Turning the tables
Someone stole my book title. Well, it wasn’t actually my book title, it was a title my friend JP, a former world pun champion, thought of for me. I was working at Harper Collins in New York when I walked into the cookbook editor’s office and saw the galley (a mock-up of a forthcoming book): “Turning the Tables: Restaurants From the Inside Out.” I was sure she overheard one of my phone conversations and couldn’t resist. The unfortunate thing is that she got it all wrong.The aforementioned book is an inside look at the restaurant industry from the perspective of a guest – an outsider going in. From the book blurb, I gathered it wasn’t about the seedy underbelly of Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” nor is there the front-of-the-house snootiness encountered by former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl, described so eloquently in her book “Garlic and Sapphires.” It’s probably a good book; I don’t doubt that. The author is knowledgeable and did his research, but it doesn’t really “turn the tables.” The perspective is still that of an outsider, whereas my book would have offered enlightening information from the point-of-view of someone who’s taken the reservations, waited on and bussed the tables, and been the head honcho on the floor who solves everybody’s problems.And it wouldn’t have been about heavy drinking after hours or psychotic knife-wielding chefs or about the time that I put a banana peel in some rude lady’s smoothie when I was 16. It would have been, well, helpful – a guide, as it were, to getting great service.
So, since it might take me a while to come up with a new title, here’s a very abbreviated version of the scoop.There are, essentially, two styles of service. There is the kind where the guest sets the tone for the meal and the kind where the server guides the guest. Regardless of the style that’s employed, both the server and the guest can affect the dining experience. While I can go on for hours about the finer points of service and how infrequently they’re employed, rotten server attitudes and less-than-exceptional food, I would like to point out a few things a guest can do to make dining out a more pleasurable experience. I promise to come back to bad service at another time, but until then…ResearchKnow something about the kind of food served at the restaurant you’re going to and be sure that it’s something you and the other guests in your party will want to eat. Think about it. There’s little that sets you up for disappointment more than staring at a menu and thinking nothing sounds good. I used to work at a restaurant in Oregon called the Lucky Noodle and you’d be surprised at the number of people on the Atkins diet who came in frustrated because everything on the menu was pasta. There really wasn’t anything that I could do about it as a server, but it had a direct effect on whether or not the guest was going to enjoy their experience.
Choosing a restaurant that appeals to everyone also shows consideration for your fellow diners. It’s so much easier to make a customer happy when they’re looking forward to the food you’re going to serve them.Price RangeWhile I know it’s nice to splurge, especially on vacation, it’s also valuable to choose a restaurant that’s in your comfort level price-wise. If you’re used to spending $12 for an entrée, and you can’t imagine any steak that’s worth what it would cost to feed your entire family at home, then don’t order one. You’ll just be disappointed, and there’s nothing anyone else can do about it. ReservationsMaking a reservation serves a guest in two ways. The first is obvious, if you know you’re going to be ravenous at 7 p.m., make a reservation for 6:30 p.m. That way, your server has time to get drinks and put your order through to the kitchen before your blood sugar tanks.
The second reason for reservations is a little less obvious. The food you are served is best when it’s fresh and your chef knows that. Chefs base a lot of their ordering on the number of people they expect to pass through the restaurant the coming evening. If there are no reservations on the books, they might order less of something. On nights when lots of people walk in without reservations, the kitchen tends to run out of things. So making a reservation means you have a better chance of getting the Malpeque oysters you’ve heard so much about.Servers are people tooLiving and working in a tourist town can, unfortunately, cultivate a bit of animosity by servers towards guests. Whether or not that’s justified (like I said, another article), treating your server like a person does wonders for how they treat you. Most of the servers I know don’t actually dislike people, they just dislike being treated with disdain. When you act kindly toward the person who’s waiting on you, learn their name, smile and the like, their willingness to go out of their way to make sure you enjoy yourself increases exponentially. I know it sounds obvious, but it’s unfathomable the number of people who treat the service staff condescendingly and expect to be treated with respect. Pleasantry is a two way street.Remember that dining out is supposed to be a pleasure. Eating, when done slowly and consciously, can be as rich and entertaining an experience as going to a play or hearing live music. Lingering over wine and laughing with friends is how communities have come together for centuries. Participate in making your meal a pleasure and you’ll likely find your service gets better too.
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