Five Questions Every Diner Dreads

Five Questions Every Diner Dreads

An empty dining room can sometimes be the hardest to secure a seat in.

Normally, I've received sterling service at NYC restaurants. But even the best front-of-the house experience can be improved. Here are five innocent-sounding questions that sometimes go awry.

Do you have a reservation? - Often it's hard to plan your dining adventures very far in advance. So you get into the habit of going to popular places spontaneously, and maximizing the chance you'll be seated by arriving ridiculously early or ridiculously late. But show up some places at 5 p.m. ready to eat, and the greeter looks perturbed that you have no reservation.

He scans the empty room three or four times, as if invisible guests were already at their tables. Seating charts are consulted, and the reservations book checked again and again, often accompanied by clucking noises. You have in this greeter's eyes committed a crime by deigning to come in without first securing a reservation. Finally, you are tentatively seated in the most unsatisfactory table that can be found. As you complete your meal around 6:30 p.m. or so, the room is still yawningly empty.

Yes, it is necessary for employees at the door to determine if guests have a reservation or not. But if they don't have one, does that preclude making them feel welcome? After all, their money is just as green as someone's who reserves months in advance. Maybe greener, because it's those fringe-hour guests who increase the potential number of covers per evening that a restaurant can do.

Can I take your coat? Not everyone is as free-spending as restaurateurs would like. Prices have soared, so that the little bistro on a side street in Brooklyn that used to be a bargain with $15 entrees now wants $25 for them. And the average meal that was $50 not too long ago, including tax and tip, is now nudging $75. Eating out can be an economic stretch.

So, being asked for your coat may make you think of how checking it means you're on the hook for an extra $5. And forces you to make sure you have the proper amount of cash on hand, in an economy that's increasingly cash-free. Coat checkers don't take debit cards.

But there are other reasons to dread this question. The rules surrounding who gets tipped for a coat and who doesn't are complex. For example, if the greeter takes your coat, you're not supposed to tip him. If the person who grabs your coat is employed mainly as a coat checker, yes you must. If a waitress takes your coat, and it turns out to be your waitress, then no - except you probably should add a little bit to the table tip, but then how will she know?

In addition, some of us like to keep our coats with us. Maybe we have personal items in the pockets, or even contraband. Others simply like to keep their coats because they haven't warmed up yet, or want to use their coats to soften a hard chair. But many restaurateurs don't like to see bulky winter coats hanging from chair backs, so disapproving frowns ensue. Sometimes the request "Can I take your coat?" is repeated by another employee.

Have you been here before? This is the siren song of the short-plate place, and it inevitably leads to The Lecture, which can occupy tedious minutes, especially with upselling embellishments.

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Five Questions Every Diner Dreads

Determining who should receive a coat-check tip and who shouldn't can often be a quandary.

If you go out a lot, you've heard The Lecture dozens of times before. Here are its high points: 1) Guests should order at least two or three plates per person; 2) These plates are made for sharing; and, 3) The plates may arrive at any time.

Let's interpret The Lecture and see what it really means.

1) Even though a dish carries a price tag of $15, expect the size to be small, though the complicated description makes it read like an entrée. In fact all of the dishes - the waiter seems to be saying - represent comically puny servings. You really need at least three to begin to feel like you've actually eaten dinner.

2) This is the weirdest assertion of all, a total non-sequitur. If a plate is small, how would that make it shareable? But saying the plates are made to be shared makes you feel like the servings are bigger than they really are, and gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling.

3) What this means is: We don't care what your experience of the meal is, and our kitchen can't regulate the pace because we've hired too few cooks. So if all the hot dishes arrive at once, it shouldn't bother you. They're so small anyway, you can finish them in a second or two.

But it's not just the self-serving nature of The Lecture that rankles, but the wheedling and condescending tone in which it is often delivered. One feels like a recalcitrant third-grader being admonished. Even if you answer the initial question in the affirmative (Why, yes! I've been to your excellent restaurant dozens of times!), you're still likely to get The Lecture.

Isn't that wonderful? Are you enjoying that? How did you like that? - In a poorly run restaurant, you rarely see your waiter. If you need water or bread, ask the bus boy. In fact, many places the waiter appears only to top off the wine glasses, hoping to sell another bottle, and to ask you at intervals of 20 minutes or so, smiling and nodding furiously, "Did you like the vegan beef stroganoff?" Or, "Wasn't that lavender flan wonderful? It's my favorite dish!" (You may later overhear him telling another table that something else is his favorite dish.) The only polite answer to any of his questions is "Yes." This is a way of forestalling any complaint you might have, and creating a special moment of emotional uplift through your compulsory affirmation of just how wonderful the dish is. Even if it isn't.

Will you be needing change? If you happen to be paying in cash, this loaded question puts you at an immediate psychological disadvantage. Obviously, if you're eating at a fancy place like this, you don't really need the change, and it would be small and ungenerous of you to recoup the extra two or three dollars over the 20% tip that you intended to leave.

It is the responsibility of the waiter to take the tab to the register, make the correct change, and then return it to the table, so you can adjust the tip as needed, perhaps pocketing just enough money to tip the coat check clerk.

But a middle ground has been forged: I've recently heard waiters ask, "Can I bring you some change?" That's a much nicer way to say it, and still avoid the trouble of going to the register and returning the remainder to the table.

In many cases, a quick look at the cash in the folder - which the waiter should do anyway in case in your drunkenness you've left a seriously skewed amount - will tell him that it includes the tip and he doesn't have to return. An example? The tab is $90, and you leave $108. Logically, the waiter can simply consider the rest to be the tip.

The Solution? Some of these problems can be addressed by simply adding a service charge to the bill, the way they do it in France. Say, 25% to thwart objections that it isn't enough. In this way, you prevent gaming of the guests on the part of the waitstaff, and stinginess on the part of the diners. And this service charge should also cover the person that takes the coats, and the greeter, too, who is often not included in the tip pool. As for the cooks, I think restaurateurs should simply pay them a living wage.


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