By Ken Collura
Introduction: I work the floor as a sommelier/manager in a busy restaurant five nights a week and try to dine out on at least one of my days off, so I’ve written this piece from the perspective of someone who has been an active participant on both sides of the table for many years. There are ways a customer can assist a restaurant in making their evening out memorable. Neither the diner nor the restaurant he/she has chosen for that night’s meal want anything to go awry. We all work hard, and a good meal should provide both solace and pleasure.
There are numerous articles on server etiquette and technique, but when have you ever read a piece on customer etiquette? I thought it might be useful to relate a few tips on how diners themselves can set the stage to make things flow smoother for them the next time they venture forth.
Have a Clue: Try to have a general idea of what you might want prior to arriving at the restaurant, i.e., do you feel like meat or fish? The longer you take to get things together, the longer it’s going to be before you eat. If you’re unsure, seek advice. Tell your server what your likes and dislikes are. Don’t be reticent to admit unfamiliarity with certain foods and wines. Popular Portland restaurants seem to get busy earlier rather than later, so if you’re arriving at 630pm and take 45 minutes to get an order assembled, expect to wait a while. When a place is full, I prefer to get all the ordering accomplished pretty much right away, especially if I’m well acquainted with the establishment. This affords me more time with my sweetie, and less time waiting for the server to return.
Give Direction: If there is something vital the staff should know in order to make the evening a success, tell them immediately (“We’re going to the theater and need to be out of here quickly,” or “My friend and I haven’t seen each other in two years, we’re in no hurry.”) If there are any folks with food allergies, vegetarians at the table or just questions about ingredients, tell the server right away and save disappointment later.
Know That You Are Not Alone: When entering a crowded restaurant, what’s the first thing you notice? There are a lot of people around. The chances that your waiter is on premise just to serve you alone are slim. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect prompt attention, but if the service staff is slammed, I try to show patience with the situation (at least for a little while). A 20-minute wait without bread or wine on the table is unacceptable, however.
Treat Folks With Respect: There are times when people go out to have fun, and things can get loud. I like to rip it up as much as the next man, but at the same time I attempt to remain cognizant of who’s around me. If you’re partying hearty, remember that there may be children or the elderly seated nearby, and they probably don’t feel like sharing your mirth, so try keeping it down to a dull roar. In addition, if things aren’t going exactly as you had hoped (food not prepared properly, slow service, room too hot/cold, rude wait staff, etc.) tell a manager calmly about your misgivings. Barking epithets in a manager’s face concerning a subject about which he has no prior knowledge will not help the situation.
Do the Right Thing: Tipping is the customer’s option. I’m in the industry and always tip well. Even if the bisque is spilled directly on my shirt, I still leave something. It’s inherent. Let’s sum it up this way: at the end of the evening, if your expectations have been met, show your appreciation and take care of your server. But if there was a problem with the service, once again find a manager and say so. Problems can’t be corrected if they’re not conveyed. Nothing confuses a server more than receiving little or no gratuity from a table they had perceived as content.
Sharing fine food and wine in a welcoming/stimulating setting is an exercise in joy. Adhering to some of these concepts can’t guarantee a great night out, but they sure can help grease the wheels.
Thanks for the article. There does seem to be some disconnect between those providing service and those recieving it in terms of etiquette. On a different board I tried something similar, a quick list of things to be considered when dining. I was shocked at the hostility of the responses though. I don’t suppose we’ll see such a reaction here, however, as this is a more industry/frequent diner sort of forum. It seems that the hardest part of articulating basic rules of behavior is getting people to admit the need for such rules. Anyway, enough rambling. I just wanted to ask a question:
I’ve found, in my experience, that being asked my name does not lead to a positive interaction with my customer. What usually happens is someone, who is usually already acting aggresive, will ask my name, not return their name, and then use my name in every sentence, attached to every demand. “Elwood, I need water.” “Elwood, more bread.” Etc. It seems like some kind of power move. I advise friends to not ask the server’s name unless they plan on returning the favor, and further, are not planning on using the server’s name as a dog-whistle. I don’t mean this to be a hard and fast rule, just something people should consider. Thoughts?
THanks – I never had a food service job and appreciate the perspective.
You did a great job picking the wines at Andina.
