Let’s resolve to enjoy eating out more in 2013. Here’s my recipe for the industry and customers alike.
Train your staff: If you don’t allow your staff to try the menu, how are they going to be able to describe your cooking or steer diners to the goods? And coach them to be on the lookout for waving hands and raised eyebrows. Diners hate feeling ignored when they need another cocktail or want the bill.
Taste your cooking: Salt is probably not the first flavor you want diners to experience when they eat your food, but a heavy hand with the seasoning has marred more than one meal of mine in the past year. Cooks, remember to taste as much as you can before it goes out of the kitchen. And have a colleague try your work before sending it into the dining room, too. Or at least have someone spot-checking the food every day.
Accept reservations: Some restaurants are so hot, they don’t need to bother booking tables. But for the sake of all of us who like to plan ahead, implement a convenient system that shows you care about customers, too. (I’m talking to you, Little Serow.)
Drop the eggs: I expect an egg on a French-style frisee salad, and I appreciate one on a rare breakfast steak. Buy why does every other chef feel compelled to plop an egg on a hamburger or side of vegetables? What was amusing the first few sightings has become tedious.
Pay more attention to dessert: We’re beyond bored with bread pudding, flourless chocolate cake and creme brulee. Remember, the last course is the parting impression you leave with diners. If you can’t afford a pastry chef, identify someone on staff with an interest in sweets and put him or her in charge of dessert. Three superb choices are better than a fleet of the same old, and if you bother to bake pie, I’ll be there with fork at attention.
Consider everyone a VIP: My e-mail is packed with complaints from diners who swear that because of their youth, maturity, dress, skin color, gender or same-sex attraction, they are getting less than first-rate service in restaurants. Pretend everyone who walks through your door is a member of the Elite Squad on Yelp or a talent scout from Food & Wine. At the very least, if you’re fawning over regulars or big spenders, be sure to show the customers around them a little love, too. Trust me, they notice when others are being lavished with attention and they’re not.
Audition everything: Before settling on new designs — chairs, lights, utensils — try them out. You’d be surprised at how uncomfortable some seats can become after the appetizer course and how unwieldy some forks can be after a bite or two. What looks good at first glance doesn’t always feel good over time.
Follow up on rants: Make a priority of responding to customer calls and e-mail within a week. Nothing makes diners angrier than feeling ignored after they’ve taken the time to register a complaint. Sometimes, just being heard out can remedy the slight.
Be a mensch: A crack in your wine glass should get you a fresh pour in a different bowl, not a free drink. Don’t treat every restaurant slip as a chance to get more than you ordered.
Show up on time: When you’re seriously late, you inconvenience more people than you might realize: the hostess, the server, the diners scheduled for the table after you.
The president can speed through town without stopping for red lights and other traffic. You can’t. Plan accordingly.
Leave the attitude at home: Don’t bring your bad day at the office or the fight with your kids into the restaurant. Make an effort to enjoy the occasion.
Dress for the occasion:No one expects you to put on a tie and jacket for a night of beer and barbecue, but you might want to dig deeper into your closet for a venue where celebrations are frequent or formality is observed. You’ll blend in better. Plus, you’ll make the folks around you, who have taken the time to iron a shirt and press some slacks and maybe hire a babysitter, feel as if their hard-earned money is being spent at the right place. Dressing up a little isn’t showing off. It’s showing respect for the restaurant and for others around you.
Save the grooming for a private place: Do not file your nails, floss your teeth or change a baby’s diaper in a public dining room (I’ve seen all three. None whets the appetite). Restaurants have areas called restrooms where personal grooming is better undertaken. And while we’re on the subject, putting your feet, bare or covered, on the seat of another chair is a turn-off, too. This isn’t your living room. It’s shared space. Pretend Miss Manners is dining with you.
Don’t hog the table: If it’s a busy weekend and you’ve paid the bill, be a chum and make way for the next party. Or at least don’t linger beyond 10 minutes. The industry has a name for those who don’t know when to say goodbye: campers.
Speak up! Waiters aren’t mind-readers. If your wine is too warm, your fish is too cold or you just discovered there are peanuts where you didn’t expect (and don’t want) them, that’s the moment to share the news with the restaurant (and in a pleasant tone). It doesn’t do anyone any good to complain about the issue afterward. Give the restaurant a chance to recover and perhaps even impress you.
Acknowledge the staff: If you’ve enjoyed your experience, tell the server and his or her manager. And remember that busboys, coat checkers, valet parkers and bartenders all contribute to a meal away from home, too. Few of us tire of hearing “thank you.”
The regular Dining column will return.