Ex-Critic: Hey! 'Rude' Diners Are Your Meal Ticket

Ex-critic Phyllis Richman: Note the word
Ex-critic Phyllis Richman: Note the word "server." It doesn't mean "seller," as in pricey bottled water. (By Tetona Dunlap -- The Washington Post)
By Phyllis Richman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

David, while you were toiling away in Washington kitchens all those years, my job was eating your food -- a pretty easy assignment, I'd say -- and critiquing it.

Of course, I didn't always get to eat your food. I had to eat the food of far worse chefs, and even better ones (though the most prevalent flaw in your work -- oh, those menus! -- I found, was an excess of puns).

In three decades of restaurant reviewing, I, too, developed some "issues," many of which overlapped with yours. Being the person who stood between the restaurant and the diner, I got to observe close-up both sides of these issues.

Like many relationships, the diner-restaurateur encounter is one where both sides expect too much. The diner anticipates romance, adventure, comfort and savor, all without putting on an ounce of weight. The restaurateur dreams of becoming famous, rich and sage, surrounded by admiring disciples, not to mention a grateful public. No wonder both wind up suspicious and defensive.

Let's get specific. David, you complain that diners relax the standards they maintain in other professional settings and don't carry their weight in the relationship. But while your restaurant might be a professional setting for you, it is not for the diner -- who has come specifically to relax. And what is the diner's obligation? To pay the bill. That's the weight the diner must carry.

On the other hand, you claim that the server's duties are to promote and sell the restaurant's products. Wrong. The clue is in the title. We're not talking about sellers; they're servers. Their mandate is to provide an efficient and pleasant context for the chef's cooking and to be at the diner's service. Remember, our tradition is that the waiter is largely paid directly by the diner -- as tips, based on the quality of the service. I agree, though, that sometimes the waiter is overzealous in boosting the diner's bill, since that tip is calculated on the size of the check.

As for scams, they are not common, but they do exist. I've collected and documented over the years every type you have mentioned and then some. I have sat in on waiters' classes that have exhorted them to double the diners' expenditures after the main course (dessert? liqueurs? coffee, perhaps with a little flaming alcohol and whipped cream?).

I've had a waiter present a $250 bottle of wine (worth $125) as if it were a birthday gift from the owner, implying it was free but then putting it on the bill. Later, he boasted that he sold four bottles a week that way. I've had extra charges on my credit card from the tip being increased after I've signed the receipt, or the card being run twice.

David, the scams on your list are all familiar.

Let's address that bottled water scam. Why do so many waiters ask whether you want "sparkling or still water" . . . as if tap water didn't exist? Selling water is clearly the point of the question. After all, the waiter doesn't ask what kind of bread you want, or how you prefer your napkin folded, or even whether you want your salad before or after the entree. The same goes for asking your brand of vodka. I'll never forget the two men who blindly chose cognac from the list the waiter recited, and only after they'd had a second round discovered it was $100 a shot.

Now, about that waiting at the bar. I'm sure it's often a legitimate request, but I've been directed to the bar when the dining room was nearly empty. And I've never been offered a free drink in such a situation.

The "most expensive item on the menu" scam is old hat. These days it's the "chef's specials" scam. In restaurants where the specials are not printed but recited by the waiter, probably half the time you'll find that the specials are more expensive than the average dishes on the printed menu. Sometimes that's legitimate -- venison, soft-shell crabs and fresh wild salmon are seasonal ingredients that cost a premium. But the written menu sets the standard, and when that is exceeded, diners deserve to know the price before they order. If you're in a clothing store trying on $100 coats and the salesperson brings you a $500 coat with no price tag, you'll certainly be told that before you commit to buying it.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company