Restaurants From the Inside Out

By Steven A. Shaw

HarperCollins. 216pp. $24.95

If you dine at restaurants with any frequency -- if you live in the Washington area, odds are you do -- then Steven A. Shaw has three "basic rules" for you: "If you don't know, ask. If you don't get the treatment you deserve, complain. And always say please and thank you."

Obvious enough, you say, but pause a moment and you'll realize how many people don't follow them. You'll also realize that sometimes you're one of them. For all the ways in which American restaurants have tried in recent years to be welcoming and user-friendly -- "Hi! I'm Heather, and I'll be your server this evening!" -- many people are still intimidated by them, or their reservations clerks, or their menus, or their wine lists, or their dress codes or their prices. The customer is supposed to be the boss, but too often it's the customer who keeps silent even though the menu is confusing, the maitre d' is snotty and the wine tastes like Napoleonic vinegar.

Shaw, apparently in the belief that a little book can change the world, is here to fix all that. A former lawyer who now does food journalism on and off the Internet, Shaw may be just about the best friend the restaurant business has ever had, which so far as the reader is concerned is both good news and bad news. The good news is that Shaw knows a lot about restaurants and how they work, so he provides a lot of interesting and useful information. Moreover, he's not a food snob; a hot-dog stand in Connecticut gets as much applause from him as an expensive, trendy vendor of haute cuisine in Manhattan. The bad news? Well, let's stick to the good news for the moment.

"Turning the Tables," Shaw writes, is intended to be "an insider's guided tour of the world of restaurant dining," to wit: "Though understanding how restaurants work is fascinating in and of itself, and though informed food choices can greatly enrich one's life, there's another benefit to acquiring this knowledge of the inner workings of the business: By better understanding how restaurants work, we can also learn how better to enjoy dining in them. If you speak the language of restaurants, you can get what you want: better service, food, reservations and overall experience."

So if you want a reservation, be persistent. Find out when cancellations usually are phoned in, and try then. If all else fails, try just showing up; I can confirm by recent experience at a popular downtown Washington restaurant that this sometimes actually works. If you do make a reservation, Shaw properly insists, honor it or cancel it, but don't pull a no-show: "Failing to confirm or honor a reservation is not only inconsiderate, but also puts a strain on the system that results in delay, disappointment and confusion for other customers," not to mention a prospective loss of income for a business where profit margins are tight.

The best thing to do, if you eat out a lot, is to become a regular patron at "a handful of restaurants to satisfy your various dining needs -- the special-occasion place, the business-lunch place, the neighborhood place where you go for a quick bite -- and cultivate . . . your relationship with the staff at each one." A restaurant in that sense is like any other well-run business: It values steady repeat customers and gives them services -- reservations, good tables, lagniappes, personal attention -- that their loyalty has earned.

If you're dissatisfied with anything, let the waiter or the maitre d' know, politely but firmly and specifically: "Speaking up is one of the keys to getting what you want," and "So long as you are civil when voicing reasonable complaints, you are in the right." If the wine is bad in any way -- not if you just don't like it, but if it's a bad bottle -- send it back, and if you're not sure of yourself, ask the waiter or the sommelier. Yes, there's a chance the response will be rude or condescending, but it's a fairly small chance; most restaurateurs understand that pleasing customers is their business and try hard to do just that, including making things right when they go wrong.

If you think (as I do) that, say, $50 is better spent at the grocery store than at a restaurant, but you'd still like to eat out every once in a while, Shaw says "there's no need to waste money in restaurants." He advises against ordering bottled water and coffee, which often are priced beyond value, and "keeping to a tight wine budget." Bear in mind, too, that what goes into your restaurant meal is often a lot more complicated and expensive for the restaurant and that the price reflects this. Here, for example, is a plate of sirloin with mashed potatoes at Gramercy Tavern in New York:

"On the plate you have a dollop of sauce (which took all day to make) hidden under the steak; a ring of potato puree around that; a couple of sliced fingerling potatoes on the side; some sauteed sprouts on top of the steak; two pieces of braised leek (a real hassle -- leeks are very difficult to clean); a little pile containing two pieces of salsify and one slice of black truffle; another pile of lentils and pearl onions; and multiple fresh herbs and coarse salt sprinkled on the various components of the dish (not to mention the various stocks and seasonings needed to braise the leeks, cook the lentils, etc.)."

It's a tough business in which "the single largest expense . . . is rent, so much so that dozens of restaurateurs have told me over the years that 'the restaurant business is the real estate business.' " It's not true that the bar is a restaurant's cash cow: "The overall profitability of a restaurant can't be reduced to any one factor. It involves sales of food, drink and often private parties and off-premises catered events. The loss of any one of those income streams can mean the difference between life and death for a restaurant."

Shaw shows how it all comes together at several restaurants, mostly in New York, at some of which he did kitchen work himself. He has interesting things to report about matters ranging from ingredients (he's deservedly hard on the Food and Drug Administration for overly nannyish policies that keep raw-milk cheeses out of the country) to restaurant decor to the Zagat dining guides, which he finds useful but flawed.

This is where the bad news comes in. Shaw has some very odd and, to my mind, totally wrongheaded notions of what a restaurant critic should do. He complains that "the emphasis on anonymity and distance in restaurant reviewing . . . sends a signal to the public that restaurants are out to deceive us" when, in his view, reviewers should be "champions of excellence who promote the best within the industry while exposing the worst." But the job of reviewers and critics is not to "promote" anything; it is to give readers the fairest and most honest judgment of whatever it is they're reviewing. He believes that a restaurant reviewer should develop "a personal relationship with a chef or restaurateur" to gain "better information and insight," when any experienced journalist can testify that such a relationship serves only to compromise the reviewer's objectivity and integrity. Shaw may think he can go hand in glove with the industry and retain his independence, but it's not an example I'd recommend to anyone else.