Illustration by Victoria Borges
Are you going out to eat, or going out to dine? Are you a guest, or a customer? Is dining theater, or just another form of shopping? Here is some food for thought as we begin a new year.
#1 I’ll begin with the tough one: No bread and butter on the table, for lots of reasons. If it’s a nice restaurant, don’t fill up with dough and fat, even though it does taste so damn good. Save room for an appetizer and entrée, maybe even split a dessert. If it’s not such a nice restaurant, that roll or bread is the cheap stuff. Bad. Fight the urge. Just say no. At the very least, wait until your appetizers are down before you savor the bread. I remember back in our youth, my wife, Stacey, and I would go to Hogate’s on the waterfront in D.C. After they took your order for a fried seafood platter, they started your meal with a huge brick of warm, iced cinnamon roll. No wonder we lay awake half the night afterward.
#2 No free water. Enjoy a glass of wine, some good quality tea, or, my personal favorite, a bottle of San Pellegrino, which has just the right bubbles and light sodium. Tap water is filled with chlorine and yuck, and it costs the restaurateur about the same as a soda. If they get $2 for 17 cents’ worth of corn syrup and carbonated water, why supply free tap water? They spend about the same money giving you a clean glass and ice cubes. They have to make it up somewhere. If they filter the water, that’s more cost to them. Pay a buck.
#3 No tipping. WTF? How does that work? Well, the servers need (and usually deserve) a decent wage. Tipping after the fact only adds to the drama. Will you leave 10 percent or 25 percent? Or nothing? Does the server have to get all kissy-kissy, or do they come in to do their job the best they can, like the cooks or dishwashers? Gratuities are included in most European countries, and service there does not suffer. In fact, they are there to make a living, not run to the table to see how much you left them.
#4 Stop focusing on portions. The bigger the plate of food served, the more the restaurant needs to buy cheaper ingredients. A ginormous plate of spaghetti with cheap cheese, canned sauce and imitation Parmesan dust is not dining. It’s filling your belly with processed foods. A rule of thumb for all you restaurateurs: Thirty percent of your revenue goes to food cost, 30 percent to labor, 30 percent to operating costs (rent, insurance, utilities and a thousand other costs) and 10 percent to the bottom line. It’s reasonable. Bars can make much more money with a low beverage cost, low labor cost (tips vs. wages) and cheap food. As a diner, you need to decide if you’re getting quality value, not quantity value.
#5 Do not ask the server for recommendations. I know, I know, it’s what you do. Don’t. In a good restaurant, there should be no bad dishes. Follow your gut feelings. If you’re looking at the lamb, and the waiter suggests the pork chop, what to do? It turns out the waiter has never had the lamb or doesn’t like red meat. Who cares?
On the other hand, if you’re in a not-so-good place, it might be a good idea to get steered away from dishes that everybody knows are awful. When I was taken to a place in Bentonville,
Arkansas, my host asked the server what he would recommend. “Frankly,” he said, “I wouldn’t eat anything here but the New York strip.” All eight of us ordered the New York strip.
#6 No ordering appetizers first and entrées later. Serving really good food is an orchestration of a trained and talented kitchen. To season and cook an entrée properly, count on 20 minutes. If you’ve eaten your appetizers and chatted before ordering the main course, you are, despite what you may think at the time, going to feel like dinner is taking forever.
#7 Ban cellphones. Wow. In this day and age? Look around next time you eat out. Holding a phone in one hand and a fork in another is spectacularly common. Check your guns (phones) at the door, and nobody gets hurt.