Friday, April 1, 2011

"I'll Take the Meatballs, With a Side of Manners"

Sure, sure it's more economical to hit up the grocery store and heat up the skillet each evening. It's obviously more comfortable -- you can let your hair down, lounge in your jammie-jams, and care not about which fork to use or if your elbows are on the table. 

I am not one of those people. I am fortunate enough to live in a city with a strong sense of culinary pride, and the options (and levels of formality) are endless. One thing remains constant, however, whether you're lounging over coffee at the weekend diner or dressing up for a five-course-meal... and that is the prim-and-proper do's-and-don'ts of patronizing a restaurant (and not patronizing your server).


Urge your kids (or rowdy friends) to be on their best behavior.  There's nothing more frustrating than going out to dinner and having the night ruined by the screaming kids (or adults who act like kids) at the next table. Teach your children to be respectful and courteous at every meal... especially in public. Avoid inviting people who don't know how to differentiate pub crawl behavior from standard dining behavior. Your server (and fellow diners) will thank you.

If you have a reservation, be sure to arrive on time at the latest
.   Ten minutes early is preferable. Be sure that your party is complete and that you are not waiting on anyone to arrive. Always inform the restaurant ahead of time if you will have a child / disabled / elderly member in your party; they may have make special arrangements to better seat and serve everyone.

Be sure to read and obey all signage.  Sign says "Wait To Be Seated"? Well then, wait to be seated, even if there is no one in sight and plenty of available tables. If there is a sign that says "Seat Yourself" or if you're sharking that last available table in a busy pub, it is in your best interest to wait for the table to first be cleared. If you set yourself at a table that's in need of a busboy, there's a chance you won't get noticed right away by the server... who might not realize the last party has departed.  


Peruse the menu and decide on your order before you begin your dinner conversation.  It is more polite to hold off on your tabletop tete-a-tete to focus on the menu than it is to lose focus on your discussion because you held off on the menu. Not to mention, it's frustrating for your server to have to come back three times as you continue to chat, as well as frustrating for your tablemates who may have already decided on their entrees. Similarly, know what you are going to order before stating "we're ready to order"... pouring over last minute choices typically leads to less-than-satisfactory dining decisions, which can in turn set the tone for the rest of your evening.

Separate Checks.  If you know you’re going to ask for a separate check when dining with others, tell the server before you order so that the process is simplified later.

If you need more information, be specific.  Asking if the sirloin steak is cut from the top of the loin is an example of a "worthwhile" question. There's no point to asking things like "What's good?" or "Is the salmon fresh?". Read the menu for your answer before asking... curious about the restaurant's salad dressing options? It's listed somewhere. Look before you leap.

Treat your server with respect.  Just because he / she's serving you food doesn't mean he / she's a servant. When you go to a restaurant, you want what you want when you want it, and to some degree that's what you should get at a restaurant. However, forgetting that your server is an actual person with several other tables to help will not help you in the long run. Do not expect your table to be top priority. Do not treat your server like a robot. Remember to mind your P's and Q's with everyone, regardless of who they are or what they do. Make eye contact. Smile. Be grateful that they are there to serve you, saving you the trouble of having to do it all at home. Good customers are the ones who recognize the difficulties of the job and who are thankful for the good service provided.


Put down the cell phone.  If you absolutely have to make a call, wait until after you've heard the specials and everyone has placed their order. Otherwise, you'll hold up your dinner—and everyone else's. If you must talk or text, excuse yourself from the table. By constantly handling your phone or keeping it on the table for all to see signifies to everyone that they are not important or interesting enough to warrant your full attention. Unless it is an emergency, there is no need to check your messages / e-mail / game stats / etc. while dining out with friends and family. Put the phone away and let it rest!

Wait until all are served
at your table before beginning to eat. Unless there is a stated discrepancy in time between dishes (such as a soup or salad course arriving before the entree), it is generally considered rude to begin devouring your meal while your equally-hungry dinnermate watches.

Don't place blame where it doesn't belong.
  Your server doesn't mix every drink and sear every steak. They also don't pick the linens, china patterns, volume levels, or set the prep time for your meal. If you don't like something, it's not necessarily their fault. If your steak is undercooked, they'll be happy to get you another one. Just let them know, and they'll get it out as soon as they can. Do not take your frustrations about the quality of your food / drink out on the one who brought it to you. No need to give your server an earful about things that are out of their control -- politely state what might be wrong and request a replacement. You know what they say about "killing the messenger"... don't do it! 


Ask for the check.
  On a calm night, it's actually impolite for the waiter to drop the check on the table. If you're having a wonderful evening, the last thing your server wants to do is rush you out by signaling the end of the event. Speak up when you're ready to go.

On the flip side, don't overstay your welcome.  The only time it's acceptable for a waiter to hand you the check is during a busy night. If your server needs to free up the table and you are sufficiently finished with your meal, they will drop the check on your table. Getting another table means the waiter makes more money, the restaurant makes more money, everyone there makes more money. After all, it's a business and they've got to move things along.

Settle your bill immediately and let the waiter know when you're ready to pay.  Waiters aren't psychic, so let a little money or a credit card peek out of the bill when you're ready to settle. No one appreciates having to hover around your table, asking if the bill is all set... so don't linger over the bill! Settle your stubs promptly instead of ignoring the tab to finish your conversation.

Splitting a singular bill.  Always assume that if you’re dining in a group of more than 6 people, the check is going to be divided evenly among everyone. Don't be finicky about a few dollars -- if you can't afford it, then stay at home or request a separate check ahead of time. If there are a few people not drinking alcohol while the rest of the group imbibes, separate the beverage total to take this into account so as not to overcharge the non-drinkers.


Complain to the Restaurant Before Spewing Online.  Many people don’t realize the power of a bad review, even in an online forum. If you’ve had a really terrible experience, you have every right to spare others from suffering the same fate... but use your power wisely and justly. Even the best restaurants have off nights, which is why professional reviewers will typically eat at the same place several times before they publish their opinions. If you have an issue, man up and speak up to the people who can correct the issue instead of hiding behind your internet podium. You will find most places will be grateful for the opportunity to correct their mistakes; once your gripe is out there in public domain, however, there is little they can do to personally right their wrongs.

The main thing to keep in mind when dining out is to be precise, efficient, and polite when dining out. If you are all smiles, know what you want, and pay attention to everyone involved, your evening will be off to the right start. Remember, we are all responsible for our own great experiences!

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