Until the end of July, New York restaurants will be rolling out the red carpet to encourage diners to visit. What used to be Restaurant Week has now morphed into Restaurant Month. No doubt this ongoing promotion is being fueled by the economic downturn. Restaurants hope that lower prices and special prix fixe menus will coax customers to eat out rather than cook in.
Lower prices should not mean less service. Restaurants should showcase their best dishes and offer top service to guarantee repeat business. As a consumer, you should expect, yes, even demand, the best even if the meal you order costs less. At Woman Around Town we sample lots of restaurants and write reviews for our readers. Not all the restaurants we visit make it onto the website. Some, to be truthful, fall far short of our expectations. We have certain expectations when we eat out and we want to share those thoughts with you. Here are some guidelines on what you should expect when you dine out. At the same time, as a customer, there are certain things you need to do that will ensure good service for you and fellow diners.
Being seated expeditiously. Restaurants try to estimate how long it will take for a table to turn over, but sometimes a group will linger long past the time their coffee turns cold. When that happens the table that was supposed to be yours remains out of your reach and you are left to linger in the bar. Some patience and understanding is called for. But waiting more than thirty minutes for a table is unacceptable. Ask for the manager and politely request to be seated—immediately. And those martinis you ordered while waiting should be comped.
What you should remember: Most restaurants ask you to confirm on the day of your reservation, but even if they don’t, make that call anyway. Restaurants can better plan if they know how many tables will be filled. Your table will usually be held for fifteen minutes past the time of your reservation. Any longer than that and you risk losing your table. So try to be on time and call if you expect to be late.
Being warmly welcomed. Your impression of a restaurant is often formed by the first person you meet. If you’ve made a reservation, you should be welcomed by name and with a big smile. It helps of course, if the host/hostess presents well—nicely dressed and well-groomed.
What you should remember: Being pleasant cuts two ways. Return the smile.
Being seated. Some restaurants will take seating requests. The Four Seasons, for example, takes requests for the Grill Room or the Pool Room. At one of our favorite Italian restaurants, we love the corner tables and always ask about availability. During a business meal, you may want to request a quiet, even secluded table. What happens when your table is unacceptable, near the kitchen, for example? Ask to be switched, but be willing to wait until a more desirable table opens up.
What you should remember: If the restaurant is “hot,” you may have to settle for less than the best table on your first visit, but saying something to the manager when you leave may get you a better table next time.
Hold off on the menus. Nothing annoys us more than being seated and being given menus before we’ve had a moment to look around and catch our breath. Unless you request to see menus right away, you should be seated without being given menus. Nothing makes a customer feel more rushed than being pressured to order food quickly.
What you should remember: If you want to relax before ordering, tell the hostess or server you would like to wait before perusing the menu. If the person who seated you rushes off, send a signal by putting the menus aside.
Bottled or tap? We visited a restaurant in Greenwich Village recently and before we could request sparkling bottled water, our glasses were filled with tap water. (I say filled—slopped may be a better description). That one act said to us that the wait staff was not properly trained (a fact that was reinforced later in the meal).
What you should remember: Restaurants make money on bottled water, but don’t feel pressured to go that route. For many people, New York City tap water is not only acceptable, but preferable to most bottled water.
Ordering drinks. The first thing you should hear from your server is: “Would you like to order a drink?” There should be a pace to an enjoyable meal and one thing that helps set that rhythm is being able to enjoy a drink before looking at the menu and ordering. If you would like to order a glass of wine, the waiter should ask if you would like to see the wine list and be prepared to make suggestions. If you order a cocktail, a martini, for example, your server should ask your preference for the alcohol that will be used. Someone who likes a martini with Beefeater gin, for example, may not like Bombay. A drink does not have to be a cocktail or glass of wine. You might like a cola or a cup of tea.
What you should remember: If you have already enjoyed a drink at the bar, your server may assume you are ready to look at the menus. If you would like to finish your drink or order another, ask to be given more time.
Studying the menu. Some menus are straightforward, others confusing. Simple or complex, your server should be ready to help. A well-trained server should have sampled most everything on the menu and be able to tell you something about each dish. Innocuous comments like: “Yeah, it’s good,” or “Most people like it,” are not helpful. Your server should also tell you about the specials (with prices) and then give you enough time to take those supplemental offerings into consideration.
What you should remember: Tastes differ. Your server may be crazy about the smoked oysters, but if you don’t like oysters, that recommendation should not influence your final decision.
Keeping up a pace. You shouldn’t have to wait too long between courses. Once you have finished your appetizers, you shouldn’t have to wait forever for your main course. A well-run restaurant will establish a pace to give you enough time, but not too much time, between courses.
What you should remember: Speak up if you find yourself waiting too long. It’s possible your main dishes have been overlooked by your server and are getting cold. A reminder never hurts.
Sharing a course. It’s perfectly acceptable to share a course, whether it’s the appetizer, main course, or dessert. Your server should ask whether you would like the dish divided in the kitchen or prefer to serve yourselves at the table. If you ask to serve yourselves at the table, your server should present extra plates and serving pieces.
What you should remember: If your server doesn’t ask about dividing the dish in the kitchen, make that request when ordering. Some restaurants will include a “sharing charge” on their menus. We avoid those places whenever we can.
Sending back a dish. You didn’t order it. Or, you ordered it but it arrived well done when you requested medium rare. If everyone else has been served, your waiter should make every effort to get your dish out expeditiously. (If there are only two of you dining, you may request that the other dish be returned also and kept warm while the new dish is being prepared).
What you should remember: Whether the mistake was the fault of your server or the kitchen makes little difference if your meal was ruined. Ask to see the manager and request an adjustment to the bill.
Clearing the table. An experienced wait staff will hold off clearing the table until everyone has finished eating. However, empty glasses and serving dishes may be taken away sooner. Once the dishes have been taken away, a server should clear away the crumbs and spills.
What you should remember: The signal that you are finished is placing your fork and knife together at four o’clock on your plate.
Menus again. Your server should ask if you would like dessert before offering menus. You should be told if there are any special desserts not on the menu.
What you should remember: If you would like to enjoy dessert before your coffee, tell your server you will order coffee later.
Finally, the bill. A major faux pas is being presented with the bill before you request it. You may feel like you are being given the bum’s rush. (In fact, if the restaurant is crowded, your server may be sending you a not-too-subtle message).
What you should remember: Especially if the overall experience was positive, be willing to overlook a minor mistake or two. After all, you are out to enjoy yourself.
Speaking of mistakes, if you have reason to register a complaint, should you? Absolutely! A well-run restaurant appreciates feedback from its customers and uses those comments to make improvements. Occasionally an owner or manager may become defensive (like the one who recently told us we had received bad service because a homeless man was hassling the kitchen staff). Most, however, will take your feedback seriously. If you are not comfortable voicing your objections in person, send the restaurant a note or e-mail. There also are many places online where you can post your experience. And if you enjoyed your meal you should let the host/hostess or manager know that, too. Everyone likes to hear they are doing their job well.