First rule for diners? Don’t be a jerk. Restaurant employees aren’t your lackeys and you’re not their only customer. Once that’s settled, there is a baseline expectation of service that every diner ought to be able to count on in a fine restaurant—and thanks to cultural shifts from technology to allergies, it’s evolving. As a professional diner I’ve been on the front lines. I’ve been taking notes.
1. Staff a phone already.
Happens all the time: You call mid-afternoon for a reservation and there’s no one there—sometimes, in down--market joints, not even a recorded greeting. (Really? The easiest and least costly method of restaurant marketing, wasted?) Yes, there are online reservation tools, a la OpenTable and Rezbook. And—as anyone knows who needs clarification from a human on, say, that night’s vegetarian options, or a table sometime between those ever popular OpenTable reservation hours of 5pm and 8:30pm—web interfaces are not enough.
2. Greet the guest. Right away.
I don’t need a host to sprint across the room and recite me a sonnet. But languishing unacknowledged for five minutes at the entry, as I did twice last week alone—especially when an employee sees me and still ignores me—makes a girl feel unwelcome. (Or uncomfortable, as in Seattle’s many boutique restaurants where the entryway doubles as the legroom for Table 1.) The first impression does last. Even if you’re a buser and greeting guests isn’t in your job description—a smile and a “Hello!” should be considered every hospitality professional’s job, period.
3. Put away the stopwatch.
Last year, the host of a beautiful high-end restaurant showed us our seats, took our coats, then sweetly informed us that we’d have our table for two hours. I’ve only started getting this in about the last year or so, as restaurants grow increasingly brazen about passing their economic anxieties onto their patrons. (The very same anxieties also brought us the communal table, never mind all those pretty words about the joys of dining together.) There may be no greater buzz kill at a beautiful dinner than a waiter with a stopwatch. Must restaurants do this? For decades they’ve accommodated next reservations just fine. We dine out to escape the budget drudgery of everyday life, so making me feel responsible for your bottom line—whether with the table-turning routine, or asking me to keep my icky-with-salad-dressing fork for the next course, or offering me the opportunity to buy beer for the kitchen—cheapens the experience.
4. Sweat the small stuff.
Most restaurateurs get that rude staffers perpetrate the boldest breaches of good service. Less obvious to them, it appears, are the myriad smaller ways service can be compromised. The absence of a restaurant sign to signal a newcomer that she’s found the right place. Menu descriptions so cryptic they tell the diner nothing about the dishes. Music that’s distractingly loud or out of synch with the ambience. Curvy-sided plates that slide a diner’s utensils directly into her lap. (Yowch!)
5. Know what’s good.
Wise diners know to ask what’s really terrific that night. (Hint: It’ll almost always be a special, made from ingredients selected for their freshness and prepared according to the chef’s passion.) So when the server burbles, “It’s all good!” that whooshing sound you hear is steam shooting out my ears. That’s not service; it’s PR. It communicates either the server’s indifference toward the diner’s experience or his lack of engagement with the kitchen. A server ought to at least be able to direct diners with a standard more meaningful than what his own favorites are. The fact that you happen to like pork belly doesn’t make it the best dish in the house. Know what your kitchen does reliably well.
6. Get orders right.
No one knows better than you, restaurants, that dietary restrictions and food allergies have soared in the last five years, rendering orders at once more complicated and more important to get right than they’ve ever been. Do whatever it takes to remember them. It might mean—horrors!—writing them down or repeating orders word for word. We’re pretty sure you hate these plebeian techniques, but here’s good news: Studies show that exact repetition of a diner’s order increases tips by up to 70 percent.
7. Serve the diner, not the kitchen.
The meteoric rise of restaurant reality shows and celeb chefs has shifted an age-old emphasis: Where restaurants once served at the diner’s pleasure, the diner is now expected to bow to the almighty kitchen. A little of this is warranted, as when a sushi chef lays down a piece of pristine sashimi and barks, “No wasabi!” Chefs know how dishes taste best—they’re the artists, after all. But withhold the wasabi altogether and you’re guilty of culinary arrogance. You see it wherever restaurants leave salt off the tables—an overconfident practice that’s increasing by the minute—or cook meat to a certain temperature regardless of the diner’s request, or announce to a party (as happens increasingly) that the small plates will be brought out not so that every guest has something to eat, but in the order they come out of the oven.
You see it, in short, whenever a kitchen reveals more allegiance to its ease or its ego than to the diner.
8. Act normal.
Not like girlfriends or brahs. Surly service is not our regional tic. Overly familiar service is. The Bellevue waitress who took a seat to take our order. The waiter—this happened at a very popular Kirkland restaurant recently—who kept touching my husband and calling him “buddy.” The fellow downtown who introduced himself at each of his first three visits to the table. The maitre d’ in a Seattle neighborhood joint who jabbered so long at our table he neglected other guests. I wish waiters would just be themselves: No scripts, no forced chipperness, no faux familiarity. The best servers know that there is a magic formula for eliciting the warm feelings (which lead to good tips), and it has nothing to do with impersonating a waiter. It’s genuine engagement with your guests.
9. Honor the diner’s budget.
The waiter who tells you everything about the special but its price tag. The host who fails to remind the party of six that the gratuity will be included on the bill. The server who upsells consistently, swoops away a half-eaten plate of food without asking if a to-go box is wanted, encounters a pile of cash and asks whether he ought to bring back change. Honor the diner’s budget. Be mean, be foulmouthed, be AWOL—diners are least likely to forget the server they suspect was gunning for their wallet.
10. Ask it like you mean it.
Used to be I loathed the insipid “Is everything all right?” interruption, which registered as little more than fishing for compliments. Now I see that it’s part of a groundswell of aggressively servicey service, where every Starbucks cashier wants to know about your day and every grocery store checker asks whether you’ve found what you were looking for. I don’t like those displays of faux sincerity any better—but in the age of online insta-venting (I’m lookin’ at you, Yelp), it’s crucial to give diners a chance to get problems addressed on the spot. Every restaurateur I’ve ever spoken to far prefers that to the anonymous online flame. What this means for servers is a real inquiry inviting a real response. “I hope everything is to your liking. If not is there any way we might rectify it?” is one approach—as long as it’s sincere.