Eating out: how to get things right

Hefty serving of tips for customers and restaurants striving for a fine dining experience

January 07, 2007|By Tricia Colianne | Tricia Colianne,McClatchy-Tribune

History has known great rivalries: Hatfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets, Tom and Jerry. Fine adversaries, yes, but nothing compared with the epic restaurant vs. diner.

The dining room is a minefield of delicate situations.

One wrong step ...

A clueless patron says his gazpacho is cold and demands another bowl. Or a presumptuous server takes the check and asks: "Would you like change back?"

... boom. Disaster.

The rub is diners just want to be pleased, and restaurants want nothing more than to please them.

"We really are doing our best to make them happy, meet their expectations -- exceed their expectations," says Roger Thomas, executive chef at Piatto Novo in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

Customers, for the most part, understand that.

"They work very hard, they really do," says Russ Vernon, who owns West Point Market in Akron, Ohio and is, by his own description, "a restaurant fanatic."

But breakdowns do occur. On both sides.

To that end, we spoke with players on both sides of the counter -- people in the restaurant business and their frequent customers. They shared suggestions and irritations, admiration and appreciation.

What we came up with was an ultimate list of demands, a road map, if you will, to peace.

If diners only knew ...

It makes everything so much easier if you let us know that you're running late or that you're not going to show. Busy restaurants are like airlines. They sometimes overbook with the assumption that someone's going to cancel or not show up. "If someone makes a reservation, but you're not going to make it, ... let us know," says Bob Buck, operating partner of the Fleming's in the Akron area. "That gives us an opportunity to let someone else come in."

VIP status is completely up to you. "If you're a regular in a restaurant, and you're a bad tipper, don't be surprised if the waiters don't like you." This comes from someone who should know: the Waiter. He works in a New York-area restaurant and writes a wildly popular blog. His Web site, waiterrant.net, has landed him a Harper Collins book deal.

Unlimited free bread is not in the bill of rights. We're happy to provide it. We'll even restock the basket for you, but it'd be swell if you'd save room for dinner. Filling up on carbs doesn't do much for our bottom line. It's not so hot for yours, either.

Ordering what's on the menu may be in your best interest. In the Waiter's words: "Don't walk into an Italian restaurant and ask for tuna with wasabi." Allergies and dietary restrictions aside, it's worth your while to trust the chef now and again. It shows a sense of adventure and a respect for culinary authorship. It also shows an understanding of how kitchens work because, depending on the caliber of restaurant, demanding culinary acrobatics of a staff used to doing the same thing over and over again could be a bad idea.

Food from scratch takes time. "I'm sure if you ask a thousand chefs, you'll get a thousand references to that," says Roger Thomas of Piatto Novo. "I don't blame [guests] for not getting that, but I wish I could invite everyone into the kitchen to see what goes on in there."

Your cell phone conversation might be terribly interesting to you, but our other guests are less than intrigued. Business deals, baby-sitter pep talks, family gossip -- we understand that some calls just can't wait. Take them outside.

Your date is watching you. Ditto for clients, bosses and future in-laws. "How you treat bus people and waiters and people you think can't do anything for you says volumes about your character," says the Waiter.

A standard tip is 15 percent. Good service deserves closer to 20. Please don't shortchange us unless the service is truly bad (in which case, you should tell a manager). The minimum wage for tipped employees in Ohio is $2.13 an hour. "Of course, the tips are supposed to make up the rest leading up to that minimum wage, which in Ohio is now $5.15 an hour," says Mark Glasper, communications director for the Ohio Restaurant Association. "If the tips don't supplement accordingly, the employer is supposed to make up the rest."

Glasper notes that this happens rarely -- almost never.

He also points out that many servers make much more than minimum wage.

For customers who question why "they" should foot the bill for servers' wages, Waiter has an answer: "It's because it gives them an incentive to be good at their job."

Camping out at a table is not OK. After you've dined, finished your coffee and paid your bill, let us make you comfortable at the bar. Or head to Starbucks. Or home. Just don't monopolize a table when a server could seat another tipping party. If you must stay, throw a few more bucks on the table.

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