Being surprised in a restaurant is fun…about 1 percent of the time. Folks who dine out primarily for adventure or connoisseurs who want to place themselves entirely in the hands of a master chef are people who savor surprise for dinner; worthy mindsets that often lead to mind-blowing dining experiences. I have loved being this kind of diner for much of my life, in lots of different contexts.
But this kind of diner is a tiny, tiny fraction of the restaurant-going populace. Most people who go to restaurants are not connoisseurs; they’re regular people, who know what they feel like eating and what they don’t. Some have dietary restrictions. Most have come to the restaurant primarily for the purpose of sharing a fine meal with their professional or personal companions, not primarily—sorry, chefs—to train their full attention on the kitchen. Even the most rarefied connoisseurs aren’t always in it to be floored or awestruck. Even Anthony Bourdain sometimes just wants that particular bowl of pho he already knows he loves.
Most diners, in short, simply want a restaurant to satisfy them.
And satisfaction, in my experience, comes down to expectations. If you doubt it, scroll Yelp and make note how many complaints have to do with diners not getting what they assumed they’d get. Too small a portion. Too expensive a preparation. Nothing green or starchy on the plate.
These are the kinds of complaints restaurants could reduce, even eliminate, if they just spent more time on the front end fully disclosing about the dish.
I have suggested that restaurants do this on menus, but enigmatic menu descriptions have only increased. Restaurateurs tell me they intentionally leave a little mystery in the menu description to necessitate engagement with their server—the kind of server engagement that sells dishes and cranks tips.
Then go ahead and leave the menu mystery—but then don't forget to coach the servers to describe dishes and take orders with the diners’ needs in mind. On a review dinner last night (at a place I won’t yet name, as I’m midreview) three full-sized dishes came with meat and starch as described—and no vegetable. Fine, but a word from the server recommending a side of vegetables would have served. A fourth entrée was a huge platter of pork with an accompanying starch—but altogether unlike the other mains in its ratio of meat, which could have fed our table and the one beside it. That diner should’ve been alerted that his plate, uniquely, would deliver the full Ghengis Khan meal deal. We were all eyeing desserts while he was still whacking away at his meat.
This is, make no mistake, a service issue—and it afflicts not just the restaurant we visited last night, but restaurants all over town, mostly higher-end. And the fix is so startlingly easy. Advice like “You know, that dish only has the beef and the puree, so you may want to order a side dish of carrots,” or “Two of you could share that pork platter along with a side of asparagus,” or "It's kind of a small portion of lamb, because it's grass fed from the chef's favorite purveyor, but it's amazing" should not be too much to ask a trained server to utter. Servers, after all, are not just supposed to deliver the food—they’re supposed to do what they can to make sure their diners' expectations are met.