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Q&A: How to Dine


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I used to work as an interpreter, and have seen my share of name-value restaurants and fodder barns both

All Steve's pointers ring true for me, but what I really admire is his flexible attitude (which is not the same thing as being passive) -- as far as I'm concerned, that's the secret ingredient to enjoying spending your money.

One question, though - sometimes meals just have to be scheduled at rush-hour times. Do you have any advice on finding the right balance between getting what you want and having things run smoothly in busy restaurants?

In particular, I remember interpreting for a business dinner involving household-name businessmen in a restaurant which was also hosting a prominent national politician and guests that night - it was a trendy but small retaurant, and the staff were experienced but very, very busy. Individual diners no doubt got less waiting attention, but in these small restaurants, they also have to put up with an amazing amount of traffic cantering back and forth in front of their tables. I had to wonder if the couples dining there that night got what they paid for.

Assuming that people book without knowing that they are about to be steamrollered by Money and Power, how could couples or solo diners minimize their pain when they find themselves pushed to the wall? In smaller towns, there isn't such a division between business dining and "recreational dining", so I'm guessing that it's not an unusual experience.

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This might seem an odd question to some, but what do you do when a place wants to comp part of your meal or give you something you didn't order, but you don't want them to?

Here's an example--my favourite Italian place closed suddenly for about 4 months due to severe staff shortages. When they reopened, I returned as a regular (I eat there or get take out once or twice a week). I knew their business was nowhere near where it was pre-closure, and they were struggling somewhat. But they would still offer me free drinks, or to upgrade one of the dishes I ordered, etc. I felt really bad, because I knew they weren't doing well financially, so I didn't want to accept their offers but they always insisted.

Now I know if they really want to give me something, I shouldn't refuse, but would there be a polite way to refuse a comp and not seem ungrateful?

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Now I know if they really want to give me something, I shouldn't refuse, but would there be a polite way to refuse a comp and not seem ungrateful?

Impossible. Accept it graciously and leave a big tip.

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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One question, though - sometimes meals just have to be scheduled at rush-hour times. Do you have any advice on finding the right balance between getting what you want and having things run smoothly in busy restaurants?

There are a few things you can do. Begin by adjusting your expectations: you're not likely to have the meal of a lifetime under such circumstances, but you can still have a delicious and wonderful meal. Ask some questions on the phone about the ebb and flow of the dining room -- different restaurants peak at different times. See if you can slip in between the busy peaks. The most important interactions occur when you are seated and order, so if you can make those things happen at a less busy time, you won't suffer so much when the place gets crazy later on. Most importantly, you can pick restaurants that handle their busiest nights well. Some restaurants manage busy times a lot better than others. Over time you learn which places bring on the right number of staff, don't do heavy overbooking, have kitchens with enough capacity and talent to handle the rush, etc.

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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Impossible. Accept it graciously and leave a big tip.

I live in Japan, so I don't even get to do that!

I've been thinking of bringing them some of my baked goods. What's the protocol of giving food gifts (homemade or otherwise) to restaurant staff? This is a very small restaurant (2 4-tops, 6 counter seats) with only the owner and 3 staff working at the place. I doubt they have an official policy on the matter--should I just bring them some goodies and see what happens?

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I wouldn't do it. It will probably just cause them to give you more free stuff, in an ever-increasing spiral of gifting. Probably the best thing you can do is send them more customers via word-of-mouth recommendations, though I imagine you already do a lot of this.

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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Ok, this is a rather silly question but I'll go ahead anyway. When dining out with a group of people I've noticed that conversation at the table will often come to a grinding halt when the server/waitstaff/sommelier brings the bottle of wine. Part of this is somewhat necessary in order for the person ordering the wine to look at the proffered bottle. I feel more comfortable resuming a light conversation as the server goes through the process of opening the wine rather than just everyone sitting in silence during the whole process. Is this considered rude?

Feel free to laugh at this question. :smile:

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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I LOVE PJ’s expression in his Egullet T-shirt- very refined and suave for an infant!

