Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dining out -- can't we all just get along?

Restaurant staffers, diners need to work together to make peace in the dining room

History has known great rivalries: Hatfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets, Tom and Jerry. Fine adversaries, yes, but nothing compared with the epic restaurant vs. diner.
The dining room is a minefield of delicate situations.

One wrong step ...
A clueless patron says his gazpacho is cold and demands another bowl. Or a presumptuous server takes the check and asks: "Would you like change?"
... boom. Disaster.

The rub is diners just want to be pleased, and restaurants want nothing more than to please them. "We really are doing our best to make them happy, meet their expectations - exceed their expectations," says Roger Thomas, executive chef at Piatto Novo in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

Customers, for the most part, understand that.

"They work very hard, they really do," says Russ Vernon, who owns West Point Market in Akron, Ohio.

But breakdowns do occur. On both sides.

To that end, we spoke with players on both sides of the counter - people in the restaurant business and their frequent customers. They shared suggestions and irritations, admiration and appreciation.
If diners only knew ...

• It makes everything so much easier if you let us know you're running late or that you're not going to show. Busy restaurants are like airlines. They sometimes overbook assuming someone's going to cancel or not show up. "If someone makes a reservation, but you're not going to make it, especially with the holiday season coming, let us know," says Bob Buck, operating partner of the Fleming's in the Akron, Ohio, area.
• VIP status is completely up to you. "If you're a regular in a restaurant, and you're a bad tipper, don't be surprised if the waiters don't like you." This comes from someone who should know: the Waiter, who doesn't give his real name. He works in a New York-area restaurant and writes a wildly popular blog. His Web site, www.waiter, has landed him a book deal.
• Unlimited free bread is not in the bill of rights. We're happy to provide it. We'll even restock the basket for you, but it'd be swell if you'd save room for dinner.
• Ordering what's on the menu may be in your best interest. In the Waiter's words: "Don't walk into an Italian restaurant and ask for tuna with wasabi." Allergies and dietary restrictions aside, it's worth it to trust the chef.
• Food from scratch takes time. "I don't blame (guests) for not getting that, but I wish I could invite everyone into the kitchen to see what goes on in there," says Roger Thomas of Piatto Novo.
• Your cell phone conversation might be terribly interesting to you, but our other guests are less than intrigued. We understand some calls can't wait. Take them outside.
• Your date is watching you. Ditto for clients, bosses and future in-laws. "How you treat bus people and waiters and people you think can't do anything for you says volumes about your character," says the Waiter.
• A standard tip is 15 percent. Good service deserves closer to 20. Please don't shortchange us unless the service is truly bad (in which case, you should tell a manager). For customers who question why "they" should foot the bill for servers' wages, Waiter has an answer: "It gives them an incentive to be good at their job."
• Camping out at a table is not OK. After you've dined, finished your coffee and paid your bill, let us make you comfortable at the bar. Or head to Starbucks. Or home. Just don't monopolize a table when a server could seat another tipping party.
• Our overriding goal is to make you happy. We're in the service business, so if there's a problem with some aspect of your experience, please tell us. We want to fix it.
If restaurants only knew ...
• If we have a reservation and our table's not ready, we want you to make the wait worth our while. We get it: There are circumstances beyond your control. The restaurant does, however, have the power to get us a seat or even a drink while we wait at the bar.
• If we're regulars, remember us. Or pretend you do. "If you've been to someplace more than three times with some regularity, they should treat you accordingly," says Sharon Kruse of Akron.
• First impressions count. If we're not greeted upon entering, if we're made to stand around like uninvited guests, if the bread on the table is cold or stale, then our experience has been colored before we've even ordered our salads.
• Untidy restrooms tell us a thing or two. If there's toilet paper on the floor and the trash is overflowing, we're going to wonder about the parts of the restaurant we can't see.
• We want to know just how much the nightly features are going to set us back. Don't make us feel cheap for asking, "What does that cost?"
• We appreciate it when you cheerfully accommodate special meal requests, especially for children. We know the chef composed the dish a certain way, but our 5-year-old simply doesn't care. If you can do something to make our evening more enjoyable, you'll win a friend.
• Truly good food makes up for a multitude of sins. The server could be absent, the decor could be "oh-so-1985," but if the risotto's stunning, we'll come back again and again.
• On the other hand, outstanding service can make a mediocre meal great. The quesadillas might have been so-so, but if the server was witty and attentive and brought extra chips, we're going home happy.

Germs are not the little "something extra" we're looking for with our dining experience. Hands that have been sneezed on, coughed on and God-knows-what-elsed on should not touch our credit cards, let alone our plates. When the wait staff handles the food and the eating ends of utensils and then money and then they're not washing their hands ... you get the picture.

• We like it when you stop by to say "hello." We want someone - an owner, the chef, a front-of-the-house manager - to check up on us. We don't want you to crash our romantic moment, but a well-timed table visit lets us know someone cares.


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