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Q&A: How to Dine


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I have a question. I worked as a waitperson myself for five years, and consequently I'm a very generous tipper. I'm likely to cut the waitperson a great deal of slack when food is slow to arrive, because I know it's rarely their fault. HOWEVER, I'm more likely to do so when the waitperson acknowledges the flaws in the service, whether they are under his/her control or not.

Recently I have been to three or four restaurants where we waited more than 20 minutes between appetizer and entre. This alone wouldn't have been so bad, but I felt that the waitstaff didn't do enough to mitigate the situation. Plates weren't removed. Drinks weren't attended to. The waiter mentioned that the food would be out "right away," but by that was way after the appetizers were finished, and we were still looking at the dirty plates. It didn't seem that busy.

I remember the good old days when waitstaff seemed to have much more leeway to comp a drink or a dessert. It can make up for a lot. *sigh*

I read your advice about dealing with problems, and this is probably related. But it leaves me wondering: when (if ever) do you think it's appropriate to cut back on the tip?

When the universe gives you what you want, ask for more.
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An excellent presentation, and I like the concept of becoming a regular. Restaurants like regulars so when I make a phone booking I always start by saying, "Hi this is John Smith, I'd like to book a table...". It doesn't matter if you've never been before, the fact that you announce yourself like that gives them a strong hint that you probably have and that you should be looked after. Even if they know you're not a regular you might be somebody they ought to recognise, so anyways up you might get decent attention and if not you haven't lost anything.

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Britcook, that's definitely the way to go. State your name right up front and go from there. Most restaurants that take reservations these days use computerized "guest management" systems, keyed to last name, first name and phone number (in that order). If I say "William Anthony" the reservationist starts by keying in "Ant..." and as each letter is keyed the software narrows the choices. Chances are "William Anthony" will pop up in three or four keystrokes. If there are two William Anthonys, the reservationist will identify you by phone number. All your visits, customer notes, etc., are tracked by the computer -- including notes like "Super-VIP! Give this guy a table no matter what!" -- so it's important to give the same name and number every time you call.

Miss E, I think it's important to note that a tip is not really a gratuity -- at least not completely. Servers are exempt from the regular minimum wage laws (the have a special lower rate), because it's assumed that tips will make up most of their earnings. This subsidy for the restaurant industry, which I think transfers about $26 billion from consumers to waitstaff each year in the United States alone, means you're paying the server's wage not just giving a little extra. As a result, unless a server punches me or something outrageous like that, I won't tip below 10%. I will, however, reduce my tip to 10% if I haven't been satisfied with my service and haven't been able to fix it somehow during the meal. I do this maybe once or twice a year. More importantly, though, you have to speak up. A server has no way of knowing whether you tipped 10% because you think you got bad service or because you're just a cheap bastard -- there are plenty of folks out there who are just low tippers, no matter how good the service is. Tipping is a fascinating subject, I think. Last August I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about tipping, which you might wish to take a look at.

Pamela, I don't necessarily have a preconceived notion of what a restaurant should be. I try to take restaurants on their own terms and look for some sort of sensible whole. But I guess fundamentally I look for restaurants where it seems like the people running the place care. I doubt many restaurateurs would be interested in my advice, though. It doesn't seem like my preferences or the preferences of most extreme gourmet eGullet Society types are particularly important at 99% of the world's restaurants. Sure, the chefs and owners of the best restaurants care what we think, but the Olive Garden people don't at all. A good example: you can learn from most any industry source that restaurants attract more business and sell more liquor when they're crowded, dark and play music. Now, I speak to audiences, sometimes as large as several hundred people, and sometimes I ask, just as a fun experiment, "Who here prefers a dark, noisy, crowded restaurant to a well-lit, quiet, spacious restaurant?" In an audience of 300 people, you might get 1 or 2 jokers raising their hands just to be difficult. But the reality is that anybody who comes out on a Saturday night to the Smithsonian to hear a talk about restaurants is going to be in a sub-sub-subset of the population that is pretty well divorced from mass market preferences.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Miss E, I think it's important to note that a tip is not really a gratuity -- at least not completely. Servers are exempt from the regular minimum wage laws (the have a special lower rate), because it's assumed that tips will make up most of their earnings. This subsidy for the restaurant industry, which I think transfers about $26 billion from consumers to waitstaff each year in the United States alone, means you're paying the server's wage not just giving a little extra. As a result, unless a server punches me or something outrageous like that, I won't tip below 10%. I will, however, reduce my tip to 10% if I haven't been satisfied with my service and haven't been able to fix it somehow during the meal. I do this maybe once or twice a year. More importantly, though, you have to speak up. A server has no way of knowing whether you tipped 10% because you think you got bad service or because you're just a cheap bastard -- there are plenty of folks out there who are just low tippers, no matter how good the service is. Tipping is a fascinating subject, I think. Last August I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about tipping, which you might wish to take a look at.