Anyway, I wanted to share a wonderful occasion enjoyed at Enoteca Vin in Raleigh, NC and the best example of restaurant service I’ve ever experienced. It started with a question on EGullet’s SE forum about choosing Enoteca vs. another restaurant for a celebration dinner (both places were reviewed positively, prices were roughly apps, $7-13, mains, $20-35). The general manager, Scott, saw the question and personally contacted me to inquire further about details (e.g. how many people, reserving a private space, etc.)

Well, my special occasion was no more than a 2-person dinner for an anniversary. On top of that, the budget for the evening was $80 for food and wine pre-tip. Both of us were full-time students at the time. We cooked frugally and skipped bad pizza and take-out so we could really savor a dining experience once or twice a year.

When asked about the scale of the celebration, I felt a little sheepish in expressing that it was a 2-person dinner, and on top of that, we were on a specific budget. I said that we would be happy to come in to order off the regular menu, as it looked wonderful. Scott tactfully asked what our budget was, what food preferences we had, etc., and said that he would speak with the chef to customize a menu for us. Assured that we were in good hands, I only mentioned dietary restrictions and eagerly anticipated the night.

We were not let down. Upon seating, we were handed a small printed menu with an inscription of our names and the occasion. We were astonished at the extensive listing of dishes and thoughtful wine pairings. Indeed, we were pleasantly surprised throughout the evening with additional courses, such as a tasting of olive oils. Scott and the servers provided thoughtful descriptions of the wines and dishes (for example noting that one of the olive oils would bloom with a banana afternote- it truly did! And I might have missed it by moving too quickly to a different oil to taste). Other tastes throughout the evening were equally exhilarating- deviled eggs, tuna tartare, mussels with white beans- I can still taste them if I think carefully.

The next day, we were sent a thank-you e-mail from Scott and an invitation to celebrate our next anniversary and other occasions in the meantime with the restaurant. As it turns out, the relationship is no more and I moved from the area 6 months later. However, I have a wonderful memory and benchmark of amazing service. The generosity of the staff there was as satisfying as the excellent food.

Kudos to Enoteca Vin- I will be back for a visit when I return to the area.

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I've gone to Chinese restaurants with friends who were Chinese or spoke Chinese, and had wonderful food, then gone back without them and been given menus full of sweet and sour glop. (I'm a Wasp, and don't speak any Chinese.)

I've had similar experiences in other restaurants serving food out of the Euro-bland orbit. I suspect it's because Wasps are often turned off by offal and invertebrates, and the waiters don't want to deal with a revolted guest. But I'm not very squeamish, and I don't make a scene if I do order something new to me that I turn out not to like (rare, in my case).

How do I get the waiters in such a place to treat me as an adult interested in good food - and give me the real menu and a little advice? I know there's often a language barrier, but it often feels as though the waiter doesn't think I'd be interested in the best the restaurant can do, and I am. After all, I'm there instead of at some fast food outlet.

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Thanks, Steven. I really enjoyed your book and gave a copy to a foodie friend as a gift. In particular, the sushi part came in handy, getting me some very excellent service, and one-on-one lessons from the sushi chef at my favorite fish market/restaurant (which, unfortunately, closed the sushi bar a few months after it opened because of inadequate business).

One question - how do you actually request a sommelier's help? Every time my husband or I have a question about the food, wine, or a combo, the waiter answers our questions very confidently, making me think that we shouldn't need the sommelier. And how about if we bring our own wine - is it appropriate to ask that someone taste it and offer food recommendations? And who should you ask? The chef, sommelier, waiter?

"God give us good taste, why bother?" Captain Jim's Sushi Chef
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What, if any, is the proper protocol for tipping a sommelier or wine steward for their assistance in making a wine selection?

You can just hand over a $10 or $20 bill on your way out (or more if you were drinking hundreds of dollars worth of wine).