I think it should always be a friendly, peer-to-peer partnership between the customer and the server. If the customer doesn’t understand the menu, the server should help without being condescending. If the server is unsure of what the customer wants, the customer should be willing to detail their requests up front. If something goes awry, the customer, server and chef need to work it all out, respectfully.
I have seen other thoughts here and there on customer etiquette, but nothing as nicely done as that.
On one point though, I have at least a question and maybe a disagreement. Having been a vegetarian for 18 years now, I find that often the server drops off menus, then reappears and launches into the specials without me ever feeling like there was an appropriate moment to mention that I’m vegetarian, and in many cases, I’m with another vegetarian or 2 when I eat. It’s not a big deal, but I would at least throw in a call for servers to try to remember to provide some kind of opening for people to bring up allergies, dietary preferences and suchlike.
If I go somewhere nice to eat, I almost always want a pleasant, relaxed experience. Having to collar a host/ess who seats us and hands out menus to instruct them to tell the server we’re in no hurry and oh I’m vegetarian doesn’t seem like much of a start to the evening.
Ken Collura says
As a brief answer to Post #1 from elwoodwiles: The customer that uses this ploy is indeed playing the power card. Believe me, it will behoove you as a server to not to react in a negative way. Anything perceived as instigation will only cause the problem to escalate. Keep your responses to a minimum, with lots of “yes sir” and “right away sir.” Power-trip customers such as these, if dealt with correctly, sometimes turn out to be excellent tippers. They leave the restaurant smiling, and so do you.
Hmm, my father is an expert of the name asking. He does reciprocate with his own name, however, and while he does expect a high calibre of service, he is very friendly and nice when asking for things. He would say something like “Elwood, could I have some more water”, etc. I never saw that as a power ploy. At restaurants I frequent, I know the names of all the staff, and address them by name. I don’t see that as a power trip at all. I think that the tone used is also key. If somebody said “Elwood, could I please have some more water” in a very nice way, that would have a completely different meaning than somebody saying it harshly. Asking for a server’s name could be completely innocent.
Thanks for the responses. I realize not everyone who asks the server’s name is trying to play some kind of power game. People ask for names all the time and are mostly polite.
Sometimes, however, it’s this whole weird power-game that can be quite uncomfortable. Any server worth their salt just ignores it and does their job, but it can still be a problem and get people identified as being problem customers, big tip or not (sometimes there is more than a mere tip at stake – there’s basic human dignity. Servers do not hang their’s at the door.) That’s why I brought it up. The article does a good job of covering issues to be thoughtful of, I just think this is one more.
So, of course, ask your server’s name, but do it as an exchange of equals.
well seasoned says
Mateu: Having worked as both a server and a cook, I have some suggestions that I hope will make your dining experiences more pleasant:
1) If the restaurant has a website, do a little research so that you know what the vegetarian options are even before you’re seated.
2) Let the server tell your table about the specials without interruption. You should be able to tell pretty accurately whether or not a given dish fits your criteria; if there’s any question, don’t hesitate to ask. Personally, I have no problem mentioning my shellfish allergy to servers if I have to, as in “Do the potstickers have any shrimp in them?”
3) If the restaurant doesn’t have a website and it’s a high-end, white-tablecloth kind of place where you need a reservation, mention to the person who takes your reservation that some of your party are vegetarians (specify what you do and don’t eat) and would appreciate guidance from your server.
4) In the case of restaurants with fixed menus, you should call to find out how many dishes you would need them to change for you and how willing they are to do it; this also applies to banquets (weddings, fundraisers, etc.). I recently cooked at a fundraiser where one of the guests told us at the last minute that she couldn’t eat anything on the menu (despite the fact that the menu details had been on the invitation); we wound up serving her four courses of salad.
Mostly Running. says
Regarding asking a server for his or her name, I have often told customers the following:
“I tend not to give out my name because it creates an unequal relationship between us. Instead, I promise to remember your faces, your likes and dislikes and whenever I can your birthday, anniversary and the bottle of wine you ordered to celebrate your daughter’s 21st birthday. I’m not good with names and would hate to make either of us uncomfortable and interfere with providing you with competent service.”
I have used this line, with sincerity, dozens of times and only once gotten anything less than a positive response.
Weird. At most restaurants I frequent, the server introduces themselves with no prompting from me.
I’m bad with names too, but if I ever got that from a server, I would be a bit offended. I’m glad I haven’t had you as a server before.