Actually, here is Washington State, employers are not allowed to take a tip credit against the minimum wage ($7.63 for 2006), so your server is making at least that.

Washington State minimum wage FAQ

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There are seven states where the tip credit is not applied against the minimum hourly wage (individual states can elect to have higher minimum wages than the federal requirement; just not less), however it's mostly an academic point. Most servers would be earning more than the minimum wage anyway. Whether a server is getting paid $2.13 an hour instead of $6.75 or $10 an hour instead of $20, the tip is still a subsidy that allows employers to shift the wage burden from their books to the customers' and the risk from themselves to the servers.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Here's one that was new on me recently: since my husband earned his doctoral degree, we've been told several times by several people that making a reservation for "Dr. Jones" rather than just "Jones" can improve the service experience. I think this sounds like BS and have never tried it, but a part of me is curious. I've never had problems getting good service when I've put the effort into it without dropping a formal title into the equation. What do you think?

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Restaurants can be new in two ways: new as in newly opened, and new as in new to you.

My feeling is that unless you're rich or a member of the food press, you should generally avoid newly opened restaurants. By newly opened I mean less than a year old. It really does take a full year or more for most restaurants to hit their strides -- and a lot of them don't even last the year, so you'll be none the worse for having stayed away.

Heh.... I'm busting this rule in a major way this weekend. It was actually supposed to be tonight, (friday) but my firend is feeling a bit ill, so we managed to push our reservation back to tomorrow night. (Saturday).

We're going to a brand new restaurant in a brand new hotel. We're going to Craft Dallas. To make matters possibly MORE interesting, the Dallas Morning News printed their review of it TODAY.

Why are we going? Well before the hotel even opened, by friend decided she wanted to go. She really isn't even a big food person. But she IS into the latest, hippest thing. I have a good list of some of the top fine dining places in Dallas I want to try. Places that have been around, have excellent professional review, and have great word of mouth (lots of it from people here on eGullet). I kind of tried to talk her into going to one of those places, but she really wanted to hit Craft ASAP. Sigh... Gotta stay trendy, I guess.

To be fair, it DOES sound interesting. I want to give the "concept" a shot. I know there are a lot of people, including you, Steven, that are big fans of Craft in NYC. The local paper gave it a good review. I expect the place to be a mad house. When I called in this afternoon to change my reservation to Saturday, the girl indicated that Saturday was "crazy". Not surprising, reall. I think I'm lucky I was able to get a table. I WAS polite, told her I appreciated her being able to make the change, etc. She was very firnedly. That's good. So, we'll see what happens.

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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Here's one that was new on me recently: since my husband earned his doctoral degree, we've been told several times by several people that making a reservation for "Dr. Jones"  rather than just "Jones" can improve the service experience.

I prefer to use either "King Jaffe Joffer, ruler of Zamunda" or "Ruth Reichl."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Gotta stay trendy, I guess.

I think you've got the right attitude going in, and that will help you enjoy the experience more: when dining at a brand-new place on a busy Saturday night, you have to adjust your expectations. Chances are, if there's a serious kitchen team in place, the food will be really good. Chances are, service will be a bit confused, especially with respect to timing. No big deal. Just don't make firm plans to be somewhere afterwards.

While I generally eschew new places these days, I make it to a few of them. There's no denying that it can be exciting to be present at the birth of something. Restaurants also remember and value their early customers. I hope you have a great meal!