It's not strictly necessary to tip sommeliers, though. The sommelier is almost always either a) part of the waitstaff and therefore gets a share of the tip pool anyway (in any modern restaurant with sommeliers, captains, front waiters, back waiters, bussers, etc. -- a full service staff, as opposed to a waitress at a diner -- tips are pooled and allocated per shift) or b) is a member of management and therefore not a tipped employee (some sommeliers who are members of management will reject a cash tip, some will contribute it to the waitstaff tip pool, and some will keep it -- it depends).

So I generally only tip the sommelier independently if the nature of the assistance has been super-special, and then I might not use cash but, rather, some sort of gift. A Laguiole corkscrew is always nice if a sommelier has planned a special wine tasting for you, or has arranged a VIP tour at a vineyard, or has given you great service over many visits.

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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I feel more comfortable resuming a light conversation as the server goes through the process of opening the wine rather than just everyone sitting in silence during the whole process. 

That's the right thing to do. It doesn't even have to be light conversation. Assuming you're not discussing matters critical to the national security of sommeliers or describing in graphic detail sexual fantasies that involve sommeliers, you can just continue with whatever conversation you were having before the sommelier showed up. Restaurant service should be mostly transparent, unless the customer chooses otherwise. If you want to engage the sommelier, discuss the wine, etc., you should certainly feel free to do that. But if you don't want there to be a disruption, it should go like this: 1- the sommelier presents the bottle, you look at the label and nod in the affirmative, 2- you keep right on going with your table conversation while the bottle is opened, 3- when the sommelier pours a taste, you smell it, taste it and say, "Thank you," to indicate that it's not defective, 4- you keep talking to your tablemates.

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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I wanted to share a wonderful occasion enjoyed at Enoteca Vin in Raleigh, NC and the best example of restaurant service I’ve ever experienced.

I had the pleasure of dining at Enoteca Vin in October, and I was blown away by the place. Raleigh is incredibly lucky to have this culinary resource. I liked everything about the restaurant, from the house-made charcuterie to the attitude of the waitstaff (well, I confess I found the desserts to be substantially below the level of everything else, but that was the one flaw).

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 I get the waiters in such a place to treat me as an adult interested in good food - and give me the real menu and a little advice?

Find the manager with the best English in the place and be super pushy about your desire for real stuff. Say exactly what you want: "We want the real Chinese stuff, not the stuff for round eyes, dammit. What's the best stuff?" "We want it Thai spicy, really like Thai people eat it, not like Americans. I mean it. Thai spicy, okay? Really." That usually does the trick.

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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One question - how do you actually request a sommelier's help? Every time my husband or I have a question about the food, wine, or a combo, the waiter answers our questions very confidently, making me think that we shouldn't need the sommelier.

I hate when that happens, because it means I'm not going to be good buddies with the server -- I'm going to have to go around him or her; they shouldn't put you in that position. So, you just have to say, "We'd like to speak to the sommelier about our wine order, please." If the restaurant has a sommelier, you shouldn't feel bad about asking to speak to the sommelier. What the heck else is the sommelier there for? If the server says, "Is there anything I can answer," just smile and repeat yourself, "We'd like to speak to the sommelier about our wine order, please." Don't feel bad about it. Indeed, if you feel the server has been obstructionist, you should mention it to the sommelier.

And how about if we bring our own wine - is it appropriate to ask that someone taste it and offer food recommendations? And who should you ask? The chef, sommelier, waiter?

That's not a situation I've ever come across. BYO isn't all that common in New York, and when I'm traveling elsewhere I don't have access to my wine collection (if you can call it that). So I'm not particularly experienced when it comes to BYO etiquette. Someone else is going to have to chime in here. Is this something that's done? My guess is no, but I don't really know.

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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I wanted to share a wonderful occasion enjoyed at Enoteca Vin in Raleigh, NC and the best example of restaurant service I’ve ever experienced.

I had the pleasure of dining at Enoteca Vin in October, and I was blown away by the place. Raleigh is incredibly lucky to have this culinary resource. I liked everything about the restaurant, from the house-made charcuterie to the attitude of the waitstaff (well, I confess I found the desserts to be substantially below the level of everything else, but that was the one flaw).