Tim L says
Having received exceptional service while dining, I will sometimes ask for a servers name for one reason only. The following morning I am more than happy to mail a kind note to the restaurant involved to offer in detail just how exceptional our service and food was the night before. I never ask for a last name and understand that servers deserve their privacy too.
Mostly Running. says
I am equally glad that I have not been offered “Apollo” as the name of a guest. I would probably have to politely excuse myself and go to the back room to figure out what exact inadequacy in themselves they were worried about.
I am curious what restaurants you frequent and if they, the servers also offer “enjoy” upon dropping off your meal?
Matt Bonner says
well seasoned, thanks for the thoughts. What you spell out is pretty much what we do. Which means not bothering with places like Carlyle that have nothing veg on the menu. Who wants to go to a nice restaurant and find out they’ll be eating bread and salad?
I was mostly questioning Ken Collura’s advice “If there are any folks with food allergies, vegetarians at the table or just questions about ingredients, tell the server right away and save disappointment later.”
As you point out “right away” probably doesn’t mean any earlier than after the server tells you the specials. It seems like most restaurants in town mark their vegetarian entrees, but if they don’t, it’s definitely wise to ask. Four years living in Spain teaches you never to assume the chef won’t add meat to a dish that looks vegetarian on the menu!
Oh, and Portland chefs, how about a few more vegetarian specials?
Good topic. I have question for the front of the house folks:
What is your impression of a diner who asks, “Do you know who I am?” I am sure the question makes an impression but I am not sure that it is the impression the diner wants.
What is your impression when the diner asking the question is a local, high-profile restaurant owner?
I love anyone who brings me food and drinks. I always tip at least 20% and mentally add in the cost of any comped items before figuring the tip. Gotta love the FOH!
Food Dude says
Singingpig – I use that line every time! ;)
well seasoned says
singingpig: This is probably apocryphal, but I heard once that someone pulled that line at an airline counter during a scuffle over a cancelled flight, and the reservation agent turned to the other people standing around and said, “Does anyone know who this gentleman is? He seems to have forgotten his name.”
Wish I had the nerve to use that response myself!
Pork Cop says
When I lived in Los Angeles I would hear that line about……. oh….8-9 times every day!(along with people referring to themselves in the third person “What does the Natalie want for lunch? The Natalie feels like a chicken caesar salad but with ranch dressing instead of caesar and arugala instead of romaine and poached salmon instead of chicken,no croutons and a glass of Arnold Palmer with 1.2 ice cubes room temperature in Burkino Faso” etc….)I had the (dis)pleasure of working right next to the Fox studio lot.There’s not much you can say if you want to keep your job. My co-worker got fired for finally losing it and saying…”Yeah, I know who you are….you’re the freakin’ jerk who comes in here EVERY freakin’ day and asks if we know who he is!!!!!” He says it was worth it.
Question for those who have worked in restaurants: I’ve always thought that the move where a customer asks for a different table than the one the host/ess first brings them to is frequently just a power play. Thoughts?
In college I had a friend who lived in the jock dorm. Two rooms shared a bathroom, and the room across the loo from him had two football players in it. One night one of the football players was up to something with his girlfriend and repeatedly yelled “What’s my name *female dog*?” My friend got so sick of it he yelled “IT’S BROCK! SHUT THE F*** UP!” It worked!
In response to Jeff’s question — we haven’t asked to change tables often, but when we have it’s been because the restaurants in question tend to pack tables in like sardines and if the place is pretty full, the meal is very uncomfortable. Of course other tables need to be open for this to work. I can only think of two places where we’ve done this — the Macaroni Grills in downtown and Bridgeport Village.
Blame my Greek parents I guess… I didn’t get to choose my name, but if I did, I know it wouldn’t be Brock…
You ate at Macaroni grill? Is it as awful as I have heard? I almost got dragged to PF Changs the other day, but I was able to convince the ex Californians I was with that Sungari is a better alternative for Americanized Chinese. They thanked me after the meal… And Cheesecake Factory? Why would I eat at a restaurant that has “Factory” in the name? Spaghetti Factory… blech. I honestly don’t understand why chain restaurants work in a town like this where there are so many great options for truly good local food.
