As a food critic, I typically eat almost all my meals away from home and with particular intensity in fall, winter and spring, when dining guides and special projects mean doubling up on lunches or dinners (sometimes both) in the pursuit of sharing my favorite restaurants with readers.
All that time spent in dining rooms other than my own has given me abundant pleasure, but also pause, as I encountered service and other bumps, most of which would have been easily avoided with a dash of consideration or forethought.
Herewith, 10 resolutions restaurants can make to express true, be-our-guest hospitality:
▪ Honor reservations, and by that I mean, don’t overbook and don’t make diners wait more than 15 or 20 minutes - max - for a confirmed time without offering them something that shows you’re sorry they were inconvenienced. A gratis glass of wine at the bar is a good start, followed by an appetizer on the house if the wait is 30 minutes or longer. (Guests, in turn, should make every effort to be punctual and notify the restaurant of a delay of 10 minutes or more.)
▪ Be willing to seat incomplete parties if the first arrival is disinclined to wait in the bar or lounge and your hunch is the group will be whole within 10 minutes or so. Grandma, or the guy with the bum foot, will thank you. A few bad apples seem to have spoiled it for all of us who hit our marks. Don’t penalize the masses.
▪ Bring up the lights. No one wants to eat under a klieg light, but some restaurants are so dark, diners are unable to read the menu or, worse, see the food the chefs have slaved over.
▪ Keep menu introductions brief. Think of them like story pitches from writers to editors: If they can’t be explained in a few sentences, they need to be massaged until they’re clear, and shorter. No one wants to be held hostage for 10 minutes while a waiter recites a mission statement.
▪ Also, while I’m a big believer in diners being proactive about what they can’t or won’t eat, and asking related questions before ordering, descriptions of dishes should flag ingredients that typically set off alarm bells for significant numbers: pork, shellfish, nuts and accents such as cilantro, which some people are genetically predisposed to dislike (it reminds them of soap).
▪ Learn to “read” guests. Some people love to know their waiter’s name or backstories and others prefer to focus on their companions. It’s up to the servers to know the difference, to assess the table for clues as to how much interaction a party wants or needs. Are diners leaning in to hear a joke or share news? Don’t interrupt. Are guests looking up and around? Be prepared to bring over a wine list, replace a dropped utensil or otherwise help out.
▪ Do not ask diners for accolades, as in, “Is everything delicious?” When the first course is served, wish everyone a good lunch or dinner and let them know you’ll be nearby if they need anything - then make sure you pass by the table now and then to see that all’s well. Also, do not comment on how much anyone has eaten, particularly if the plate is licked clean. “Good job!” is for babies.
▪ Banish from your delivery the string of words “Are you finished working on that?” or similar phrases. Animals “work” on food.
If I had a dollar for all the diners who have told me they hate hearing the question, I’d buy that pied a terre I’ve always wanted. “May I take your plate?” falls easier on the ears.
▪ Treat restrooms as if your parents are coming over. Make sure they’re spotless. In a Consumer Reports Gripe-O-Meter three years ago, a whopping 73 percent of those surveyed said they were “highly annoyed” by dirty or ill-equipped facilities at restaurants.
▪ Keep your website accurate and up-to-date. At a minimum, an online presence should include an easy-to-find address, phone number, a list of dishes, prices and Metro or parking information.
If it’s fall and you’re promoting spring specialties like shad roe or rhubarb mousse, readers will think you’re careless and be inclined to search elsewhere for a meal.
▪ Remember that little things are big things to a lot of diners. I’m talking crumbs left by previous guests on chairs, banquettes and booths. (Brush them between occupants.) If you’re not sure who should get the check, leave it in the middle of the table. And when you return change, make certain it’s accurate, down to the last penny. Diners notice when you don’t - and tend to leave smaller tips in response.