Interesting- we actually asked if dessert could be skipped (neither of us have much of a sweet tooth) but they sent out a grapefruit granita to cleanse our palates at the end of the meal.

I realize that I never asked my question :raz: . So, Scott was the general manager, sommelier, and also served a few of our courses with detailed descriptions. Other courses were served by 2 other staff members. We just decided to leave a large tip in cash at the table and sent Scott a thank you card. Should we have set aside a separate amount of the tip for him?

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Mmm. Grapefruit granita.

The best thing to do, I think, is just leave a tip, as you did. At most restaurants at this level, the tip will go into a pool and be allocated however the restaurant allocates it. Whether Scott is part of tip pool, I don't know, but if he isn't then presumably he's paid a somewhat higher wage to compensate. The thank-you note was a really nice touch, though, and I'm sure it was worth more to Scott than an extra $20. Well, I shouldn't speak for Scott, but it would be worth more to most restaurant managers I know.

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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Mmm. Grapefruit granita.

The best thing to do, I think, is just leave a tip, as you did. At most restaurants at this level, the tip will go into a pool and be allocated however the restaurant allocates it. Whether Scott is part of tip pool, I don't know, but if he isn't then presumably he's paid a somewhat higher wage to compensate. The thank-you note was a really nice touch, though, and I'm sure it was worth more to Scott than an extra $20. Well, I shouldn't speak for Scott, but it would be worth more to most restaurant managers I know.

Phew- OK! We didn't expect him to be serving dishes, but it was a pleasant surprise. Glad you got to experience the restaurant, and best wishes on your travels (which I'm following closely, as I'm travelling to upstate NY next week) :smile:

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one comment on letting the sommelier know your price range:

a slightly more indirect way to to do it is simply to say: I was thinking about either "Bottle A" or "Bottle B"...one of which should be at the top of your price range and one at the bottom; further, you could even try to pick bottles along your tastes...an experienced sommelier will understand what you're telling him/her.

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One of the best dining experiences I've had involved the sommelier. My boyfriend and I chose a very nice place for my birthday. We researched the menu ahead of time and decided we'd probably go with the five-course tasting, with wine pairing. But when the time arrived, we both felt the options on the three-course prix-fixe menu appealed to us more than the tasting menu did. But of course there was no set wine pairing with that.

So we asked the sommelier if it would be possible for her to choose wine to pair with each of our courses, despite the fact that we had each ordered different items. And then we proceeded to have the best wine-pairing experience of our lives thus far. We were blown away by her enthusiasm. She told us that it was rare for her to get a request like that. We got the feeling that her talents were severely under-utilized, and she seemed almost giddy to have the chance to use them.

We got star treatment and very personal service from this woman. She even pulled out a Pouilly-Fume that was not on the list, this one bottle of which she had ordered to try before adding (or not) to the list. That was quite special, and her instincts were correct, because it paired beautifully with the food.

I just wanted to share this happy tale. I will not hesitate to enlist a sommelier's help in the future, even if I just order off the regular menu. A true professional will appreciate the opportunity to share his or her knowledge.

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A few more tips on How to Dine :

1. don't order things that aren't on the menu and don't change ingredients around on the menu to create your own dish. It shows disrespect and stupidity.

2. if you have an allergy or a dislike let the server know before you order.

3. if you have a dislike say it - don't lie and say it's an allergy, it just makes more work for the kitchen (usually requiring all new ingredients to be pulled from the walk-in fridge and prepared with new equipment -whisk, knife, etc. to be certain of no cross-contamination all in the middle of a busy service).

4. if you make a reservation you can't keep call the restaurant and let them know. Booking a table for ten people and not showing up means the restaurant lost 10 seats for the night. Call! You wouldn't believe how few people do.

Thanks, Steven, for writing on this subject, it should be taught in schools.

