Avoid sticker shock and other restaurant trauma by
getting more information about a restaurant before you dine there.
Photo by Paul Alhadef

In May, I celebrated one year of professional cooking as a “real” cook, distinctive from individual catering activities or coffee-shop cooking, which is still challenging but done in a different way. I’ve gotten to know people in the hospitality business in all sorts of walks of life, including those from maitre d’hotel, host/ess, server, server assistant, manager, line cook, prep cook, janitor, and dishwasher positions. The common thread among all of the roles is that the work is hard, it is stressful, and it is exciting.

I was also browsing through a book store and came across a book called Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica. In it, he chronicles customer stupidity, customer etiquette (or lack thereof), and tips for becoming a good customer. Reviewers have called it the “front-of-house version of Bourdain’s book.” Well, I’m not a professional server, but I have had the opportunity to open a restaurant (as a cook on the chef’s opening team), serve as a maitre d’hotel, serve, and prep food for a restaurant. So here are my suggestions.

1) Make a reservation. It doesn’t really matter if the restaurant probably won’t be busy at the time or day that you choose to dine. Reservations help to prepare the kitchen and the servers. If you ever go anywhere with more than two people (maybe three), I recommend a reservation. You don’t necessarily have to call several days in advance, but if you figure that 8 of you will be dining out, call ahead. If nothing else, you’ll be able to put your group on the list, if the restaurant doesn’t take reservations.

2) Skip dinner rush. Ask the host/ess on the phone to tell you when dinner rush is, and then go just slightly ahead or a bit behind the rush. Your service will be much better and quicker.

3) Warn the staff if you’re a sensitive customer. If you have food sensitivities or allergies, then be sure to call and let the restaurant know beforehand. And be aware of the type of restaurant you are visiting. Some pizza places may offer gluten free crusts, for example, but they probably have a limited number and would need to know in advance so that they can be ready with cleaned equipment, etc. The restaurant staff wants you to have a positive experience, so set them up for success too.

4) Don’t be part of the crush. If you’re going to a new restaurant, wait for the rush to pass before you dine there. Our most challenging times at the new restaurant I worked at were the first month’s dinners and lunches. It seemed that everyone wanted to eat there, so the lines were ridiculously long, and we ran out of products on occasion, disappointing customers and resulting in a harried staff.  After that first month, once we cooks learned the menu and learned how to project our prep, our customers had much better experiences with both the food and a less-stressed staff.

5) Be realistic. When I first worked at a French bakery and cafe in high school, I remember a guest asking me if I could serve her French Onion Soup – without the onions. Well, if you’ve ever made FOS, then you know that the onions are all up in that soup, and they’re pretty hard to remove. I guess I could have strained the soup for her, but that was a really unexpected request. Being a mature 17-year-old, I probably directed her towards our mushroom bisque or the front door. I don’t actually remember the result. When you order an item from a restaurant, remember that the chefs/creators combined the ingredients they did deliberately – because the dish probably tasted best that way. If you’ve never ever had that dish before, then I would recommend trying it the way it was originally designed first. Then you can make modifications.

6) Read the menu online. Some restaurants provide extensive, multi-page menus, so it’s nice to have an idea about what it might provide prior to sitting down. I’ve been guilty of putting the server through the gauntlet with my hundreds of questions, so don’t be the high-maintenance customer like I’ve been. You might also see prices, allergy announcements, and other bits of information.

7) Make yourself the ideal customer family. If you bring smaller diners with you, then bring them to appropriate restaurants and at appropriate times. I recommend avoiding the dinner rush unless you’re dining at an explicitly family-friendly restaurant. Many restaurants are great choices for young guests, especially if your diners are particularly adventurous. My mom agreed that I was a good diner as a kid, because I was really into the food. Big surprise, right? Call the restaurant in advance and let them know that you’ll have a child with you. That way, the maitre d’ can seat your table in place that’s comfortable for you and for other guests.

8) Tip generously.  Some restaurant organizations pay their staff lower than minimum wage per hour, because they know that the amount will be made up in tips, which are reported as earned income and are taxed.  Servers also often split their tips with the rest of the crew, which includes the kitchen and the cleaning crew. If you’re chintzy with your tip, everyone suffers. Also, what’s the point in holding back a few dollars on someone who is trying to pay rent by bringing you plates of food?  If the service was that bad, you should have addressed it beforehand anyway, such as speaking to the manager. I tip 20% — the math is much easier — as a standard.

What suggestions do you have?