Good question Jeff,
For those customers with a propensity for power plays in general the case might be true, and an experienced server should be pretty good at picking those folks out. However, there might be many a good reason a customer may want to switch tables. Some may prefer a more private table to share an intimate moment or serious discussion, a window table for the light, the distraction or for (one of my own favorite pastimes) people watching, a corner table to avoid running into so and so, or my own very personal reason – I’m deaf in one ear. With a trend for many of our fine (and not so fine) dining establishments to have DECIBLE LEVELS somewhat on the scale of a Ramones concert at the Roseland, and with all those concrete walls and floors /tall ceiling dining rooms (reference the discussion on this website for ClarkLewis) out there that only add to the crazy bouncing acoustics, a corner table or even a table by a wall or window is important sometimes if I am going to be able to hear the specials let alone take part in any of the conversation. Most of the time restaurants are quite accommodating on this matter without me having to mention loss of said hearing, but on more occasions than I am happy to report it has been an issue, making everyone in my dining party (including myself) feel awkward and bad. I hate having to explain my disability to a stranger, but more than that, I hate it when staff treat me as if I am asking just because I’m a veruca salt (i.e. spoiled brat) or picky double-soy-half-decaf-no-foam latte type of girl (servers, you know the type), and seem annoyed by my request (which hasn’t happened too often, but it has happened).
I never request a different table if the place is full or if we are a party of two and there are only large tables available, etc., but back to that whole partnership between server and customer thing…as both a customer and former food service flunky, I want to put trust that my server will be accommodating without judgment, and as former server, that my customer has good and valid reasons for asking and that overall they have an enjoyable and easy experience in my establishment.
Which brings me to my own questions: Have y’all ever asked as restaurant to turn down the music and how has this been received? Industry folks, how do you feel/handle a customer’s request to turn it town a notch? I have plenty of stories and thoughts on this one, but I’d like to hear what others have to say.
Food Dude says
I was at Andina last week, and as usual was keeping an eye on the dining room. There is one table for two that is in an awkward location; I probably wouldn’t want to sit at it unless there was no other choice. Three different couples sat there during my meal, but to the restaurants credit, every time a window seat opened up, they were moved to the better table. I was impressed they took the initiative to do this without being asked.
Jeff: In regards to your post about the “power play” of people asking to switch tables…my husband and I go out to eat at least twice a week and we always tip at least 20% regardless of service. However, we are usually led to one of the worst tables in the house (think kitchen/bathrooms/front door). We are intrigued as we watch the host/hostess sit middle aged/elderly people at the better tables, who proceed to split an appetizer or an entree, drink one glass of wine and decline dessert. Meanwhile, we’re over by the bathroom or kitchen, drinking a bottle of wine, ordering salads, separate entrees, and desserts. And cocktails. Do we look young? Do we look like we won’t spend money or come back? We’re not sure, but it happens too often to be a coincidence. We certainly don’t need or ask for the best table in the restaurant and if the place is busy, we are happy for any table we get. However, if I’m going to spend $100+ at your restaurant, I think we deserve a decent table, particularly if the place is empty. Host/hostess, take a chance on us! Your server may thank you! (Profusely, as we tip well and we come back often if we’re treated nicely.)
A thought on table assignments;
It’s a given that there are only so many tables in a restaurant. The available tables are usually plotted out to “turn” at least once a night, since there are very few restaurants who can pay their bills on 20 or so covers (guests) a night. Those large enough to accommodate multitudes have even more overhead to worry about, hence a potentially more frenetic pace.
So, if you call to reserve a table, they are already allotted per the time frame; e.g. five tables per half hour. There are only so many 2, 4, 6 etc… tops to be had, so if you call to make a reservation, you will be assigned one of the available tables somewhat at random, barring special needs, requests, # of guests, whatever. The same laws of physics apply to walk in guests as well. Unforseen events, like large parties that book later can radically alter the landscape.
This is a mostly logistical process that can definitely get hairy at times, and it’s obviously very difficult to meet everyone’s needs all the time. Any uncomfortable pause that may be the result of a request for a different table is usually based on the challenging physics of fitting everyone into the right space at the right time and shouldn’t be made into the guest’s problem. Ask, certainly, and by all means, wherever possible a restaurant should be more than willing to do their best to accommodate you. As someone who works FOH and handles a lot of reservations, I particularly appreciate it when guests mention special needs, like hearing difficulties; it helps the entire staff to be aware and sensitive, hopefully without inspiring misunderstandings or being obtrusive. The guest’s comfort and preferences are definitely paramount (if they aren’t, there is clearly a problem) but there are sometimes spacial limits that simply cannot be overcome. I personally don’t know of anyone who would seat any guest at any particular table based on their age, appearance or bearing, with the possible exception of the frail elderly for whom it might be thoughtful to provide the most expedient and comfortable seating.