Cheers,

Ivy Knight

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That's definitely an issue, and there are several other issues that can cause servers to give you bad information. . . .The mission, then, is to get the server off script. . . .First, establishing that personal rapport early on creates a situation where the server starts working for you.

I would just like to add my view that obtaining good advice on what to order depends greatly on the CULTURAL CONTEXT in which one is dining.

In the USA, where "McDonaldization" and high-pressure marketing have taken hold, staffs tends to be trained to sell, and push specific items on the menu, regardless of their own views (educated or otherwise!). In France, where serving diners is more of a profession in its own right, waiters expect to be consulted by diners. The waiter considers recommending a dish or wine to suit a specific customer to be among his/her main roles. Likewise, the customer knows his role is to interact with the waiter, first to establish rapport, then to indicate interests and preferences, explore options, and generally "engage" in the scene. The wider French culture generally supports the role of the waiter as an expert, guiding a diner through his/her personal dining experience in a genuine fashion. This is exactly how commercial relationships in France, and in Italy to an extent, are organized. Any self-respecting waiter would find it an insult to be told to recommend a dish that he found to be average, overpriced, or past its prime. Likewise, the diner must show he or she is both interested and committed to an excellent dining experience, making it clear that the restaurant and staff are far more than a backdrop for today's business discussion or birthday dinner.

I perhaps exaggerate a bit but to make the point that CULTURE plays a very important role in the dining experience (we could all write more here . . . ) My French-Italian husband and I noted in Croatia last year that we had to be carefull not to start off with the French approach (all trusting) but once we established our culinary intentions with the staff, the relationships and the quality of our dining experiences actually unfolded very similiarly as those in France. In London, my experience over the past decade has been that while major improvements have taken place, the culinary landscape is much more complicated. Trusting the staff for advice as one would do in France or Italy can bring very mixed results. The main competence one needs in London is good sensemaking skills, combined with recent restaurant recommendations from a book or list, as no specific approach yields the best service, advice or experience.

Finally, (if you are still interested links between wider CULTURE and dining, read on . . .) one can witness the culture of the French expert adviser in action in another context, stopping into FNAC or BHV stores, or at a street food market in Paris on a Saturday morning. You will see something long gone in the USA where marketing has taken away the genuine nature of many commercial relationships, rendering them mere exchanges or transactions. At FNAC it is an interactive performance, with customers asking dozens of questions and receiving detailed advice from knowledgeable staff, then generally relying on that advice to make their purchasing decisions, to good results most of the time. The same experience at street markets has helped me to buy and enjoy foods I had never seen before moving to Europe. Thankfully, restaurants experiences in France remain roughly similar, though one hopes that creeping globalization does not take its toll on the mid-range of this sector anytime soon.

Bon appetit!

Edited by Anne Paris (log)
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  • 2 months later...

How can you tell when this is happening? In other words, how can you ensure that a server will tell you what's really good, as opposed to what he's been told to tell you is really good?

In my experience, which comes from both sides of the table, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The fact is that servers have a vested interest in both making the customer happy, and in making the chef happy. Guests pay servers' bills, but chefs can make servers' lives hell! The customer is happy when he receives a meal that pleases his palate. The chef is happy when his food cost is under budget (a very rare occurence), but also when the dishes that he creates please the majority of palates. If the server gets the notion that your palate is not particularly developed, he will try to sell you whatever he has been told to, or whatever is the most expensive. But if your server has an idea that you have a sophisticated palate, he will steer you towards the chef's "babies"-- those dishes that the chef has lost sleep in perfecting, and that might well be gone tomorrow.

I think the best approach for getting the best meal is to develop a sense of trust. On your first visit, you can ask the server which dishes the restaurant specializes in, and order one of those. These dishes are most likely to be "crowd pleasers", but if they are executed well, on the next visit you might ask your server what he would order if he were dining here that night. This is the question guaranteed to deliver the most varied and creative responses. My finest moments as a server were those when a guest trusted me to choose his meal-- I would consult with the chef, and all of us- customer, server, and chef- were always happy at the end.

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