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

How to Dine Like a Restaurant Critic #hackdining

How to Dine Like a Restaurant CriticSo, let’s get this out of the way. Being a restaurant critic can be pretty hard work. You can put away the tiny violins, and let’s pause for the laughter to die down.

Yes, of course, it’s terrific fun, and you sometimes want to pinch yourself for actually getting paid to dine, but the responsibility of a restaurant critic, in fact, goes well beyond just chomping down a meal and writing something about it. The point is, a thoughtful critic is mindful of the fact that he/she is ultimately passing judgment on some else’s hard work and recognizes the impact their verdict can ultimately have. This is no small responsibility. A good review can help launch a successful restaurant; a bad one, though, can be devastating. It’s not something to take lightly.

Following are eight tips for how to dine like a restaurant critic on a review.

1. Choose wisely. Ideally, you want to pick a restaurant that takes you out of your comfort zone. Don’t go to a place you’ve already been to a million times. Try something new, so you can approach the experience with a fresh point of view. Among the options you might consider: type of cuisine, price point, location, innovative formats (e.g. Japanese-Jewish fusion? Dessert only?), as well as the presence of a celebrity chef.
Advice: Be adventurous with your restaurant reservations.

2. Do your homework. If you’re tackling a cuisine that’s new to you, a bit of research about culture, ingredients, and preparations can go a long way and make for a much richer experience. This can help you gain a better sense of what some of the must-try dishes are and provide you more confidence when ordering. Also, if there are specialties that require advance notice (e.g. Peking Duck, suckling pig), better to know before you get there.
Advice: Read up on the restaurant and the style of cooking before you go.

3. Allow the restaurant a grace period. While it’s tempting to want to evaluate a new place right away, you typically want to give the kitchen a bit of time to get its sea legs. In theory, a restaurant should be fully ready for customers from the day it opens its doors to customers. In reality, it can often take time to properly train a newly staffed kitchen, iron out wrinkles in service, and refine dishes.
Advice: Do yourself (and the restaurant) a favor, and wait three to six weeks post-opening for the dust to settle.

4. Use discretion. A critic — whether a blogger or a writer for a major publication — should function as an advocate for the “everyman.” I literally imagine myself as a stand-in for my readers. When dining for a review, you ought to receive the same treatment as anyone else in order get and to give a fair and balanced assessment of the occasion. It certainly can be nice to get VIP treatment, but that doesn’t likely mirror what the typical diner will experience.
Advice: Don’t announce that you are writing a review, and never ask for free food in exchange for a review. That pretty much disqualifies your ability to be impartial.Continue Reading

When Restaurants Google You, Is It Creepy – or Cool?

Here’s something you may or may not know: Many of the best restaurants in the world research their guests online prior to a shift, with a view to learning something that will help them give those diners truly personalized, exceptional hospitality.

We were curious how people might feel about that, so we decided to ask U.S. OpenTable members, “When restaurants Google you, is it creepy or cool?” More than 6,000 chimed in with their responses, which led to the following interesting findings:

“Creepy” trumps “cool”

While many people aren’t bothered by the notion of being Googled by restaurant staff, the number of people who consider it “creepy or intrusive” outweighs the number of people who think it’s a good thing.

CreepyCool-BarGraph

Many of the 5 percent who answered “other” seemed baffled by the notion. “Not sure about that. What will they really get?” wondered one respondent. “Too much of a ‘Big Brother’ feeling,” commented another. “These must be expensive restaurants!” reasoned a third.

Diners in some cities are more creeped out than others

When we looked at the data by metro area, we saw a fair amount of variation. The most relaxed about this practice were our diners in Dallas, which was, in fact, the only city where those who think it’s a good thing (34 percent) outweighed those who consider it creepy (23 percent).

Meanwhile, respondents from cities farther north (think Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis) were a lot more suspicious of being researched by a restaurant at which they were about to dine.Continue Reading

Five Things Diners Do That Drive Restaurant Workers Crazy #hackdining

Chefs Preapring Food TogetherMost seasoned diners know that a refined restaurant experience is much more than just the act of serving you good food on a plate. It’s a hospitality business in every sense. The passionate restaurateur yearns for their customers to have a wonderful experience — not just so you’ll come back and tell your friends about it — but because, quite frankly, it’s part of their DNA. Chefs, in particular, crave approval and desperately want to make you happy. It’s a big part of why they went into this trying business. (It certainly wasn’t for the money.) Running a restaurant is about as hard a job as it gets.

So is the customer always right? Does anything go? Well, yes and…no. While a top-notch restaurant should bend over backwards to accommodate its guests, the reality is that the relationship ought to, in fact, be a bit of two-way street — so everybody can win.

With a bit of background into the creative and operational process of running a restaurant based on personal experience and recent interviews with several chefs who wish to remain anonymous, here are five things diners do that drive restaurant workers crazy.

Incomplete parties: Restaurants essentially make their money much the same way airlines do: they sell time in their seats. This is perishable inventory, only with fine dining and expensive ingredients in the fridge, even more so. The equation is simple: available tables x minutes the restaurant is open x cost of the items you order. There are precious few minutes each day when a restaurant must earn all its money, so every minute a table or individual seat sits idle, that is revenue that’s gone forever. So, when your party is incomplete and the server sometimes doesn’t seat you, understand there is a method to the madness.
Advice: Try to arrive together and on time, be a bit patient if you’re not, and ALWAYS let the restaurant know if you need to cancel as soon as possible so they don’t lose an opportunity to fill the table. And, please never no-show for your reservation.

Table breaks: The process of preparing and serving a variety of menu items for a large table can be a choreographic miracle. In sophisticated kitchens, there literally can be dozens of cooks working on one meal to simultaneously ensure that the poached egg atop of your crisp frisée salad is deliciously runny at the same time that your date’s fettuccine is perfectly al dente. The chef acts as the kitchen’s conductor, making sure everything is in synch and just right. When a server cues that you are, say, getting close to finishing your appetizer, this culinary orchestra jumps into motion in order to send out all the various plates at the same time and at the exact right preparation and temperature. Keep that in mind when you wander out to take a 20 minute phone call mid-meal. It can throw the kitchen into a tizzy as they try and keep your various dishes at the right temperature while trying to guess when you might return.
Advice: If you must leave the table mid-meal, let the server or host know — or wait to slip out until the food has come, if possible.

Modifications: A great dish — even a good one — is a calibration of texture, temperature, and ingredients, especially flavors like salt, acid, and fat. This process doesn’t happen by chance. It’s often the result of methodical, creative experimentation and refinement to get that balance precisely right. Asking the server to take an ingredient out of a dish is akin to sawing the leg off a table – the whole thing can “tip” over and all that hard work goes out the window. A number of chefs I’ve spoken with complained that it drives them nuts when customers arbitrarily eliminate a component, ask for it on the side, or – the worst form of insult – request to substitute something else entirely. The main worry is that when you remove an ingredient, the dish no longer tastes the way it was intended, and the experience (and their vision) is seriously diminished.
Advice: If it’s an actual allergy, you’d do best to order something else. If it’s an aversion, ask your server to guide you to a dish that has all the flavors you enjoy most.Continue Reading