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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My feeling is that unless you're rich or a member of the food press, you should generally avoid newly opened restaurants.

I agree, although sometimes you can strike it lucky by getting in early and have a great meal before the inevitable price rise (at least in London - many restaurants open with relatively low prices that increase within about 6 weeks and then keep on rising).

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FG, I love the tips and have seen many of them work for friends who aren't foodies and have asked me for advice, thinking I know something because I'm in "the biz". However, one question stumped me, and so now I'll turn to you for your advice.

All of your suggestions assume one thing - that restaurant and diner are fluent in the same language. How would you modify your tips to include that Vietnamese place downtown you're curious about, or traveling to places where you aren't fluent in the language?

--adoxograph

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As someone who only speaks English (barely), I've been in plenty of situations at home and abroad where I've been unable to rely on spoken language as a primary tool of communication.

Luckily, food is a universal language. You just have to maintain a super-positive, adventurous attitude and be willing to point, gesticulate and otherwise make a fool of yourself.

A big smile and a big appetite can work wonders for international relations.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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As someone who only speaks English (barely), I've been in plenty of situations at home and abroad where I've been unable to rely on spoken language as a primary tool of communication.

Luckily, food is a universal language. You just have to maintain a super-positive, adventurous attitude and be willing to point, gesticulate and otherwise make a fool of yourself.

A big smile and a big appetite can work wonders for international relations.

I recall what must have been somtime in the winter of 1973, and my father and I were in Taiwan. We happened on a restaurant that was on the 2nd floor of a building, and the smell drew us to this place. That and a sign we couldn't read. We walked in, not speaking the language, and no one in the joint spoke English (or Thai). We were smiling and happy, and eager to eat. So, we were, with sign language, invited to wander around (the other diners were very pleasantly amused) and point at dishes. We ate so well, and when we came back the next night, we were merely ushered to a table, and all indications were that they would just cook for us. That meal ranks as one of the best I've ever had in my life.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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Gotta stay trendy, I guess.

I think you've got the right attitude going in, and that will help you enjoy the experience more: when dining at a brand-new place on a busy Saturday night, you have to adjust your expectations. Chances are, if there's a serious kitchen team in place, the food will be really good. Chances are, service will be a bit confused, especially with respect to timing. No big deal. Just don't make firm plans to be somewhere afterwards.

While I generally eschew new places these days, I make it to a few of them. There's no denying that it can be exciting to be present at the birth of something. Restaurants also remember and value their early customers. I hope you have a great meal!

Well, I went last night. Everything worked out really well. Food was really good and so was the service. We were seated early at our request and timing was pretty good. Just a tad of a wait between starters and mains and the server presenting the amuse spoke very softly when presenting it in a very casual way. No real mis-steps to speak of. (my full report is in the Texas forum)

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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Here's one that was new on me recently: since my husband earned his doctoral degree, we've been told several times by several people that making a reservation for "Dr. Jones"  rather than just "Jones" can improve the service experience. I think this sounds like BS and have never tried it, but a part of me is curious. I've never had problems getting good service when I've put the effort into it without dropping a formal title into the equation. What do you think?

I've worked in managerial, server and bar positions in several fine-dining restaurants for about 10 years now, beginning in college, and I can say this is one of the things that most bugs me when people make reservations. I usually treat everyone very well - it gives me satisfaction when people enjoy their experience while they're in my care, and I when taking reservations I want to help someone find a table. But if someone insists on making a reservation with some sort of title (especially when asked for the first name, and they will only give the honorific), my co-workers and I are usually annoyed enough by that to make a note in the reservation about snootiness, arrogance, etc. I think it just serves to make the person taking the reservation think that YOU think you're above him or her. It's similar to when someone calls and says that he or she wants to make a "VIP" reservation. To whom are you a VIP? To us, our regulars are VIPs; considerate and friendly people are VIPs; etc.

Go with your gut reaction on this one- I think using a title will result in worse service, not better.

Just one gulleteer's (emphatic) two cents... :rolleyes:

Eat.Drink.DC.

