Being a "good diner." In this age of boorish behavior and bad manners, this is something that is frequently overlooked by the restaurant going public. It seems the burden is always on the restaurant to provide the good experience for the customer. After all, they're paying for it.
Now, this is true to a great extent. But if you are determined to make dining an advesarial exercise between you and your party and the restaurant, like as not, the restaurant will be happy to engage you.
But it needn't be this way.
There are customers I would crawl over broken glass to serve. Those customers are the ones that waiters and cooks will really go the extra mile for. These are the ones you see getting a little something extra placed before them. A small plate of this or that.
"Chef would like your opinion of something he's been trying out for a future menu."
These are the people who get that little glass of something with the secret smile from the sommelier at the end of the meal.
So, who are these people, and why are they treated this way? Big tippers? Well, that might have something to do with it; they're good tippers, and that's a big difference. But that's not it, really. These are the people who know why going to that restaurant is a special experience. They come in with the right attitude and they handle the experience with aplomb. Especially if things aren't quite up to par.
After over 20 years of doing this cooking gig, I've amassed a huge number of tips that will improve your restaurant experience.
And in no particular order...
Attitude. As in, don't cop one. Be friendly. Smile. Waiters are constantly abused and a friendly customer will get the most out of them.
If you can, make reservations. If you can't, don't bitch if they can't seat you. If you go to the restaurant regularly, make a point of making a reservation. If you've been a good diner, this gives everyone a heads up that you're coming in. Good things happen as a result.
Never, ever bitch about prices. Never. Very few things will garner contempt quicker. Menus at good restaurants are frequently posted outside the establishment or online. Don't like shelling out the bucks, don't go in.
If the waiter or the kitchen screw up, be graceful and give them the chance to fix the problem. Never demand a comp. A good restaurant will own up to its mistakes and will often make good on a screw up on its own.
Never pitch a scene. It's tacky. It makes the other diners uncomfortable. It exacerbates the problem. Handle problems discretely. Then they'll owe you.
Tip your waiter based on the service they provided. If your service was excellent, but the food was not up to your expectations, don't punish the waiter. Punish the kitchen. Ask to speak to a manager or, better yet, the Chef. In a good restaurant, those problems will be resolved with a vengeance. Heads will not roll, but people will receive further education. That's what makes good restaurants good.
Never feel shy about communicating with management. Do not become overly familiar with the staff. It makes them uncomfortable. They are not your servants. They are also not your children (unless they are...), your new bestest pal or your therapist. You want therapy? Sit at the bar.
If it's not a good restaurant, why are you there?
If you use the services of the sommelier, tip the sommelier separately from the waiter. It's a sign of respect. Also, don't be afraid to ask for wine advice in a price range that's comfortable to you. In fact, if you've got a good sommelier, you don't even need to pick the wine. Let him know what you're having and how much you want to pay. You'll get a good wine, and respect from the sommelier because you're letting him do what he's trained to do. That's where those little glasses of something or other come from.
Don't make a big show when tasting wine. Do not sniff the cork. Inspect it for seepage, crystallization or deterioration discretely. Taste the wine quickly and efficiently. If the wine is corked or off or whatever, say so. But it had better be the truth. The sommelier will taste that wine, and sommeliers have long memories for wine phonies.
Never, ever attempt to bribe the maitre'd. It might work, but you'll get nothing but contempt from the rest of the staff once the word gets around. If you're going to bribe one person, then you better bribe them all. It's the only way that works.
If you have dietary restrictions, give the restaurant a heads up, preferably when you make your reservations. A good restaurant will go out of its way to make sure you can eat there if you have particular allergies, medical conditions or religious prohibitions. If you are vegetarian, do not assume that there will be a vegetarian option on the menu, and don't get all up in arms about it if there isn't. The restaurant is not making any money off of you, so why should they care? If you give them a heads up, though, you'd be surprised what wonders will appear before you.
