My friends have told me that if I have a special ability with food and wine, it is not a gifted palate nor an especially deft hand in the kitchen; rather it is the treatment I receive in restaurants despite the fact I am basically destitute financially and not particularly good looking or well connected. Essentially, I receive the treatment restaurants give their regular customers, and that is achievable from your first visit to any good restaurant (a good place being one with a vision and a mission beyond making money.) This is a series about the behaviors I see as natural that some do not.
Don’t be a tourist. By this I mean be savvy. Know the fundamentals of how a restaurant works. Restaurant people, like folks in any other profession, have their own language and their own systems. Knowing and being interested in their basic paradigms shows them a certain respect. Respect leads to better conversation; it won’t get you invited to the Wednesday night staff orgy, but it will help the staff consider you a good guest. Here are a couple of quick tips for behavior that will help them see you, as you want to be seen:
- Never order filet mignon in a steak house. Nothing screams "I have zero understanding of process" like ordering filet in a steak house. The more a muscle works, the more tough it will be, but it will also get more blood. More blood equals more flavor. Indeed, no part of a cow is more tender than the loin, however it also has the least flavor. No one has ever gone through the efforts to open a place specializing in steaks because they believe they can make filet taste great. Filet belongs in a normal restaurant, with sauce. When you arrive at a steak house, ask what the place’s special is, and get that. Rib Chop at Strip House, Porterhouse at Luger’s, Mutton at Keen’s and guess what at Delmonico’s? If the place doesn’t have a specialty, it is not a steak house and not worth the money.
- By the time you have bought the cookbook of a chef or seen his TV show he is a brand, not a chef. Don’t walk into some celebrity’s restaurant and ask if he is there. If he is, you will know -- he will be the guy that keeps walking out of the kitchen because it's too hot. If he is there, feel free to walk right up and say hi. For a chef to get famous, he had to try very hard. It’s not like he was an actor or something. If he doesn’t embrace his fame, make him uncomfortable for getting what he wished for.
- There is no such thing as an eight o’clock reservation. There are before eights and after eights. When trying to get a difficult reservation (say Thursday, in this town) ask for the ½ of the night you want and be flexible. Places make money on table turns and each table needs to seat twice. Holding a table open for an eight o' clock kills that chance. That being said, 5:30 is a crap offer unless you are 65+ years old. If it's all they've got, move on and figure a way to ingratiate yourself for next time.
- Don’t ask for a recommendation unless you want one. When you are asking a server for recommendations you are basically asking a question that a good server will answer in one of two ways: he will either tell you his favorite thing or he will chose the thing the chef likes most from his repertoire. If you don’t intend to get anything he suggests on the menu, and you have said “what do you recommend?” you have asked the wrong question. If you are just trying to narrow a field, say something like, “I was looking at x and y which do you prefer?” When you ask a waiter for a recommendation you are establishing that you have respect for him in his position. If you then reject his advice because, “duck nuts are just too skeevy,” you have established yourself as a nit and your relationship with this place will follow on those lines.
- When you have purchased a good bottle of wine, offer to share a taste to your server (rather then cooing about it to him). The sommelier has probably already had it, but the server may not have. Either way, you are sharing an experience. If he has tasted it, your gesture will probably be declined, although appreciated. If he hasn’t, you will be adding a quill to his quiver of talents and he will appreciate it. For what will cost you about one of the ounces in your bottle, you'll open a dialogue that will allow you to benefit from his experiences. Discussion may then ensue on your common likes and dislikes, which will greatly help you value his recommendations which will be good to know once you are a regular.