Keep in mind, too, that a “nice” table is often a rather subjective thing. The goal is to provide such an enjoyable experience with food and service that perhaps even the most seemingly unappealing table could become an oasis of comfort and good feelings.
cusinebonnefemme, I actually have asked for music to be turned down in restaurants, and it usually is without any attitude.
I even asked for a music switch at one place (I think it was Echo, on MLK) – as in, “Please, can we listen to anything other than xmas music…PLEEEZE?!” Actually, everyone at my table was annoyed by it, I was the one to say something about it. It was changed without a blink, and the guy behind the bar said he was relieved as he was getting pretty sick of it too. ;o)
Personally, I think that unless you are in a club with live music or a dance floor, the music shouldn’t be so loud that you can’t hear the people you are dining with. Otherwise, if loud music is making your dining experience miserable, you should ask for them to turn it down.
Lots of folks have a bit of hearing loss. And as you get older, it often becomes more difficult to hear with lots of background noise for many folks.
An operator worth his/her salt considers the music to be part of the ambience of a restaurant, and adjusts the level of the music to suit the din of the crowd and the time of the evening. Perhaps a request to lower the music in quiet room is apropos; asking the music to be changed is out of line. The tunes are part of the tableaux of the evening. I wouldn’t come to a party at your house, and ask you to change your background music. I think it’s just bad form.
It’s kind of like people who read the menu in the window, proceed into the restaurant, and then ask to make significant changes to everything they order to suit their own personal tastes. I’m not talking about dietary restrictions, either. I often wonder why such people go out to eat in the first place.
Excuse me, what?
Well blase, there were about 6 of us there in the restaurant ordering drinks and food and I don’t think anyone else was there. The guy behind the bar agreed with me and was more than happy to change the obnoxious-to-us xmas music. No one thought I was out of line, no one thought it was a big deal, no one disagreed. You are certainly entitled to do so in the abstract, but you weren’t there at the time.
It was a smart thing for them to do, because they were going to lose the only 6 paying customers they had at the time. Sure, they can do what they want, play whatever music they want…and I can take my business anywhere I want.
And no, I haven’t ever asked for a music change before or since in any restaurant, though I have asked for it to be turned down. IMO, which you don’t have to share, if you are turning up the music because you can’t hear it for the people shouting at each other across the tables, it’s too freakin’ loud. Again, I am not talking about a club or live music venue with food, I am talking about a restaurant.
Personally, I think that going to someone’s private house for a party to celebrate is very different than going to a restaurant and paying for a meal you eat.
And that’s exactly the rub: the difference between the restaurateurs who consider their patrons “customers” and those that consider them “guests.” a subtle distinction not easily discerned by “customers.”
yeah, but christmas music is just bad form. There are people out there that find it offensive: athiests, muslims, jews, pagans, satanists, and people with musical taste. I think that crap is overplayed myself, and it drives me batty. I would leave any restaurant and never come back if I heard them playing christmas music.
well put blase
Pork Cop says
Hospitality: “The virtue which induces us to feed and lodge certain people who are not in need of food and lodging”
Pork Cop says
Hostility: “A peculiarly sharp and specially applied sense of the earth’s overpopulation”
On that I agree with you blase, because when hosting guests well, you seek to make their experience an enjoyable one by putting them first. I don’t necessarily believe that the customer/guest is ALWAYS right, but I do believe that in a SERVICE industry you need to pay attention to what your guests/customers want if you want to make a business of it.
And if that means making the music a little bit less intrusive so your guests can enjoy themselves, that is what a good host will do.
Pork Cop says
The problem is that every one has a different opinion on these things. I personally hate Christmas music (Frank Sinatra/Cindy Laupers’ duet “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” being the lone exception) but Granny, Mummy and Daddy happen to love it! It’s impossible to please everyone.Of course playing Slayer on 11 at Carlyle probably isn’t the best business plan. Unless the guests love to headbang with their Grilled Hapu’upu’u.
