Going out to a restaurant is like a dance; when everything’s in rhythm, there’s a gracefulness to it: Servers make you feel good, the kitchen makes its best food, and dinner gets to you right on time. But in this dance, customers aren’t the audience; they’re the partners. Here are a few steps, both for when you’re leading and when you’re following.
1. Make Miss Manners proud
I hate to start this thing off sounding like a scold, but c’mon people, look your server/busser/bartender in the eye, and say, “Please” and “Thank you.” Please. Even I know to do this, and I was raised in a barn. And while I’m at it, here’s some grooming advice: The only cologne worse than Desperation is Entitlement.
2. Work the phones
Making reservations online is great—you can do it whenever you want, like before your morning coffee, when you know you shouldn’t be allowed to talk to people. But once you’re caffeinated, you should feel free to talk to restaurants: Give them a call ahead of time if you’re coming with a friend who has an allergy or is on a special diet; if you’d like a more private table; if you’re going to be late for your reservation; or anything else that’s going to affect how they deal with you. Most places are happy to make special arrangements if they have some advance notice. That way they’ll be ready for your vegetarian mother with an onion allergy and she won’t wind up eating plain buttered noodles. Just remember that you’ll automatically be a more charming conversationalist if you call outside of the dinner rush.
3. Remember that the menu is your friend
I once saw a woman put down her menu without opening it. Instead, she bullied her waiter into reciting every ingredient in the house so she could decide that she wanted the grilled lobster, only steamed, and served with the sauce that goes with the chicken on the side, next to the roasted potatoes that come with the steak. Only the potatoes had to be boiled. If the cooks weren’t going to mangle her food, I was going to find my way into the kitchen to do it for them.
There are places where this is an acceptable, even preferred method of ordering. But if your poor server starts recoiling like you’re a dog with a foamy mouth, you’re not in the right place for it. Remember that a kitchen, during service, is a specialized assembly line. It takes a team working like a machine to crank out 300 dinners in two hours, and they do that best when they’re putting together dishes they’re used to putting together. Don’t gum up the works. We all want food cooked with love, but you really don’t want food cooked with contempt. (Allergies, of course, are an exception, but in that case it’s best to call ahead—both for the cooks’ sanity and your safety.)
4. Consider the obscure
While we’re talking about using the menu, show a little love to the lonely. Let’s face it: Most of the time the steak is there because the chef feels like it has to be there for the people who won’t eat anything else. It’s not a labor of love; it’s an obligation. But probably the pig’s foot or the eel are not there out of obligation. Probably they are there because someone in the kitchen loves them and really wants to do right by them. You want to get in on that action.
5. Do two apps at the bar
Most appetizer menus are much more interesting than their main-course cousins. We have this idea that main courses should always be a big hunk of animal, some kind of sauce, and some vegetables riding shotgun. Apps, though, are free to be what they want to be. And you know those labors of love I was talking about? Most of the time they’ll be on the app menu so that people don’t feel like they’re gambling away their whole dinner. Which brings me to my favorite way to try a place out: On a random night, slide into a seat at the bar, have two apps and a dessert, and leave with a good sense of what the kitchen’s up to and with cash left in your pocket.
6. Try to keep your private life private
You’re lost in the food, lost in your date’s eyes... Sometimes going out to dinner can feel like a totally private, intimate experience. But it’s not. You’re in public. I once waited at a restaurant’s bar when the two people next to me started making out. Athletically. My friends arrived and we landed at a table directly across from the lovebirds, with a fine view of the wildlife. By the time our desserts got to us, the couple had demonstrated the decency to share one of the bar stools, but I don’t think it was with the intention of freeing up space for other customers. The poor woman at the host’s stand was so close to them that I think she was worried about catching something.
It’s important to be respectful of other people’s space, because when you’re in a restaurant, no matter how private it feels, you’re always in someone else’s space. So my point is this: Please don’t talk loudly on your cell phone.
7. Be a regular, or be like one
So there’s a fantastic new Thai restaurant that I’ve been going to so often that the servers and I address each other by name, chatting between courses when business is slow. I decided, after many impressive meals, to finally try the pad Thai, which is often horrid even at good Thai places. But I got cold feet and asked for an opinion. Nhutti smiled, paused, and said, “Maybe there’s something else you’d like to try?” Just like that, disaster averted. It’s good to have friends in the know. At a restaurant, your server is your friend in the know.
I tend to be a little overeager to trust what they recommend (“Uh, you should have the special, because Chef is telling me to push it, and because it costs a ton of money.”), but the key is to chat with them and get a sense of the things they like and how their tastes match with yours. Being a regular helps because you can build a relationship over time, but even on your first visit you might get good advice. Ask for their opinions, but more importantly, ask why they have those opinions so you can figure out if you might have something in common. “You like mushy food? I love mushy food!”
8. Go easy on the beatdowns
A customer that has a good meal tells, on average, three people about it. A bad one, though… news of a bad one gets passed around like a cold. It’s tough to run a restaurant, what with all the moving parts. Anyone can have a bad day or even a bad minute, so try to remember that underneath all good and bad restaurants there are people working really hard just trying to make a living. It’s rare that a place is actually cynical, that they’re actually just trying to rip you off. That said, it also sucks to be on the receiving end of someone else’s bad day, and you don’t need to suffer silently. If something is a real problem, say something politely about it. Most places will try to make things better if they can. Give them a chance to do so before you savage them on your blog. Please. Thank you.