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How to be a better diner
Be prompt, complain politely and ditch the clown

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, November 22, 2009

There are countless ways customers can endear themselves to restaurants. Inviting a clown to a four-star establishment is not one of them.

Diners looking for a good time should also reconsider bringing a party's worth of Gatorade to their reservation, or showing up in flip-flops and shorts at a destination celebrated for its elaborate tasting menus. (It has happened at Restaurant Eve in Old Town.) And if they want a host to give them "good phone," patrons might like to know that 5:30 p.m. is the least desirable time to buzz a restaurant.

So report area managers and restaurateurs, who say all they want to do is make their guests happy -- if only some of those guests would let them.

This is not a rant about silly diners or a chance for restaurants to make excuses for meals that go down like vinegar. Instead, it's a game plan, based on suggestions from industry insiders, for making the most of your meals away from home. Think of it as friendly advice dispensed with good intentions.

Tip No. 1: "Do some research," says Adam Crocini, the general manager of the Source downtown, who says some visitors express surprise at a Wolfgang Puck concept that's Asian in flavor. Go online; "look at the back story, look at the menu" to get a sense of the restaurant's food, service and decor. Advance homework allows you to "fit the experience." As a budding foodie in culinary school, Crocini went online to check out price points; these days, he looks for information that aids his dining companions as much as himself. Before meeting his mother for brunch at New York's Locanda Verde recently, he relayed to her its dress code and menu choices. "She walked in totally prepped, knowing what she wanted."

Jarad Slipp, the general manager of CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, likes it when guests share as much information as possible when they're booking a reservation. If a member of the party uses a wheelchair, for instance, the staff will make sure he isn't dragged through the length of the dining room when he arrives. Allergic to gluten? Need a vegan menu? The kitchen is equipped to handle all manner of dietary requests from patrons. However, having such wishes noted ahead of time allows the staff to better "tailor the experience for you," Slipp says, and "make it even more special."

Slipp was on duty the night a couple came in ahead of their two guests and told him, "By the way, we have a clown coming in 15 minutes." A clown? In a formal restaurant? Thinking of CityZen's other patrons -- who might not find the act, the floppy shoes and the balloon sculptures so funny -- Slipp scrambled to find an alternate space for the entertainer, who subsequently performed for the birthday celebrant in the hotel's nearby Empress Lounge.

Be punctual, says Dave Pressley, co-owner of Eventide in Arlington. A 6 o'clock reservation does not mean 6:15 or 6:30. "People don't understand," he explains. "Restaurants need to turn tables at least twice, sometimes three or more times, to make a profit." Everyone is affected by latecomers: the diners following them who have to wait, the servers who make less money because the table can't be reseated, the walk-ins who would rather not be steered to the bar to eat. Tardy diners are often "unintentionally screwing up someone else's night." Pressley has been known to shell out hundreds of dollars' worth of gratis drinks and food on occasion for people who have had to wait for their reserved tables because the current occupants were late or were lingering long after the plates had been cleared. (He says he has been tempted to share that reality with the recipients of his hospitality: "It's that table that should buy you a drink, not me!" So far, he has refrained.)

The restaurateur knows what it's like to be running late, having once been stuck in traffic en route to PS 7's downtown. He called the restaurant three times to keep the host apprised of the delay, and when he showed up -- 45 minutes late -- his profuse apology was accompanied by a question: "When do you need the table back? We'll be gone."

Showing up early is fine, but "the clock doesn't start ticking until reservation time," says Meshelle Armstrong, co-owner of Restaurant Eve. She subtly reminds early arrivals that the restaurant isn't quite ready to seat them with a cheery "Twenty minutes early! That's great" before showing them to the lounge and the option of a drink.

It sounds elementary, but if you have a question, ask. Christian Pendleton has been in the hospitality business for 20 years, working in such diverse venues as Sweetwater Tavern in Merrifield, Hook in Georgetown and the esteemed Per Se in New York. But even he didn't know what calzoncelli was when he started work as the general manager at the new Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca downtown. (It's a stuffed pasta.) Given the vast range of cuisines, trendy ingredients and cooking innovations in the market, no one is expected to know everything.

Even if you're a conservative eater, "be open and interested in tasting someone's menu," advises the owner of Jackie's in Silver Spring, where one of the hardest sells, grilled sardines, happens to be a house favorite. "Look for that which is special," Jackie Greenbaum adds, and "you'll be rewarded in return." Armstrong refers to the strategy as "good dining karma," a willingness to experience something new and the expectation that good times are ahead.

Planning to drink? Even if you look like Grandma Moses, "bring proper ID," shares Diane Gross, co-owner of Cork Wine Bar in Logan Circle. "If you don't, unfortunately, we can't serve you." What might come across to the diner as silly is taken seriously by most restaurants. "We would love to take your word for it and serve you a glass of wine or a cocktail as opposed to a soda," Gross says, "but we can't, because the consequences for restaurants are dire." A waiter or bartender caught serving an underage guest is subject to arrest, she points out, and the business can lose its liquor license.

Restaurants are in the business of selling food and drink, but you might not know that judging from what some customers bring with them. Coffee and pastries for brunch, a sack of Gatorade to wash back dinner: Pressley of Eventide says he's seen it all and deals with the problem at least once a week. "Those of us who are lucky enough to make a profit make it on a very small margin," the restaurateur says. "We simply can't afford to have guests occupy our flatware, plates, table space, glassware and employees while we making nothing on the table." Pressley says that if there's something special you want to bring in from outside, first ask for permission. And then inquire whether there's a plate or corkage charge for that birthday cake or a bottle of wine.

Pendleton says he's grateful for guests who complain discreetly. If you're not happy with a dish, he wants to know right then, while there's time to correct any problem. Even if you're not bonding with your waiter, there's a way to address that touchy subject, too: "I'm looking for someone less outgoing," he says, pretending to be a guest. Reverting to himself, he says, "Give us a chance to show you what we can do, what we're good at." Armstrong of Restaurant Eve appreciates complaints that are decent and detailed. "Be civil," she says, echoing the sentiments of others in the business, "and you'll get the world!"

Bringing a problem to the attention of a manager can result in changes for the better for everyone. When diners complained about feeling pressed to buy designer water at Hook in Georgetown, Pendleton instructed his staff to rephrase their question so that the free choice was mentioned first, as in, "Ice water or bottled?"

Do the chef and yourself a favor and let your waiter know if you want to leave the table for a restroom, cigarette or cellphone break. That is especially true for high-end restaurants serving often-complex food that is meant to be eaten as soon as it's prepared. Cathal Armstrong, the chef at Restaurant Eve, had to remake four truffle-topped orders of risotto recently when the entire table of diners left to go outside and smoke. The staff refers to diners who repeatedly leave the table as "up-and-downers." (Not every restaurant goes to such lengths; some kitchens set food that's not ready to be eaten under heat lamps, where the dish can dry out and lose flavor.)

Finally, don't wait to cancel your reservation or, worse, fail to contact the restaurant at all. Even a last-minute cancellation sometimes has an upside. Says Slipp of CityZen, "the table that's yours might go to the couple that walked in from the street and had to sit at the bar." You might not have been able to make dinner, but someone else can "have a good time in your absence."

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