If you don't know what something is on the menu, don't be afraid to ask.
When your waiter is telling you what the specials are, listen.
Many restaurants won't tell you what the specials cost when they tell you about them. You may ask about prices, but why should you? It pegs you in some minds as a miser. Instead, use common sense. If the special has fois gras, truffles or both involved, expect it to be expensive. A special in a fine dining establishment can mean a lot of things in a lot of price ranges.
Never ask if the seafood is fresh. It's tacky. And they'll probably lie to you anyway and given freezing technology nowadays, they'll get away with the lie. Besides, the definition of freshness now includes frozen. Who knew? Just about every fish, especially exotic blue water fish, has been frozen at some point. That sashimi grade tuna? It was frozen, unless you had it flown in from Yokohama the night before. Shrimp have usually been frozen. If you're in Kansas City or Denver, why the hell are you ordering seafood, anyway? If you're on the coast, you can expect freshness in certain coastal seafood. But don't assume it.
If the seafood does not taste fresh, you should not be eating in that restaurant.
If you order a filet mignon well done, and then complain that it is tough, expect the Chef to throw a pan at you. Ass. You cook beef to well done, it gets tough. End of story.
In my restaurant, when you sit down, that table is yours for as long as you want it. However, if you're still there after everyone else is gone, and the server is standing there with her thumb up her ass looking resentful because she's not with the cooks getting drunk, then get a clue. Settle up, tip out and get laid already.
If the maitre 'd, sommelier, wait staff and kitchen staff are snobby and haughty towards you from the get go for no reason at all, they could be having a bad night, but it's probably safe to say that they have an attitude problem and you shouldn't be eating there.
On the other hand, a truly fine establishment should be allowed a certain leeway in attitude, as long as it isn't malicious. Then the attitude is part of the fun and is a product of supreme self confidence.
If the restaurant has an open kitchen and you've had a good dining experience, then by all means go up and let the cooks know. It'll make all the difference. One of my fondest memories of cooking professionally was when the late Rosa Parks took the time to hobble up to the kitchen and thank all of us cooks for her wonderful meal. Cooks have a rough time of it sometimes. Stuff like that they remember.
Compliments to the Chef are always appreciated, but don't over do it. Chefs are egotistical maniacs whose heads swell easily.
A good Chef also appreciates constructive criticism presented in a diplomatic manner. See the above. Those heads will deflate pretty fast if you're not careful. But in the long term, it shows that you have an interest and you know what you're talking about.
Unless, of course, you don't know what you're talking about. In which case, you really should not bother bringing it up. It's easy to spot.
Never be a poser. Never go to a restaurant to be "seen." The people who work there can spot you a mile away and you will be the object of their derision for the rest of the night and on into the morning, embellishing the story to such an extent that you would be ashamed of sharing the same planet with them.
Know your limits. Never drink too much, especially if you have a tendency to be loud or obnoxious when doing so. You will be immediately pegged as a lightweight by the people serving you. Remember, they know from drinking.
Never tip the Chef. Buy him or her a drink or glass of wine instead.
Never bring your own wine. Just don't. And if you must, call ahead and ask about corkage. Corkage is usually based on the low end bottle on the list, but quite frankly, they can charge whatever the hell they want. In New York, it's not uncommon to see a corkage of $60 to $80. Do not bitch about corkage. It is the restaurant granting you the privilege of bringing in a bottle that they can't otherwise sell you. If you do bring your own bottle, and the dining party is large enough to justify it, then it is courteous to order another bottle from the list.
Yes, some of those bottles of wine are marked up 3 or 4 times. So? Ever think abut how much that breast of chicken you ordered for 28 bucks was marked up? Didn't think so.
If you have reason to, it does not hurt to say, "Thank you," or some variation thereof.
I'll leave it at that for the time being. Any of y'all that have been in the biz want to add something, knock yourselves out.
(Variation cross posted at Daily Pundit)