I love dining out. I love new flavors, smells and tastes. As a chef, I feel like every time I go out, it’s research and development…which is exactly how I write it off as a business expense 😉 However, more than just the food, dining out is about the experience. From the moment you make a reservation to how the host/hostess greets you at the front of the house to how the waiter handles your bill at the end…one bad move and it can turn you away from coming back. Food is only an element of dining out, something that a lot of places seem to forget and others seem to exceed at. Recently, I’ve encountered some interesting dining experiences so I thought I would share my experiences, give you some tips and as usual, voice my gripes. So, shall we go?
Reservations should be the easiest thing to do, but sometimes it’s just not. Remember waiting endlessly on the phone because you called at 7 pm on a Friday night asking for a reservation for next weekend, while this poor hostess is trying to seat 6 tables at once and had no choice but to put you on hold along with the 4 others that called for the same reason…trust me, you weren’t the only frustrated one. OpenTable really made the process easier and electronic, hands off reservations became a staple. The problem is that not all available reservations are on OpenTable. If you don’t find your time, the restaurant usually reserves tables for walk-ins and phone reservations. So, you may actually have to be back on the phone asking for a table, at least this time there aren’t as many people doing the same.
There are 2 parts to this next piece, mainly because I have 2 separate issues. The first issue relates to walking in with a reservation and the second has to do with just walking in and asking for a table.
So, you have a 7pm reservation, you arrive at 6:45 just to be courteous and not rushed. You check in with the hostess stand and she tells you that you will be seated in a few, the table is just being cleared and then by 7, you actually get seated. That would be the picture perfect scenario. Now, onto the issue. You arrive at 6:58 for a 7pm reservation, check in with the hostess and she tells you that your table will be ready in 20 minutes. Hmmm…I always knew that there was a 15-minute grace if you are running late for your reservation, I didn’t realize that restaurants also get a grace when they can’t efficiently turn their tables or didn’t time something right. Of course then they tell you to grab a drink by the bar, an extra expense you may not have wanted to incur, but do so just to pass the time and not feel like a fool standing there. Depending on the time, you look at the menu, plan your whole meal out and then get seated. Now, if the restaurant offered a free drink because of their own inability to seat you on time, that would make things so much easier. Instead, it sounds like a crafty, convenient way to get you to spend more money. I mean, if you are going to get penalized and lose your table for being 16 minutes late, why are you also the one punished for the restaurant being 20 minutes behind schedule? Listen, I get that crap happens and there are circumstances out of anyone’s control that create issues when seating tables, but lately I have seen this happen more and more and I think it’s because restaurants are taking more reservations to increase their covers for the night, which seems to be the measure of success these days. Is having more people eat and spending less a better measure than seating fewer tables that actually get to finish their bottle of wine and order 2 desserts? Dining is an experience to me, not some cattle call.
I will start this with my own experience as of late. I was spending a day shopping and decided I wanted a place to take a break, grab a snack and a beer. The weather was stunning, I wanted to sit outside. I spotted two restaurants with patios and figured I could be seated somewhere. I went to the first place, and the hostess told me they had just filled their last patio seat and the wait was still 40 minutes, as they only had about 10 tables outside. She offered me a seat inside, but that’s wasn’t what I wanted. Fair enough, that was handled appropriately. I went next door, took a look at their patio, which was huge and about 40% full, so basically I knew that I should be able to get a seat easily. I walked up to the 2 hostesses, not more than 25 years old, and asked for a table outside. They looked at each other, looked at me and told me that they didn’t have any seats available. REALLY? Then they said they had all open seats on the shade side of the patio. I politely said I would like something in the sun. They again looked at each other and offered me a seat in the open air wall that is partial sun and is halfway in the restaurant. The also proceeded to tell me, and I quote “It’s just like being outside!” I almost laughed out loud at how ridiculous these two were. The lengths they went to in order to prevent seating me outside. Did I smell? Was I not pretty enough to sit outside, as only the prim and proper are allowed? Was there a dress code I wasn’t aware of? Was it because of my Chicago White Sox tank top that I wore on the North side? I don’t know, but I could have come up with 100 other preposterous reasons as to why those tartlets didn’t seat me. In any case, it was their loss and the restaurant’s loss of income…because on a Sunday afternoon in 80-degree weather and your patio isn’t full because you let your hostesses decide who comes in, you’re gonna fail anyhow.
