BY AND LARGE, dining out is a pleasant experience -- at least until you dig into your $9.95 shrimp cocktail appetizer and discover it contains exactly three shrimp which can be detected only with the aid of an electron microscope.
Yet if I may address the many hard-working waiters and waitresses out there, here are a few modest suggestions:
* Let's tighten up those pre-meal introductions.
"Hi, my name is Kevin. I'll be your customer tonight. This is my wife Nancy. We just had a big fight, I'll tell you all about that later. And these are our kids. That's Sean lunging at his sister with that fork, and this is . . ."
Now, do I do that to you? Huh? So why do I have to sit through these phony introductions? Next thing you know, we'll be exchanging vacation snapshots. We don't all have to be buddies to get through this meal.
* Give me a few minutes to look at the menu, OK?
I'm in a Chinese restaurant not long ago and the waiter hands me a menu that's six pages thick. It has 40 entrees listed under "Seafood," another 40 under "Chicken and Pork" and another 40 under "Dinner Combinations."
A minute later he's back, asking if I'm ready to order.
"Not without the Cliffs Notes for this baby," I said.
He didn't take that well. Let me say this about people who run Chinese restaurants. They are generally warm and friendly. But the Occidental sense of humor is often lost on them, particularly during the dinner hour.
* Do me a favor: Slow down when you recite the day's specials. You're ticking off six different dishes with 12 vegetable combinations and five options on the salad bar. What am I, an IBM mainframe?
* Just once, I'd like to ask a waiter about a particular entree and not hear it's "excellent."
I think I'd keel over if a waiter ever said: "Oh, geez, don't get the Veal Piccata! They were dragging the calf in when I came to work."
* Same thing with fish. Every time I ask if the fish is fresh, the waiter's a little too quick to blurt out: "Oh, very fresh! Very fresh!"
Hey, relax. I'm not with the Board of Health. I just want to make sure the fish wasn't sitting in the trunk of someone's car for a week.
* This thing with the fresh pepper . . . I don't get it. You people make such a big deal about coming around with that pepper mill. HTC Hey, you're not sprinkling gold dust around. It's only pepper.
* This thing with the water glasses . . . At some restaurants, they don't even give you water. At others, the minute you take a sip of water, some little guy in a red satin jacket is re-filling the glass right away. Let's arrive at some kind of consensus.
* Same with the ashtray. As soon as someone flicks his cigarette, the little guy in the red satin jacket is emptying the ashtray and hustling away like he's carrying contaminated medical waste.
You want to do me a real favor? Forget the damn ashtray. Go ask the chef for a dozen lobsters and throw 'em in the back of my car.
* Here's the one that really gets me. How is it that, as soon as I have a mouthful of food, you're asking me: "Is everything all right?"
Yeah, everything's terrific. Except if I keep talking with a piece of steak going down my throat, we might need to break out one of those little cards detailing the Heimlich Maneuver. Maybe the little guy in the red jacket could help if he's between ash trays.
* Listen, don't disappear for long stretches at a time. I've had waiters who apparently entered the Federal Witness Protection Program while I sat at their tables.
* About the dessert cart. If I say I don't want dessert, don't wheel the dessert cart around so I can "at least take a peek."
See, I don't want to take a peek. What I want to do is take a bite -- right out of that Black Forest cake on the top shelf. Don't make it harder on me than it has to be. Please. I'm asking you nicely.
* This might be asking a lot, but is there any chance of getting a second cup of coffee? I mean, without me promising to wash your car?
* Apparently, lingering over a meal is out of the question.
At least that's my feeling when I finish that last sip of coffee and you run the vacuum cleaner over my legs.