all about.””

Though it seems ‘Expert on either side of the napkin” simply implies restaurant business expert to me, what does it exactly mean?

Does the word, “napkin” have any specific metaphoric or symbolic meaning other than “a small square piece of cloth or paper, used while you are eating to protect your clothes or to clean your mouth or fingers” defined by Cambridge English Dictionary? Is “Expert on the napkin” a word on everybody’s lips?

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    Yoichi-san, now you’ve really stumped me. I don’t know what that might mean. The only thing that vaguely comes to mind is “back-of-the-napkin calculations”, but I cannot see how that might apply here.
    – tchrist
    Apr 7, 2013 at 0:00
  • @tchrist. +1. I know 'back of the-envelope-calculation,' but back-of-the-napkin seems to be too fragile to scratch on, doesn't it? Apr 7, 2013 at 1:01
  • Yes, it is a fragile thing, but when you are at a business lunch or dinner, a paper napkin is often easier to come by than an envelope is.
    – tchrist
    Apr 7, 2013 at 1:09
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    Yoichi: Yes, for all practical purposes, a napkin is too flimsy to write on. However, it's often the only thing available, particularly at a restaurant. Because of that, it's an idiom of sorts. Wikipedia mentions both napkins and envelopes.
    – J.R.
    Apr 7, 2013 at 1:11

1 Answer 1


There's nothing special about napkin here; I believe this is a play off of either side of the aisle, which is an expression used to refer to the two political parties (who often sit on opposing sides of the aisle in the halls of congress).

In this case, I get the feeling that either side of the napkin refers to the steakhouse employees (who work on one "side of the napkin") and the customers (who dine on the other). In the article, the steakhouse owner chimed in with one theory; in subsequent paragraphs, some politicians offered explanations as well.

  • +1 At first I thought it meant diners facing each other, but @JR's explanation sounds much more likely.
    – Mynamite
    Apr 7, 2013 at 0:11
  • Because the sentence, “Experts on either side of the napkin offered theories” is immediately followed by the sentence, “’They’re men,’ said Ben Benson, the owner of the former (Ben Benson’s) steakhouse. ‘Men go to steakhouses. The power lunches, the power dinners,’ I took “Experts” here for restaurant owners rather than their employees – waiters and waitresses and customers. However, a problem is “Experts” is in plural form while the succeeding “the owner of the steak house” is in singular form. Apr 8, 2013 at 0:48
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    Experts is plural because more than one expert was consulted. Ben Benson just happens to be the first one quoted in the article; subsequent paragraphs quote other "experts." I believe expert here is tongue-in-cheek; experts on both side of the aisle makes it sound like experts on both sides giving testimony during a congressional debate – I believe the sentence was intentionally constructed that way for humorous effect.
    – J.R.
    Apr 8, 2013 at 9:27

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