Ok, so you decide to grab an open seat at the bar that serves the same menu as the dining room and the wait for a table is at least 45 minutes. Cool. There’s a concept I can get on board with. I do it all the time. Bartenders are great sources too as they’ve tried most everything on the menu and turn more customers, thus knowing more about the menu and what is popular. (Note to anyone that travels, always ask a bartender for recommendations if you are new to a city, they always know the hot spots and the ones to avoid.) Basically bartenders are the concierges of the food industry. Now on to the issue. Lately, the craft cocktail scene has taken over the bar industry. Most every restaurant’s beverage program includes a series of hand crafted cocktails that go beyond the simple gin and tonic. Each concoction consists of at least 3-4 ingredients plus garnishes. With the complexity of these drinks, comes a price tag of time, meaning that it takes longer to get that drink ready and on the pass for service. With that said, bartenders are busier than ever having to balance simple wine/beer pours with 5 ingredient martinis and still trying to maintain the usual bar chit chat to keep those at the bar engaged. I’ve had a handful of weird bar experiences lately that makes me think that some places are in over their heads. I was with a group of people on a Saturday afternoon, we ordered our drinks and some apps. The food came long before the drinks, odd. The reason was because they were waiting on jalapenos for one of the drinks that we ordered 20 minutes ago. I understand if the bartender is slammed because of the crowded patio, but it looks like the bar was not properly managed or adequately stocked to make drinks off their 14 count specialty cocktail menu. This is one of those instances where more is not merrier. The customer suffers the delay, the bartender suffers the stress because ownership puts 14 different drinks on the menu that take time to make and need ingredients that aren’t bar-friendly, all to keep up with a current trend that may not even last. It’s like crop tops, totally in season, but not everyone should be wearing them, but they do much to our dismay and look ridiculous.
The other side of this that is also the problem, is the overly chatty bartenders. Again, recently, I was at the bar on this patio where there were also bar tables that the bartenders were responsible for. I sat down, given a glass of water from the bar back as well as drink menus. I decided what I wanted and waited for a bartender to come by. I watched and waited and what I saw was entertaining, really. The two male bartenders were more concerned with the bar tables than those sitting at their bar. Don’t get me wrong, I understand priority and that first come, first served. The problem is that those tables got 2 rounds before a bartender even checked in with me. Also, I learned that the chick at 104 has a great rack! I’m glad that bartender needed to scream that over the bar to the one mixing her drinks. The best part is that about 2 minutes later, the bartender apologized for the wait and said these cocktails sometimes take longer than expected…yeah, that’s what happened, idiot. In the meantime, the bar back had already taken my order and was shocked to see that I still hadn’t been waited on. Not only did he bring me my drink, he said it was on him. Upon finding that out, the bartender tried to laugh it off and he attempted to make a joke out of it saying that the delay was because he was trying to make my drink pretty with mint leaves…ugh, seriously? I’m not blind, nor am I deaf, I know exactly why he wasn’t attentive, stop treating me like I’m stupid after the fact. Nothing more insulting than that! I gave the manager feedback about the bar back and hope that he gets a bonus for keeping that bar together. There are many that can master the art of a great cocktail, good bar banter and customer service well, but it’s an art, not a fad…needs practice to achieve perfection.
