Seven Controversial Ideas for Dining Out
February 9th, 2015
A slightly edited version was published in
Richmond Magazine, December 2014
Are you going out to eat, or going out to dine? Are you a guest, or a customer? Is dining theater, or just another form of shopping? Here is some food for thought.
- I’ll begin with the tough one: No bread and butter on the table, for lots of reasons. Hopefully you’re there to dine. If it’s a nice restaurant, don’t fill up with dough and fat even though it does taste so damn good. Save room for an appetizer and entrée, maybe even split a dessert. If it’s not such a nice restaurant, that roll or bread is the cheap stuff. Fight the urge, just say no. And if they have good bread, nothing is better. But at the very least, wait until your appetizers are down before you savor the bread. I remember back in our youth Stacey and I would go to Hogate’s on the waterfront in D.C. After they took your order for a fried seafood platter, they started your meal with a huge brick of warm, iced cinnamon roll. No wonder we lay awake half the night.
- No free water. Enjoy a glass of wine, some good quality tea, or (my personal favorite) a bottle of San Pellegrino. It has just the right bubbles and light sodium to taste delicious. Tap water is filled with chorine and yuck, and it costs the restaurateur about the same as a soda (poison I tell ya). If they get $2 bucks for $.17 worth of corn syrup and carbonated water, why free tap water? They spend about the same money giving you a clean glass and ice cubes. They have to make it up somewhere. If they filter the water, that’s more cost to them. Pay a buck.
- No tipping. Wtf? How does that work? Well, the servers need (and usually deserve) a decent wage. Tipping after the fact only adds to the drama. Will you leave 10% or 25%? Or nothing? Does the server have to get all kissy kissy or do they come in to do their job the best they can? Like the cooks. Or dishwashers. Gratuities are included in most European countries and service there does not suffer. In fact, they are there to make a living, not run to the table to see how much you left them.
- Stop focusing on portions. The bigger the plate of food served, the more the restaurant needs to buy cheaper ingredients. A ginormous plate of spaghetti with cheap cheese, canned sauce and imitation parmesan dust is not ‘dining’. It’s filling your belly with processed foods. If a restaurant is out to gouge, oh well. A rule of thumb for all you restaurateur s: 30% of your revenue goes to food cost, 30% to labor, 30% to operating costs (rent, insurance, utilities and a thousand other costs) and 10% to the bottom line. It’s reasonable. Bars can make much more money with a low beverage cost, low labor cost (tips vs wages) and cheap food. You need to decide if you’re getting quality value, not quantity value.
- Ban cell phones. In this day and age? Look around next time you eat out. Holding a phone in one hand and a fork in another is spectacularly common. Check your guns (phones) at the door and nobody gets hurt. Good luck with this one.
- Do not ask the server for recommendations. I know, I know, it’s what you do. Don’t. In a good restaurant, there should be no ‘bad’ dishes. Follow your gut feelings. If you’re looking at the lamb and the waiter suggests the pork chop, what to do? It turns out the waiter has never had the lamb or doesn’t like red meat. Who cares? On the other hand, if you’re in a not-so-good place it might be a good idea to get steered away from dishes that everybody knows are awful. When I was taken to a place in Bentonville, Arkansas by a firm I was consulting with, the host asked the server what he would recommend. “Frankly” he said, “I wouldn’t eat anything here but the NY Strip”. All eight of us ordered the NY Strip.
- No ordering appetizers first and entrees later. This is large. Clearly, ordering something right away sounds like a good idea. And we can nibble while we keep looking at the menu. This is a huge problem. Serving really good food is an orchestration of a trained and talented kitchen. To season and cook an entrée properly, count on twenty minutes. If you’ve eaten your appetizers and chatted before ordering the main course you are, despite what you may think at the time, going to feel like dinner is taking forever. Most restaurants that can get it out faster do so by pre-cooking the food and warming it up, or deep frying.