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THE CIVILIZED GUIDE TO NAVIGATING THE RESTAURANT WILDS

IT CAN BE a jungle out there in restaurant land, but you are, after all, the customer.

Peruse, therefore, this irascible -- and alphabetized -- guide to restaurant-going.

Following some of these suggestions will win you respect -- the maitre d' might call you "sir," if that is important to you. (Of course, if the maitre d' called me "sir," I'd be mighty upset.)

A. Appetizers. Often they are the most creative and interesting part of the menu. If that's the case, order two and skip the entree. Finish up with a lush dessert.

B. "Better Never Than (Very) Late" -- I first saw this precept in a Saturday Evening Post article in the '70s and it stayed with me, as a shining beacon. To wit: If you have a reservation and they keep you waiting for more than 15 minutes, they darn well had better offer a complimentary beverage.

Waiting 30 minutes? Walk. And tell your friends.

C. Check. Look it over carefully. I don't like the practice of lumping the tax in with cost of the meal so that only one number appears. It makes it hard to figure the tip.

D. Description. If you don't understand how a dish on the menu is prepared or if you need to know the ingredients, your server should be able to tell you. If he can't, he should find out.

E. Extra charges. Extra charge for broiled rather than fried fish. Extra charge for blue cheese dressing. Phooey.

F. Fast. Sometimes service can be just too fast -- dining is supposed to be leisurely. And if the vultures start circling to take your plate every time you put your knife down, make your displeasure known.

G. Garnish. It is supposed to enhance the food, not overwhelm. Strawberries and kiwi with broiled fish should be run out of town on a rail.

H. Homemade. Is it? Plenty of restaurant menus talk about "our luscious homemade desserts." But often they are not. Not bad, but not worth the calories -- or the money. Don't assume; make sure.

I. "Is everything all right?" Once is enough.

J. Juice. Fresh is better. Why don't more places squeeze fruit on the spot?

K. Kitchen, back to the. Send it back if it is spoiled or not what you ordered. Do not try to send a plate back after you've eaten almost everything on it. Somebody might get the idea you're trying to get a free meal.

L. Limp. A condition that often seems to apply -- especially in humid weather. Limp salad greens, limp bread, limp french fries. Point out, if necessary.

M. Maraschino cherries. They belong only on chocolate sundaes. (See G.)

N. Noise. If you are dining (as opposed to drinking or seeking entertainment), music is supposed to provide background. If the tapes dominate your conversation, tell your server. Maybe they'll turn it down.

O. Overcooked. Vegetables, usually, maybe because they've been kept on a steam table. Fresh vegetables deserve more respect.

P. Pepper mills. The bigger they are, the sillier. The server's wielding of this weapon is an unnecessary pretension, a leftover from the '70s. A small mill on every table will suffice.

Q. Quantity, vis-a-vis quality, that is. To put it briefly: Too much of the former is not an excuse for not enough of the latter.

R. Reviews. And, not so incidentally, reviewers. You may not always agree with them, but so what? Part of the purpose of a restaurant review is to make you think.

S. Siberia. Restaurant language for undesirable tables. Near the men's room, maybe. If you don't like the table they take you to, say something about it immediately.

T. Tipping. Always a problem. Americans, time and time again, have indicated they don't want a service charge automatically added to their check. The going rate, therefore (if service is OK), is 15 percent or better. Figure it on the cost of the food and drink, not the tax. (See C.)

U. Underlighting. You should be able to make your way to a table without risk of ankle fracture. You should also be able to read the menu. On the other hand, overilluminated rooms are ghastly. Restaurateurs should seek professional lighting help.

V. Verbal menus. Even a handwritten list of specials is better than an oration.

W. "Who gets the chicken wings?" "Who gets the steak?" A good server remembers where the orders go and doesn't keep asking. Experienced servers develop mnemonic aids.

X. Xenonome. A phrase we just coined, describing a person unduly suspicious of foreign food. A restaurateur's nightmare. You might really like that Thai noodle dish -- why not try?

Y. "Youse." As in "Are youse ready to order now?" The eternal question to any table seating more than one person. Believe it or not, the plural form of the second person pronoun is the same as the singular: "Are you ready to order?" is the proper question.

And the proper answer: "Yes, weese are."

Z. Zinfandel. White, that is. Nice but boring. Let's drink to more creative wine lists!

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