There isn’t much to say about dinner because it’s too specific to a person. Food comes out too cold, steaks aren’t cooked right, stale nuts (yes, that’s happened), soggy salad or it just plain old tastes bad. I won’t get into that mainly because that’s probably a blog in itself and my criticism is beyond biased being a chef. However, my beef comes in 2 forms, the timing of food coming out and the timing of my plates being cleared. Back in the day, you used to order an app, soup/salad, main course and then a dessert. There was no complication in the kitchen as to when to fire those items. There was a normal natural dining progression that was hard to screw up, unless there was an untimely delay between courses. The new trend over the last 10 years is sharing plates. Portions are smaller and menus are designed so that people order more variety and share amongst their party. The problem with that as I’ve experienced is that there is no rhyme or reason as to when dishes come out. There is no cookie cutter process. The best is when the server mentions that plates will come out as they are ready, which pretty much acknowledges that the kitchen chaos exists. I was at a new Italian place recently, run by an experienced well-known chef, but it happened to be one of the worst timed meals I’ve had in a long time. The place is known for their hand made pastas, so I ordered a few of those but balanced it with some vegetable and meat plates and a soup. As mentioned, the server told us things would come out as they were ready. I literally got my food one right after another, to a point where I couldn’t take more than 3 bites of one dish before the other came out. The soup came out first, perfect. However, all my sides came out next followed by all 3 of my pasta dishes. OMG. It was a nightmare. I couldn’t finish the last pasta dish because I had no balance with another dish and it was pasta on pasta and just too much. I forgot about the soup I started to eat until the end, which by then was cold. I was really annoyed by this. I wasted money because I couldn’t finish eating what I ordered and couldn’t take it home. Here’s my tip to all of you, no matter what the server says, don’t order everything at once! The kitchen doesn’t care how fast that food is coming out, so take control of it yourself. Don’t feel pressured to order quickly and at the server’s request. This is YOUR meal, YOUR experience and it’s YOUR money. I say order what you want to eat first, let your palate decide what it wants next and order your next round of food when YOU are ready. It might take longer to eat the meal, but at least you will enjoy it and it’s on YOUR terms. Screw them and their whole race to turn tables bull crap! I’ve had enough of restaurants dictating how I should eat, when I should eat and how long my dining experience should be.
Along those lines, comes the overzealous bus boy…don’t let them take your plates if you really aren’t done with your food. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt pressured to finish my meal or
clear off a plate because the bus boy came around asking if he can take my plate. I have a theory and it’s because the kitchen needs plates back so they can send food out to other diners. See, share plates means more items ordered, which means more dishes per table needed, restaurant doesn’t order enough, diners eating at their own pace, bus boys told to clear as quickly as possible to get plates to dish so they can be washed and ready for use. So what really is a logistical problem for the restaurant to solve, becomes your issue to deal with. Lovely.
I hate dessert menus. I don’t know why. I miss those dessert carts where they would roll out to the tables and you could just pick one out or two or three. The impulse buy was so much fun! My mouth watered looking at a piece of moist (ugh) devil’s food cake with gooey frosting on top glistening in the candlelight. You know what I’m talking about. Those old fashioned fruit tarts that looked like they had a coating of Shellac on them, but hey they shined like no other! Ok, those desserts are out of date, but the concept didn’t need to go away. These days, dessert menus are sprinkled with foams, sabayon, compotes, gelatos paired together with flavors that only a mastermind could come up with. I read dessert menus and then look around to see if someone around me ordered what I think I want. It’s like playing matching to see what description belongs with what dessert that I can spot at the table next to me.
Dessert menus are getting so verbose that it’s exhausting just reading them. I just ate a full meal; the least they can do is show me pictures. Fact is, most people eat with their eyes first, so I’m more likely to go next door to the cupcake place and pick out something than try to dissect your dessert menu novella. Red Lobster had it right with those large dessert trays with the fake desserts on them!!
As far as the check goes, just remember to tip as you see fit, not what the suggested tip line recommends. You have the power to decide whether you were happy with your experience. Don’t feel you have to tip more than you want to because that server doesn’t make a lot, as these days tips are pooled anyhow. If you loved your experience, tip well, if you didn’t, leave what you think is satisfactory. I will tell you that I have reduced a tip when a server picked up the signed receipt and looked at it in front of me, BEFORE I left. That’s unprofessional, uncouth and should NEVER be an accepted practice.
Wrapping up, I love a nice goodbye…how was your meal…hope to see you again soon. It’s just manners and leaves me wanting to come back, it’s really that simple.
OK, so I know that not everyone looks at dining out as closely as I do. I mean, most of us just want to go out, not worry about anything and just have a good time. I just wanted to make all of you a little more conscious of what may be going on around you and share my own experiences with you. I have a lot of fun going out and no, I don’t always have issues. In fact, most my dining experiences have been amazing. But when they are bad, they are bad and I am not shy about expressing how I feel about them. Being industry, I know customer service and when it’s not there, there’s no masking it. I personally think the art of dining has been lost in this trendy sea of share plates and 5 different variations on an old fashioned…why mess with what’s already a perfect drink? Maybe I’m old school and just have a hard time with change, or maybe there’s something about classic dining that keeps it timeless.