...dining in the district...

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch.

- Orson Welles

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Confidence isn't about pretending you're something you're not. True confidence is sometimes just the confidence to be ignorant.

So true! And for just about everything in life, not just food.

Your advice about doing one's homework and being polite has served me well, especially when dining where the menu and the waitstaff spoke languages barely comprehensible to me. The words "please" and "thank you" in a bad American accent have yielded me good service, free desserts, and wine upgrades when least expected.

As for relying on waitstaff recommendations, I tend to avoid them unless I'm in a place I know. I prefer to pay attention to daily specials. Any thoughts on that?


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I just want to add that your methods will indeed work at a the level of a fast food chain. I frequent a Wendy's burger joint about once a week for lunch during the work week and noted that the two regular counter ladies did a very efficient job at keeping the line moving. One day while eating I noticed a couple of headquarter's staff conversing at a table near mine and stopped by to mention the fact. One of them promptly grabbed the manager and asked me to repeat my comment. Since then a few words while ordering has kept the relationship.

Does it get me a great table? Well, no. It is a fast food establishment after all. But what it does get me is assurance of piping hot fries rather than what has been sitting under the lamp for a little too long. The drink refills are also handled from behind the counter and I mearly have to wave my empty cup to get a refill rather than have to fight my way through a crowded line to get their attention.

No matter the level of restaurant you can increase the level of service and make your visit more pleasant if you put a little effort into it.

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How do you deal with an off night at one of the world's best restaurants? My wife and I find the high intimidation factor and balancing the high cost with expectations is a toughie, especially when you may only dine at the venue once in a lifetime.

For example, when on a recent trip to New York, we had fantastic meals and great evenings at every 1-3 star restaurant we dined at. However, when we got to per se, things just fell apart. Because it was a special occasion, because we were nervous, because we couldn't establish any connection to the waiter or wine steward, etcetera.

While the food was fine, it was perceptually the worst dinner of our trip because of our off kilter experience.

How do you salvage an evening that has started to go wrong in such a place?

Edited by eje (log)

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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In several places you recommended lunch as a low-risk way to test a new place. However, at many restaurants - especially at the higher end - lunch and dinner have completely different menus, cooked by different cooks, served by different servers, even the atmosphere (lighting, music, noise from the bar, etc.) can be vastly different. Do you really think it's fair to judge a restaurant on lunch alone? I'm thinking particularly of "special occasion" restaurants, where you might be tempted to save some money with a lunch audition, but could walk into a totally different restaurant on the big night.

Stop. Think. There must be a harder way.

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I prefer to pay attention to daily specials. Any thoughts on that?

The important thing with daily specials is not to generalize about them. I know people who say "I never order the specials because it's the old stuff they're trying to get rid of" and I know people who say "I always order the specials because it's the freshest stuff and the chef cares about the specials the most." At some restaurants -- even at the same restaurant -- either of those can be true.

You can derive some clues from the circumstantial evidence. For example, if the "daily specials" list looks like it was printed in 1976, the specials probably aren't anything special. If there are twenty specials, recited orally, that's probably just marketing hype.

But, in the end, I think it comes back to getting advice from your server and, if the advice doesn't seem real, ignoring it.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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How do you deal with an off night at one of the world's best restaurants?

. . . . .

How do you salvage an evening that has started to go wrong in such a place?

Sometimes you can't salvage such an evening, no matter what you do. That's the reality of restaurant dining: on any given night, even the best restaurants in the world can perform poorly. And sometimes there's no redress -- for example even in the extreme instance of a comp and an invitation to return for another meal, that doesn't help you if you're only going to be in that town for one day this decade, or if it was your 25th wedding anniversary that got ruined. So, I have no 100% perfect solution.

