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This is Not a Horse's Stable 

And other gentle reminders for dining out courteously

click to enlarge Wash your hands of these diners, Gentle Waitress. - SCOTT LARRICK
  • Scott Larrick
  • Wash your hands of these diners, Gentle Waitress.

Gentle Readers, as Miss Manners would begin, today we will explore the difficult and delicate terrain of restaurant behavior.

I've got some reservations. Even on the slowest night, restaurants appreciate reservations. Even on the busiest night, no-shows are a no-no. Make reservations; keep reservations. And be on time. Don't be surprised if the posh places take credit card numbers when you make the reservation, especially for special evenings like Valentine's. They will charge your account a minimum fee for a reserved, unused table. As they should.

Feedback, feedback, feedback. When the waiter asks how everything is, be honest. Don't say, "Fine," and when he comes later to clear the plates grouse about how cold the soup was. If something is not to your liking, speak up. You're paying for this meal. The waitstaff's only response should be an apologetic eagerness to do it over and do it right. At the same time, understand that the bearer of the food is generally not responsible for the condition of the food (there are exceptions, of course). Servers must navigate the landmine-strewn territory between a chef's ego and a diner's displeasure.

It is not a server's role to argue with a diner; it is, however, the server's unfortunate task, like a mediator in the Mideast peace talks, to bring the bad news to the kitchen. (I knew a temperamental chef in an unnamed New England town who was prone to throw frozen ducks at his waitstaff if they displeased him. He was French, but that's no excuse.)

There's an essential unfairness in the fact that chefs will make their night's wage regardless of how good and how timely the food is, and that waiters' tips will often depend on how good and how timely the food is. Gentle Diner, remember this and try to distinguish between what the server did well or poorly, and what was beyond his or her control.

Chintzy, chintzy, chintzy. Gloria Steinem, forgive me. It is a sad fact supported anecdotally by any server anywhere, that many women (unless they have worked in a service industry) tend to be lousy tippers. Men fight each other for the check; women pull out calculators ("You had the Chardonnay, and that was $6, but I had dessert and that was $5.50..."). And that's if they've had the good grace not to ask for separate checks. (Waiters have told me of women who order identical meals and insist on separate checks -- and this has nothing to do with needing records for IRS reporting.). Separate checks are a ridiculous annoyance when a busy waitperson is trying to juggle a full room.

Dining out is an indulgence: servers bring you wonderful food and dote on you, invisibly, unobtrusively. Treat yourself; treat your friends. Or round out the bill and split it, easily and evenly.

Busy, busy, busy. If you're tight for time, tell the waiter. Look around the room: is every table taken? The kitchen will be jamming, and an order that might take ten minutes on a slow day will take longer on a busy one. This is especially true during lunch when it sometimes seems that all the world wants to eat at the same time. Don't order something that requires additional prep time (a Caesar salad will take less time than a Caesar salad with grilled chicken). If you're unsure, ask how long something might take. If you want to squeeze dessert in, order it when the entrees arrive (or earlier) to minimize your wait.

Gift certificates and promotional specials present special opportunities for abuse when tip time comes around. Remember, servers work for tips. Fifteen percent was generous in the Eisenhower administration; 20 percent is normative today. ("Come on America! We can do Better!" -- I've always wanted to say that.). Tips are calculated on the cost of the meal, not the cost of the meal minus your significant savings (and if this is a gift certificate, the meal is costing you nothing). Be a hero to a hard-working waitperson; leave a generous tip. They'll remember.

Cell phones. Other than word of arterial bleeding from someone you left at home, is there really a conversation important enough to disturb other diners (not to mention your dining companion)? Turn the damn thing off. And if you're a loud talker, tone it down. Sure it's a public place, but you're not on center stage.

True table manner tales culled from real waiters. Diners have been seen crumbling their napkins (linen and/or paper) on top of their plates to indicate they are finished. This is not necessary; good waitstaff know when you're done. Place that folded used napkin on the table next to your plate.

Diners have been seen blowing their noses in their napkins before crumbling them on top of their plates. My mother would have broken my arm had she seen me do something like that. Wouldn't yours have done the same?

Children. I am of two minds when it comes to children in fine restaurants (I am not talking about those establishments whose outside banners proclaim "Kids Eat Free!"). On the one hand, children should be introduced to good food in lovely settings and taught how to participate; on the other hand, they are too often brought into fine restaurants and not taught how to participate. Infants can't help but fuss, and fellow diners (and cooers) will be sympathetic. Toddlers hit the hunger wall sooner than adults do and good servers should understand and bring something immediately for them to nibble on. Once a child reaches the age of restaurant reason, however, he or she must not be allowed to run about the room, or screech, or throw food at other diners. (These, also, are true tales from the front.) Children should not be allowed to ruin the experience of other diners. And remember, Gentle Parents, that even your best-behaved offspring will leave the inevitable child mess; it's what they do. Tip accordingly.

Lastly, dining out in a fine restaurant is one of life's most innocent sensory pleasures. I knew someone once who detested eating out because he felt he could eat at home for less money, missing the point entirely. Eat and enjoy!

  • Adventuring into the delicate terrain of restaurant behavior.

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