Dining bold: making the most of dining out

Dining out should be a memorable experience, whether it’s for a weekday lunch or a leisurely dinner to celebrate a special occasion. Americans love to dine out – the National Restaurant Association reported that the average household spent just over $2500 on restaurant meals in 2010, and the growth forecast for the food and beverage industry remains positive. Yet for at least a proportion of those meals out, diners walked away feeling less than satisfied. While there are many horror stories about poor service in restaurants (and just as many about nightmare customers from the waitstaff), a little advance planning and communication can turn a mediocre dining experience into one that meets or exceeds expectations.

I’ll admit, I was for many years one of those meek diners who wouldn’t make a fuss if something went awry. Enter one particular Food & Beverage professor at the UNLV College of Hotel Administration, who spent much of our Dining Room Management course lectures imparting wisdom about demanding (and getting) acceptable service in restaurants, and our entire class soon became seasoned experts at not only dining out, but making sure we departed the premises satisfied. She explained that restaurant dining, like any hospitality function, is based on relationships – the relationship between the patron and the establishment, and between the patron and the server – and as with any relationship, effective communication is the key to success. Here are a few tips that have been gathered over the years based on her sage advice:

1. Do your homework. If you’re a regular, the homework might be as simple as calling ahead to see if there’s an available table. Embarking on a new experience takes a little bit more legwork to have an enjoyable evening. Check out considerations that are important to you, such as price point, suggested attire, parking, type of cuisine, and atmosphere. It’s also important to check other factors which might affect your experience. Are there special events which will affect traffic? (A summer visit to New York one year happened to coincide with Restaurant Week, which resulted in a 45 minute wait for a table at Kittichai in SoHo, in spite of my reservation.) You can’t really fault a restaurant for being noisy or crowded if you haven’t researched it, and with the number of professional and user-submitted restaurant reviewers available on the Web, there’s no excuse not to Google your gastronomy.

2. Do not fear the special seating request. Restaurants are in the experience business – they want you to enjoy yourself, and for many diners, that means scoring a great table. I was once mystified about the concept of a “good table” vs. a “bad table”. After all, dining out was a treat, so who would fuss about something as simple as a table? After some experience, it became easier to pick out some basic likes and dislikes: Table or booth? Inside or outside? Near a window or in a quiet back corner?

The best way to have seating requests met is to make a reservation in advance and specify your preference up front, and host or hostess (real estate baron might be a more accurate term) will often do their best to accommodate. For restaurants that don’t take reservations or for a walk-in situation, it doesn’t hurt to ask – often the worst outcome will simply be a longer wait. The request doesn’t always have to be specific, either: a half-joking request to simply “make it special” at Le Colonial in Chicago once netted a beautiful window-front table for two and exquisite fairy-godmother-like service from the gracious waitstaff.

3. Ask your waitstaff questions. It’s their job to know about what they’re serving, not simply taking orders and delivering food. If you have special dietary needs, they can usually be accommodated, but be sure to let your server know up front. In higher end establishments, don’t worry about asking for a translation if you’re not sure what foie gras (fatted goose liver) or haricots verts (green beans) are; it’s almost guaranteed your server has fielded the question before. It’s also important to clear up any questions about the menu, especially if it’s particularly fanciful. The chef might know exactly what a pavé is (it means it’s shaped like a square), but if it turns out that’s not your bag, finding out up front will save you the trouble of sending it back later.

4. Sending food back is not a crime. Speaking of sending it back, that’s a bit of a pop culture misunderstanding in and of itself. In most cases the chef won’t go berserk and come out of the kitchen ranting and threatening to quit, and the waitstaff won’t sabotage your food when they bring it back out. Again, restaurants are in the business of making people happy, and if your meal doesn’t look or taste as expected, you have every right to send it back for correction or replacement. If you must send food back, quietly let the server know what the issue is; a hint of apology doesn’t hurt either.

It can be that it simply wasn’t what you were expecting: a return of a house made tater tots appetizer at Union Public House in Tucson went off without a hitch – the server agreed it was difficult to reinvent an icon, but diplomatically added several of the regulars were total converts to their version of the classic. We weren’t so lucky in another instance: a return of a too-lightly cooked halibut filet at One-O-One in London some years ago met with resistance. “That’s the way we cook it.” was the explanation, although the snafu was ultimately resolved after some persistence. The takeaway is that you shouldn’t be asked to pay for something that doesn’t meet your expectations – although it’s important to point out that the restaurant’s expectation is that if it’s bad enough to send back, it shouldn’t be half eaten before it is.

5. Hit a roadblock? Ask for a Manager. If there is an issue with the service, don’t be afraid to ask for the person in charge. At the very least they’ll offer an explanation, an apology, and an offer to fix the problem. An unacceptable way of showing your discontent is to leave an inadequate tip for your serve, or to omit the tip altogether – servers aren’t evaluated based on their tips (although they do make up the majority of their total compensation), and not tipping a server for their perceived shortcomings ultimately won’t address the problem. Let the restaurant take care of compensation if compensation is necessary, but failing to tip a server is just plain inconsiderate. Conversely, if you’re surprised and delighted by the service you have received, be sure to also give praise where it’s due. Not only will it shine a positive light on both the server and the manager’s day, it speaks volumes for your value as a customer if you plan to return.

Being an informed, considerate, confident diner is the best way to ensure your satisfaction when dining out. Memorable meals in restaurants are often the result of meaningful, productive interactions with the people who work in them, and the key to receiving great service is sometimes as easy as simply asking for it.

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We’ve all had memorable (both positive and negative) dining experiences. Have one of your own to share? Leave a comment below!

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