Fork Off: Shared Plates Etiquette #hackdining

Shared Plates Etiquette

“I’m from a large family of sharers. When one of my sisters married a non-sharer, she morphed into one herself. It was traumatic. It’s been 30 years, and we all still talk about it… Ironically, the fact that her husband was raised Catholic seemed less controversial to my Jewish family….”

Sharing meals with others can be a social rite that borders on primal. We naturally congregate around food — celebrating special occasions, conducting business (power lunches, anyone?), or simply gathering around the table with family to recap the day. Eating together — whether it’s two of you or 10 – is how we are wired.

Sharing actual food, however, is a whole other matter. A quick survey of diners reveals a near-polarized split between those who love communal eating and those who guard their plates for dear life. The former expect to collaborate on ordering and graze from as many dishes as the table can handle. The latter see it as a hygienically suspect invasion of personal space

One extreme view came from a self-proclaimed foodie, who volunteered, “I love sharing food. I once dumped a guy because he wouldn’t share.” When pressed about her rather extreme reaction to being denied a bite of her date’s entrée, she just shrugged and replied, “It’s a deal breaker…a true indicator of personality.”

When such birds of a feather flock together, how do they dine together? To find out, I pressed a crew of friends who explained their very clear-cut system for shared plates etiquette: “We have a group of five friends that go out for dinner two or three times a month. Each of us orders a different app and a main. When the dishes arrive, we take a few bites and pass the plates to the left. We all get to taste everything while leaving enough so that it makes its way back (with some left) to the original diner.”

While some people take it as their god given right to jab anything on their neighbors’ plates, the feeling is not always mutual. Here are some shared plates etiquette tips for navigating this potentially fraught terrain in good taste:

Exercise caution, and, when possible, choose your venue accordingly. If you are a sharer, don’t assume everyone else at the table will be as well. Ask before making plans that involve lots of plate passing. It’s generally safer to plan communal dinners with people you know well and who don’t mind your chopsticks invading their terrain. Don’t take your future mother-in-law for Ethiopian or Korean barbeque before you’re confident she won’t balk when you start pawing her dinner.

Be sensitive to those who don’t care to consume in the same manner as you. Don’t just leap in fork first and start picking away at your neighbor’s plate. Ask — and be sure to read body language. If, when asked to share, they pucker and deposit a forensics lab specimen-sized sliver of their chicken on your bread plate, chances are you are dining with a non-sharer. Don’t persist unless tormenting them is your objective.Continue Reading

Table for One: The Art of Dining Alone #hackdining

Our recent revelations about solo dining continue to captivate media and diners alike. To continue the conversation, we’ve asked contributor Nevin Martell, a frequent solo diner to share his insights and tips for a terrific dining experience for those who do so with a bit of trepidation. Here are his insights on the art of dining alone. 

“Table for one, sir?”

I get this question a lot. As a food writer, I dine out constantly to try new places and revisit familiar favorites. Though I love breaking bread with family, friends, and colleagues, it’s oftentimes not often possible to line up our schedules with my ever-present deadlines. And so I’ll find myself alone at the host stand.

While many restaurants, especially those recently highlighted on OpenTable’s Top 25 Restaurants for Solo Diners list, are thrilled to welcome solo diners, not every host makes it easy. Perhaps you sense they’re giving you a look of pity as they pick up a lone menu and lead you off to a table tucked away in a dark corner, which they think is what you want since they incorrectly assume you’re ashamed by your singleton status.

Despite any minor speed bumps that can come with solo supping, I enjoy it. The solitary time allows me to slow down for a little while, concentrate on the food, and maybe catch up on some email or make progress on my reading. It sounds oxymoronic, but it’s nice to get away from people in a room full of people. It’s the same reason why I go to bustling coffee shops packed with chattering hordes to get away from distractions when I’m writing.

However, for a long time, I didn’t like sitting across from an empty chair. I would spend most of the meal looking around nervously to see if people were staring at me, eat as quickly as possible, and oftentimes invent stories for the servers as to why I was dining alone. “My friend had to unexpectedly work late. He’s a surgeon. He’s probably saving someone’s life right now.”

It took me years to realize it, but there is an art to eating alone. Here are six ways you can maximize your experience as a solo diner.

Don’t let people make you feel like you’re a social outcast.

You’re choosing to dine by yourself, so be proud of it. Own it. Think of the meal as some quality me time. If the host asks you the most judgmental of questions – “So, it’ll just be you?” – smile widely and respond, “I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather be with.”

Sit where you want, not where they want you to sit.

All too often, single diners are relegated to an end seat at the bar by the service station or the most undesirable table in the restaurant. If you see the host is leading you to one of these desolate hellholes, politely ask for another seat. This is the perfect time to enjoy the view, so ask for somewhere you can admire your surroundings or do some serious people watching.Continue Reading

5 Top Restaurant Complaints + How to Prevent Them from Ruining Your Meal #hackdining

It’s happened to all of us. You’re out to dinner and something goes wrong. Maybe it’s something minor like the server accidentally bringing you a Chardonnay instead of a Chablis. Or perhaps it’s a bigger issue that threatens to derail your entire evening. No one wants to spend good money to have a bad time. So, how do you confront these problems to rectify the situation and ensure you have an enjoyable experience? From overdone steak to underwhelming service, we look at five top restaurant complaints along with tips from hospitality experts for preventing them from ruining your meal. 

