I know… you’re wondering whether I’m getting ready to school you on how to order food at a restaurant. This is a task nearly everyone does dozens (if not hundreds) of times a year. There’s no one special trick that will vault you over other diners to an extra level of respect from a restaurant’s staff, but I can offer a few pointers that might get you a higher standard of service when you’re dining out.
First, you should make a reservation at all but the most casual dining spots. No matter what day of the week it is, and no matter what time you’re showing up. Even a half an hour in advance is better than no notice at all. That way, you’ll be expected, your table will be as ready as possible and a server will likely already have been assigned to you.
If you have a chance, look over the menu in advance (unless you already know it by heart). I don’t mean you need to decide what you’re ordering before you walk in the door — after all, your appetite may be tempted by certain aromas or an enticing description of the evening’s specials once you arrive. But be aware of what kind of cuisine is offered there, what the general price range is, and whether there is a theme (like, maybe don’t try to order an egg white omelet for dinner at a fancy seafood joint).
Give your server the tools to help them provide you with the best possible service. This includes indicating the tempo at which you plan to dine, (barring surprises) if it is going to be outside the realm of normal pacing. For instance: If you’re on a time limit because of a show opening, simply let him know soon after you’re seated, as in, “Hey, we have an 8 p.m. curtain time, so we’ll want to leave here by 7:30 if at all possible.” Conversely, if you’re catching up with friends you haven’t been out with for five years, maybe mention you’ll be taking your time (“We’re not in any hurry this evening”) so the waiter can provide unhurried service, and you won’t feel rushed.
Also, if you have allergies or sensitivities (or just an abiding hate for garlic), say so early on, and please don’t lie. (“I prefer my food lightly salted,” rather than “I’m allergic to salt.”)
Don’t ask if menu items or specials are “good.” If a server thinks something’s spectacular and not to be missed, they’ll tell you. Certainly, they’re not going to say, “I wouldn’t order the salmon. It’s from last Tuesday,” or, “The sous chef really isn’t very good at mussels.” So, don’t waste their time and yours by asking.
Speaking of not wasting time, it isn’t necessary to read all the adjectives and descriptors from the menu back to your server. Instead of saying, “I’ll have the Ethereal Farms Pan-Roasted Rack of Grass-Fed Lamb with sautéed baby vegetables, Israeli couscous and Tomato-Spearmint beurre blanc,” just say, “I’ll have the lamb, medium rare.” All that other stuff automatically comes with it, you see, unless you request otherwise. And speaking of requesting otherwise: don’t. Unless you have health-threatening allergies or severe aversions, let the kitchen prepare you the dish it has planned and practiced, and don’t use the menu like a build-a-bear workshop.
And please, tip properly.
Remember, servers in Kentucky are allowed to be paid only $2.13 an hour by their employers. It’s a crappy system, but it’s the one we’re stuck with for the time being. Basically, you’re on the honor system to help pay them a living wage, so — unless wait staff is actively rude or over-the-top incompetent — tip 20 percent. If there’s some reason you feel justified in tipping less, speak to a manager.
Really, the advice I’m giving here can be distilled into a single sentence: A server’s time is literally their money. In a way, diners have their end of the dining experience to uphold, too. While a pleasant interaction should be an automatic part of your transaction (and please do enjoy it when it is!), don’t waste her time or your own. There’s silver to be rolled and ketchup bottles to marry — and the curtain is going up at 8 with or without you. •
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.