Don’t hustle the lobsters

In a story in The New York Times on Sunday, writer Bruce Buchsel offered up 100 things that every restaurant staffer should know. As someone who spent a fair amount of my misspent youth working as a server and as a former restaurant critic, I immediately mused on some of the offerings.

Many, I agreed with, such as “# 11. Do not hustle the lobsters. That is, do not say, ‘We only have two lobsters left.’ Even if there are only two lobsters left.” It makes me dubious. Are they truly popular, or pushing their sell-by date?

And, of course, “#12: Do not touch the rim of a water glass.” Agreed, I do not want a server to paw my glass.

But with some, I took issue, notably #23: “If a group enjoys a bottle of wine, steam off the label and present it with their check.” Are you serious? Exactly when, in between waiting on eight tables, would a server find a steamer and then spend the 10 minutes that it requires to take the label off?

For an expert opinion on that one, and the others, I turned to the surliest possible expert over at the blog Waiter Rant. The waiter’s surliness is refreshing.

Equally though, there are at least 100 Things That Diners Should Know, too. Here’s a few of mine, certainly not an exhaustive list:

1) Timing is everything. Call the restaurant if you will be more than 15 minutes late or if you need to cancel a reservation. This is just good practice. If you’re a half hour late, you have no right to throw a tantrum if they gave away your table. Why? They assume that you’ve blown off your reservation, and like most people, didn’t call.

2) Show good manners. Be polite to servers. Don’t place huge bags at your feet making it more difficult to serve you. Say “thank you.” They are culinary professionals, not members of some lower caste system.

3) Please don’t wear sweatpants to dine at a French bistro. C’mon, make an effort. I’m in my little black dress and you’re in fleece? It happens all the time in Seattle. Worth noting, dressed-up patrons tend to get better service.

4) Take charge of your kids. Last week, a woman thought her 4-year-old throwing fries at the next table was just darling behavior. Um, no. The occasional meltdown aside, if yours just can’t behave, leave them at home. If your server has to get a vacuum after you leave, be a decent person and leave an extra tip.

5) Minimize cell phone use. If you have to take a call, be brief or take it outside. Better yet, put it on vibrate. It’s distracting, not to mention that you’re ignoring your dining companions.

6) Tips. Personally, I favor the European approach to this issue, where restaurants pay their servers decent wages so that they don’t have to rely on tips. That aside, my dad always said, “No one can afford to be thought of as cheap.” Try to leave 20%. Don’t leave coins in a restaurant folder.

7) Communicate in a useful way. Had a good experience, especially at a small place? Write a review online. If your experience was bad enough to pen a bad one, try calling the restaurant first and try to have a constructive dialogue. I don’t know why people don’t do this more often. “Hey, we were there last night and…” Restaurants rely on repeat business; they often will go out of their way to make up for a bad experience. Not to mention, a nasty online attack frequently comes off as petty and/or passive-aggressive.

8) Don’t punish servers for bad food. So the kitchen overcooked your steak? If your waiter handled it graciously and expediently, don’t skimp on the tip. After all, they didn’t cook it. If a dish was bad enough that the server or a manager comps it, you are expected to leave a tip for what the full amount would have been had it remained on the bill. However, if a server admits royally screwing up your order, that’s a different story.

9) Don’t make up allergies. People do this all the time. An allergy is serious business and puts the kitchen on alert, sometimes requiring changing out pans, cutting boards, knives and other equipment. It’s a huge deal. Don’t like mushrooms? Just say so. It’s OK. The server wants his tip. He’ll be sure you don’t get any.

10) Learn some basic dining etiquette. It’s surprising how many people don’t seem to know fundamental etiquette. Some serve as clues to servers. When finished eating, slide your utensils together in the center of the plate. Voila! They know you’re done. Plus, learn to use the right fork. It’s not that difficult. My greatest pet peeve — don’t leave your napkin on your seat. You really want to wipe your mouth where hundreds of other diners put their backsides? Yuck.

About katflinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry," "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" and "Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good." All are published by Viking/Penguin.

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