Food critic

A periodic look at my communication with readers.


((Kim Salt for the Washington Post))

After a participant in my online dining chat complained about a rushed celebratory dinner in a Washington hot spot, fellow chatters asked how much time restaurants budget for customers.

As a general rule, say industry insiders, two people occupy a table for about 90 minutes, three to four diners stay about 2 hours and 15 minutes, and five or more guests spend 2½ to 3 hours.

The more formal a place, says William Washington, director of BLT Prime in the Trump International Hotel, the longer customers typically stay. On any given night, he figures, 10 percent of diners want the “express” treatment — and the same percentage prefer to linger.

Restaurants have their own rhythms, though. At Blue Duck Tavern in the West End, general manager Joseph Cerione makes sure to budget more time for the weekday “destination diners” than for Friday and Saturday clientele, many with shows or other activities on their evening schedules.

Delayed customers affect the flow of the night — and the restaurant’s bottom line, since one way to appease diners who have to wait for a table is to send them to the bar for drinks on the house. As Washington says, “Every chair has a dollar sign attached to it at the end of the day.”

A relatively recent technology has helped restaurateurs everywhere move diners in and out of tables more efficiently, says Saied Azali, owner of Mintwood Place and Perry’s in Adams Morgan. Partly because it solves parking problems, “Uber is good for business.”

Hard to read

A pet peeve of District resident Elizabeth Blakeslee: restaurants that hand out a single drinks list per table. “I find this puzzling,” she writes. “If restaurants make a healthy profit on cocktails, why wouldn’t they use the opportunity to entice all the diners with a cocktail menu?”

Having recently dined at Red Hen in Bloomingdale and Ripple in Cleveland Park, where each establishment presented four of us with a single drinks list, I put the question to principals at both establishments. As it turns out, even the co-owner of Red Hen, Sebastian Zutant, was curious as to why his and other establishments are holding back. “I don’t know! There are no paper gods calling me at night,” he cracked. “Everybody has a drink, right? It’s a mystery.” One possible explanation for a single cocktail menu, he says, is the industry practice of “dropping one wine list” per table.

As for Ripple, general manager José María Aguirre says the restaurant doesn’t want to overwhelm diners with paper when they sit down. “We want you to be relaxed,” he says.

News to toast for Blakeslee and fellow cocktail fans: Both restaurants plan to remedy the situation. Red Hen will start giving diners their own drinks list, and Ripple is considering adding cocktail and beer selections to the food menu.

Words to dine by

Frequent solo diner and cocktail enthusiast Jay Shampur, a reader from Toronto, shared a few tips for getting top-shelf restaurant service: Sit at the bar, ask the bartender his or her name, request a drink that the bartender likes (while noting your preferences) and tip 20 percent. If Shampur likes what he’s eaten, he might ask to thank the chef in person and offer a glass of an interesting wine he has ordered.

“You’d be amazed at how good the service is the next time I” return, the reader wrote in an email. “Being gracious goes a very long way in having a good meal and a happy experience. It makes the staff want to try that much harder.”

He knows from experience. A former computer support technician, Shampur says he and his team went beyond the call of duty for polite users. And the others? “Rude ones got shifted to the bottom of the pile.”

Tipping points
((Kim Salt for The Washington Post))

“I know in some service industries, you do not have to tip the proprietor if he/she performs the service,” writes Joan Donato of Jacksonville, Fla. She wonders if the same is true in restaurants, where an owner might wait on a table.

Restaurateurs I’ve talked to say they don’t expect gratuities when they’re doing the ordering, delivering or schmoozing — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t leave monetary thanks on the table. Patrons should tip as they normally would; gratuities get passed along to the service team.

While he has been offered tips “many times,” Ashok Bajaj, the highly visible owner of such destination restaurants as Rasika in Penn Quarter and the Oval Room near the White House, says he always declines money. Not only are bosses salaried, says Bajaj, he sees customers as “guests in my home.”

The host’s response to anyone who wants to reward him: “Take care of the staff.”

See something, say something

Got an issue with a restaurant? “Please say something while you’re there,” a self-described member of the food industry pleaded (in caps) during a recent chat — a topic I’ve sounded off on almost as often as noise levels in restaurants.

“Don’t be afraid,” the unnamed reader wants diners to know. “If you don’t tell the staff, they won’t know, and we all think everything is fine. Just like the city doesn’t know to fix the pothole or streetlight that’s out unless you report it, waiters, chefs and managers can’t fix issues they don’t know about.”

The poster went on to say that “staying silent is a disservice to yourself and the establishment you’re at — you want to enjoy yourself, we want you to enjoy yourself. Nobody wins when you stay silent and only share anonymously” in a public forum.

A matter of security

Another week, another reader wondering why restaurants require deposits for a reservation.

“While I understand needing to give a credit card if you’re a no-show, what is the rationale for charging you to book the table?” asked a follower of my online food forum who was eager to try the exclusive Métier in Washington but “was turned off by the $150 per person deposit to book the table. I would rather be charged for not showing than have to be issued a refund if I need to cancel.”

I forwarded the question to Celia Laurent, the managing partner of the tasting menu restaurant she owns with her husband, James Beard award winner Eric Ziebold.

In the couple’s luxe nine-table restaurant in Shaw, Laurent replied via email, “it really comes down to security.” Guests who fail to honor reservations “are a problem that haven’t gotten any better, unfortunately.” Métier has a 48-hour cancellation policy; guests who cancel before then get a full refund of their deposit. Laurent says the restaurant, which features costly ingredients including abalone and foie gras, hasn’t kept a deposit since it opened last spring; in two cases, both emergencies, the deposits were applied to a future visit. Still, she said, “With credit card companies, it puts us in a much better position should someone not show up and choose to contest the charges.”

Next week: A review of Voltaggio Brothers Steak House at the MGM National Harbor.

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