So what in this country isn’t a SERVICE industry these days? And of course a good owner is always striving to cater to his/her guests. However, there is a line which many people with a chip on one shoulder and their changepurses on the other seem to want to cross at every opportunity. And just as they can choose to leave an establishment that doesn’t want to indulge their brand of self-importance, so can an owner tell them to seek their gastronomic pleasures elsewhere. I favor changing up the background music on a nightly basis- even early versus late hours- and as I set the mood and the tone, I would be loathe to change my selection based on the request from a guest. note to self: never ever play Christmas carols.
I like John Lennon’s x-mas song, but I usually ask if they can lower the volume on Yoko.
aaahhhhh! they’re here! don’t you understand? ‘keep it real but kepp it nutral’kan’t type klearly now,YOUR ONE OF THEm// no, no NO!!!!! ……………….it does’t hurt… the water is warm.
Food Dude says
Sidemeat – please pass whatever you are drinking.
sez ‘bitter dregs’ but it’s empyt anyhoo. gota quartre?
I recently married a life-long employee of fine dining restaurants, and I think I have a relatively good take on how to make your server happy/comfortable. It has cost me thousands of dollars at various area restaurants, but I think that in the end it will be worth the monetary hardship because I now know which way to slightly lean when the water-filler-upper person comes by to fill my glass.
However, one thing I’ve yet to gain the confidence for is how to convey that my food is completely inedible. I’ve choked down a lot of dishes that are prepared beautifully even though my unrefined tastes can’t appreciate them, but sometimes I’m served things that taste as if Tim Conway just pooped on a lhasa apso.
I had the vegan biscuits and gravy and Cup and Saucer once and had no problem telling my server that I needed something different, but I can’t bring myself to do the same at higher-end joints.
I’m almost afraid that I’m jsut being a wussy because of the fact that any $22 plate just HAS to be good and it’s just me.
What do I do, Abby?
Sincerely, Confused in Southeast
Sorry to take so long to respond to your question. I do like the Macaroni Grill and the two Portland locations I’ve been to have both been consistantly good (the one by my parents’ house in NJ has issues in that regard, but is still a nice change-up from the 150,000 red sauce places around). The reason I mentioned them is that each location here has one floor area that is packed tight with tables and if it’s crowded you are guaranteed to have an awkward dining experience. It’s best to get a seat in the tables/booths on the outer edges of those particular rooms, or to be seated in one of the auxillary dining rooms.
PF Chang’s has one or two decent items, the rest aren’t much to speak of. I haven’t been to the one here, but the Cheesecake Factory has some good dishes, but their problem is that dishes tend to be a massive pile of one food, without alot of thought given to sides and complementary items. Skip dinner and just eat the cheesecake, as they do that pretty well.
well seasoned says
apcow: Sounds like you’re being tempted, or perhaps nudged by your new spouse, into trying dishes that push your palate too far. I recommend that when you’re in a high-end restaurant you’ve never tried before (or have been cajoled back to one where you had inedible food previously) you stick to dishes that are as simply prepared as possible. Every additional ingredient, especially any that are unfamiliar to you, increases the danger that the dish will displease you. So, for example, order the salmon with citrus beurre blanc (lemon butter, basically), a veg, and potatoes, and pass on the napoleon of kasu black cod, wakame, and shallot marmalade garnished with cilantro-chipotle oil. (In the unlikely case that sounds good to anyone, sorry, I just made it up.) BTW, an attentive server at a really good restaurant will notice if you’re pushing your food around your plate and will offer a replacement. I agree that it’s hard to send back a $22 plate, unless there’s a clear lapse in execution or quality (over-cooked steak, smelly fish, etc.).
Ordering well is the best policy.
Btw, I’ve been thinking for some time that we probably know each other. Shoot me an email, you can leave an email on my website, singingpigfarm.com.
Well seasoned, i guess i didn’t make myself as clear as i meant to. My wife hates what i consider daily staples such as blue cheese, shellfish, walnuts, mushrooms, and even cilantro (but i can’t blame her on the cilantro thing–people put that crap on everything these days). I honestly don’t think it’s my palate that is the problem here. I’ll try anything once, and that includes those sweetbreads at paley’s that i included in my haiku that SO should have won second place. What i was referring to was the absolutely inedible dishes that the server should have been embarassed about putting in front of me.