There are, however, two main things you can to do improve your chances. First, react and intervene early and at the highest level. Don't wait until halfway through a lame meal to speak up. At the first sign of trouble, take it up with the highest-ranking manager you can find. This is the most reliable (not perfect, but most reliable) way to see your meal experience turn around and recover from a bad start. Second, be open to a recovery. Some people get so mad after mistakes are made that they can't enjoy their meals even after the mistakes are corrected and apologies are made. That's not a recipe for a happy life. Allow the restaurant to fix the problem, and if the problem really is fixed well and with aplomb, let it go. Sometimes restaurants prove their greatness by how they recover from missteps. Be open to that.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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In several places you recommended lunch as a low-risk way to test a new place.  However, at many restaurants - especially at the higher end - lunch and dinner have completely different menus, cooked by different cooks, served by different servers, even the atmosphere (lighting, music, noise from the bar, etc.) can be vastly different.  Do you really think it's fair to judge a restaurant on lunch alone?  I'm thinking particularly of "special occasion" restaurants, where you might be tempted to save some money with a lunch audition, but could walk into a totally different restaurant on the big night.

If the lunch and dinner menus are completely different, the lunch test doesn't work. However, in my experience the good restaurant where lunch and dinner are that different is rare. The norm at fine-dining restaurants is for the lunch food to be either the same as dinner (but usually at a lower price), the same as dinner but a smaller selection and maybe with the addition of a couple of salad and light items, the same as dinner but smaller portions, or similar to dinner but with some luxury ingredients (truffles, foie gras) dropped from some of the dishes, or a combination of those approaches. So lunch is often a good, low-risk preview.

Do I really think it's fair to judge a restaurant on lunch alone? From the standpoint of a journalist, no. From the standpoint of a consumer, yes. The restaurant represents itself with every meal it serves, every plate of food. As one critic said -- I think it was Jim Quin from Philadelphia, but I'll have to double check the source when I get home -- as long as restaurants charge by the meal, they should be judged by the meal.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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As one  critic said -- I think it was Jim Quin from Philadelphia, but I'll have to double check the source when I get home -- as long as restaurants charge by the meal, they should be judged by the meal.

So if the meals cost different prices then they should be judged differently, right? I'm not saying that lunch shouldn't be good or even great, I'm just saying that I don't think it always makes sense to pick a place to go (or not go) to dinner based on an experience at lunch.

Stop. Think. There must be a harder way.

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Want to add that showing up regularly to even the local ethnic place gets noticed by the staff, especially if you bring in friends who then also return.

I was thanked the other day by the owner of a place I go for lunch fairly often. That is a warm fuzzy even for the casual dining experience and makes it more special than the anonymous high-end dinner.

Also, the higher-end restaurants do recognize you even when you only come in a few times a year at most. I was made very welcome at one such restaurant due to my enthusiasm about the experience, asking questions about food and wine, and being gracious to the staff.

so all these tips do work.

Question about waiting lists: some restaurants do a waiting list for a couple of months. Even if you don't get in, is it helpful to keep calling in regular intervals to see if you can get a table?

Thanks,

Lauren

Lauren

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FG,

Great course. I have your book and have been trying your method (becoming a regular) for about six months. We regularly dine out on weekends (mostly Saturdays) and have been trying to eat at a favorite three weekends out of four each month. That one weekend we try someplace new.

Some comments:

Specials: If you are a regular, the waitstaff will warn you about the specials. We now have our waitstaff warn us about food as well as recommending food. That shows me superb honesty. Once when our regular waiter at a favorite place was not there I got some limp french fries. Great burger but lousy fries. When we mentioned it to our regular guy on the next visit, he brought us some of the best fries ever, on him.

Children: Lately we have been seeing and hearing parents in restaurants planting their kids at one table and eating with friends at another. This even happened to us at one of the highest end asian places in Seattle. And we have seen it other places as well. I understand how expensive babysitters are but think about finding other diners with kids who can swap sitting chores with you. And I should add that we have friends who say they can't afford sitters but order their kids expensive meals at said restaurant and no one eats it. Go figure?

Being valued by a restaurant: You have it right on the money. Be interested. That matters so much more than tipping. Our favorite place to sit is in or near the kitchen. Some restaurants here in Seattle (and we have done this in the Bay area too) have a bar or table that overlooks the kitchen. That's our favorite seat. We have even scored samples from chefs who we have super conversations with while we are eating.

Again, thanks for a great article.

Edited by DrKoob (log)
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