Young people eating lunch in a bright modern restaurant, a waiter is serving hot food. Natural light.

You’re seated at a table you don’t like.

It’s by a drafty door, so you keep feeling a chilly breeze. Or it’s next to the bar, which is particularly loud that evening, and you want to have a quiet date night. For whatever reason, the table just isn’t right for you.

Speak out immediately, advises Jonathan Crayne, the senior captain at Marcel’s in Washington, D.C. “You have a chance to save your night or ruin your night,” he says. “Just remember you’re never going to be happy if you spend the evening thinking, ‘Maybe we should have moved.’”

If you feel uncomfortable asking for a new table, use this graceful line from Antonella Rana, co-owner of Giovanni Rana Pastificio & Cucina in New York City. “I’m so sorry; you work here and you are used to this beautiful space,” she says. “However, it’s my first time and I truly would like to have the best memory of it. I don’t feel so comfortable at this table, could you bring me to your favorite?”

As they say, flattery will get you anywhere – including the best seat in the house.

The guests near you are behaving inappropriately.

There’s a couple next to you in the middle of a loud, profanity-laced breakup. Or the parents at the next booth brought their two-year-old son to dinner and he wants nothing more than to be a human catapult, so mushy French fries keep landing on your dinner plate.

It’s definitely not your job to police the situation. Sit tight and flag down a server or the manager. “We don’t want guests going to another table; that’s our job,” says David Fascitelli, general manager of Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C. “We would like to intercede and make the situation right.”

Rana has another tactful line to use when you get the eye of a staffer. “Unfortunately I have a terrible ‘teacher’ syndrome,” she says. “Could you please help us and quiet this chaos next to our table before I do so myself?”

Your dish isn’t prepared properly.

The steak you requested medium rare is well done and your dining companion’s salad is packed with the tomatoes he asked the kitchen to hold. How do you politely send the food back?

“People are worried about making the chef upset or looking like they don’t appreciate his or her food,” says Fascitelli. “But the chef wants to make it right, too.”

Being open is your best bet. “It’s very easy to over-salt something,” says Crayne. “We sometimes don’t know it’s happened until we’re told. So, don’t hesitate to send something back.”

The food is made correctly, but you just don’t like it.Continue Reading

Seven Ways to Endear Yourself to Your Favorite Restaurant #hackdining

Part of a small series showing food being served as a chef and a customer interact in a restaurant

Favorite restaurants are sanctuaries. They’re where you go to celebrate, relax after a long day, catch up with dear friends, or find solace from the troubles of the world. What draws you in as a diner, though? Maybe you worship the food. Perhaps you adore the staff. Possibly you just dig the vibe. It’s easy to figure out what keeps you coming back.

But flip that notion on its head. What makes a restaurant’s staff love certain guests more than others? We recently discussed what diners do that drive restaurant workers crazy. So, how can guests curry favor and become friendly with the teams at their go-to eateries? Here are seven ways to endear yourself to your favorite restaurant.

Give a gift
A regular at Washington, D.C.’s Tico routinely, but randomly, brings in flowers to hand out to the female staffers and guests. “I’ve never experienced that before,” says Steve Uhr, regional operations director for Good Essen, which oversees chef Michael Schlow’s ventures, including Tico and The Riggsby. “I feel neglectful that I don’t do that for my staff.” During last holiday season, the same guest gave generous presents to several staffers who regularly took care of him. “It’s thoughtful, because if you go and buy something for someone, you have to think about your relationship to that person, which makes it a lot more personal,” says Uhr.

Show your appreciation
The kitchen staff puts long hours in behind the scenes making meals happen. Though they’re creating the food, they often don’t get the opportunity to interact with guests. Chef Quinten Frye at Big Bear Café in Washington, D.C. wants to hear when guests enjoy their meal. “The easiest way is coming back to say thanks or give a simple handshake,” he says. “It’s always gratefully received.”

Be inquisitive
Restaurant staffers appreciate when guests listen to what they’re saying, whether they’re going through the daily specials, describing the tasting notes for a particular wine, or explaining how a certain dish is prepared. It’s equally appreciated when guests are willing to share their likes and dislikes, so the staff can create the best dining experience for them. “The bigger thing is when people want to participate in a dialogue,” says Caitlin Doonan, beverage director of New York City’s Toro. “When they ask us what we’re excited about or what we like, that’s great. It’s more than placing an order. It becomes a two-way street.”

Act like you’re visiting a friend’s house
The metaphor of the restaurant as a home is used over and over again — and with good reason. Many staffers talk about the idea of creating an inviting, relaxing, and comfortable environment for their guests, so they feel like they’re visiting a friend’s house. To complete that vision, diners should be on their best behavior. “Just be polite,” stresses Frye. “I’m a southern guy – I grew up in San Antonio, Texas – so I’m a yes ma’am, no ma’am, please, and thank you kind of a guy. To this day, I pull out my girlfriend’s chair when she sits down. The small stuff goes a long way.”

Don’t linger
We’ve all been in restaurants where you could tell from the energy of the space and its staff that they’re firing on all cylinders. Every table is full, the bar is packed, and the host stand looks like it’s being overwhelmed by a human tsunami. When you’ve finished your meal and paid the tab, it’s time to get up and go. “Be conscientious to other people that are hungry and wrap it up,” says Uhr. “We appreciate being able to serve other guests as quickly as possible.”Continue Reading