My overall point was that i have no problem making the bartender at the Astoria Red Lion Karaoke Lounge take back my $3 potato skins, but I’m not as comfortable insisting that the server at–hypothetically–Nostrana remove the rancid pile of tasteless noodles soaked in pink water masquerading as something that cost me three hours (after taxes) of my work day to enjoy. So, is this a problem that I have as a diner, or that my server has as an employee?
And how the hell do you tip on that?
well seasoned says
apcow: Sorry to have misunderstood, I get it now. The problem you describe is the fault of the kitchen, so how you handle it is your choice. Here’s what I usually do:
1) If it’s a seasoning problem, I reach for the salt (if there is any on the table – and BTW, I think it’s way pretentious for restaurants not to put salt on the table, that message being “Our food is so perfectly seasoned that if you don’t like it, it’s your fault”). Salt brings up the flavors in food, so a “tasteless” dish can frequently be made palatable with additional salt. (Over-salting is a different problem, for which there’s no fix.) The reason I try salt first is that, like you, I don’t enjoy sending food back to the kitchen and will do it only if I absolutely have to.
2) If the problem with the dish is under- or over-cooking (mushy pasta, crunchy risotto, soggy pizza crust, etc.), I weigh the hassle of sending it back against the depth of my disappointment (a calculation in which price definitely plays a part, along with whether I have time to wait for a replacement), then I either do or don’t signal the server, explain the problem, and send it back
for a replacement, which can be either a second try at the same dish or my choice of a new dish. If you do send a dish back, do it courteously, even if the problem you describe is grievous: e.g., “I hate sending anything back to the kitchen, but this risotto is so under-cooked that the grains are crunchy, and I really can’t eat it.” If the server comes back from the kitchen with a refusal to replace the dish (“The chef say that’s the traditional Italian way to serve risotto . . .”), then I pick out whatever’s edible, leave the rest, tip my normal 20%, write a letter to the restaurant the next day, and never return – I also tell all my friends.
3) Tipping: I never punish a server for the sins of the kitchen. There’s no hell like the hell of having to put plate after plate of disappointing food in front of customers who are paying through the nose for it. (Trust me, the server IS embarrassed.) If I have a really bad meal, or if the kitchen refuses to take back a poorly-prepared dish, I put my complaint into a letter to the owner rather than chewing out the server.
More on sending food back, cranky customers, and how to make things right…
I have only sent food back on a few occasions: delivery of the wrong order of course, when I found a fly in something, and when a burger was delivered not medium rare as requested, and not even (the French option) saignant, but half frozen/raw in the middle. I’ve always tried to handle this without being rude, angry (its just a burger people not a car crash), explain exactly why (or better yet show them), and I always have mucho sympathy for the server (having been one myself ).
My ploy or preference is to just leave it if I don’t like it. I respect those who do send food back as long as they are justified and send it back with decorum (as eloquently stated by Well Seasoned in point #2 above), but unless I’m in a high-end establishment, I would just rather chalk it up to calling it a loss and knowing where not to take future meals. I could really rail on Il Piatto as a perfect case study on this one, but I’ll save that for a future rant…
However, what gets my pickle, is when a server initiates, “how is everything?” or “Did you like your blah, blah, blah,” only to go on the defensive, “but that’s how we serve it here,” or school me on traditional French cuisine (which is kind of like telling a southern grandmother the right way to fry chicken), or better yet, my favorite response – the deer in the headlights look. It’s almost as if they ask because they are supposed to ask, but don’t really want to know the answer or deal with it.
To be fair, on many occasions it seems to be handled well, “oh, can I bring you something else? “what didn’t you like about it?” “would you like another one?” or even “I am so sorry.” This is that professional dialogue (on both ends) that makes a mistake or a botched entrée ok for me, its not the problem, its how the problem is handled by BOTH the customer and the server.
On the flip, if a customer is a dick about it, getting angry, acting like a baby, making a scene, I used to go into what I call uber-server robot mode: no emotion, super polite, and reserve my tone for the way my French nursery school teacher talked to the tots having temper tantrums – soothing, but firm. Customers – it does not help the situation to have a freak out on the server.
And now I’m going to share a little story with you, I guess it’s actually quite long, so bare with me, (or just keep scrolling if you get bored) that separates the pros from the, well, now out of business places.
I was at Bluehour last year with my number one dining companion who received the wrong entrée. It looked oddly like a pork chop to me (he ordered veal), but maybe it was the complimentary champagne on top of the Dolcetto, but I thought about it, said something to my companion, and he convinced me it looked like veal to him and dug in anyway. After a few bites I asked for a try. It was juicy, it was slightly pink, smoky and with the right give, and it was gooood. However, it was pork, not the veal her ordered, I knew that much. Dining companion is semi-kosher and pork is a religious no-no for him. Dining companion was not practiced enough in eating pig to recognize what was on his plate. Waitress comes by, “I am so sorry I just realized you ordered veal and I gave you the pork.” Dining companion: “well, it was good, but I have to tell you I’m Jewish and I haven’t had pork in over 25 years.” Blood drains from server’s face. “I am so sorry,” she says genuinely, “let me take this.” Luckily I was seated so I could see the service area in the kitchen where server is conferring with the manager. She is explaining something, looks very forlorn, and is the manager is listening intently. A few minutes later, manager comes to our table. Server offers dining companion another entrée, apologies, and then states that all of the entrees and wine are on Bluehour. We never asked. They messed up, they fessed up, and they made it right by their own initiation. You bet, freebie or not, I still go to Bluehour.
Another sad little place however (no longer in business), in not delivering the ordered goods, did everything wrong. Yes, they apologized for spacing our ticket (which they somehow lost on the way to the kitchen), making us wait an hour after we ordered and giving the last of the specials we ordered to several people seated much, much later than we were. Yes, they offered me a wine to help soothe the even longer wait. Yet even though the place was half full never checked on us again, sent out what tasted like the overcooked ‘end of the shift’ (which it was) bottom of the stew pot, charged us approximately $76.00 dollars for a meal that really added up to $49.00 (this was for a lunch), after sitting and sitting and sitting with empty cups and plates (I think I timed it at 40 minutes because at this point it was almost funny) and had to hunt server down (we were the only customers left at this point) to make check right and pay. Oh, and that wine she offered, she charged us for it. That was one of the lamest “fine” dining experiences in Portland. In fairness I did write the owner, who apologized and offered us a free meal (which I declined as a matter of principle), but it left a bad taste in my mouth (pun intended).
So for me, its not that mistakes are made, its how they are handled that counts.
Food Dude says
Because I take great pains not to be remembered at restaurants, I never make a commotion about anything, from bad food to water not being refilled. I just wink at my dining companions, and they know it will be addressed elsewhere.
In most cases, I think the “How is your meal” question from most servers is perfunctory at best. They don’t want to know, but are betting you are one of the 80% that will smile and say “just fine”. A server friend of mine says, “Always ask them when their mouths are full… that way, all they can do is nod, but you’ve done your job and asked the question”.
When I’m just dining out for myself and not working on a review, I will send back over/undercooked dishes, cold food, etc. I do not send back things that are just bad, but rather make a mental note not to return to the restaurant.
Wine is the difficult one for me. I like to think I have a good knowledge of wine, have worked in wineries, and have a large collection. However, I always second-guess myself when it comes to a corked wine. Unless it is blatantly bad, I tend to think it is just me.
Here’s a story from me: I used to dine at Higgins on a regular basis. A few years ago I was there on an important night, and was discussing the wine list with a server. He was really pushing one particular red, and kept saying how much his customers liked it. I know enough about wine to realize this bottle was very close to being over the hill, but at his urging I ordered it. When the wine poured into my glass an off color brown, I knew we were in trouble. One sip confirmed that. Unfortunately, the waiter got very snippy when I refused it, and gave us attitude the rest of the night. End result? They lost a good customer, as I’ve never returned to Higgins.
J.D. Marshall says
Holy Smokes your a somellier/manager and your trying to teach guest etiquette. Before you do that you should understand that a guest is coming to you for a dining experiance.
It is totally up to you and your staff to provide that. If your staff is not trained to soft sell or to recommend items off the menu or are willing to guide the guest along in their meal selection.
Often times a guest will not know what they want until they have seen your menu or had the server recommend or describe something to them.
Perhaps you and your staff should read the free training manual about service and increasing tip income.
The link is at the website provided.