x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Improving the restaurant experience with a few guidelines

It's every diner's right to a great restaurant experience, but they have some responsibilities in the matter, too.

In the past, I've risen to the defence of both the restaurant industry and the diner; the server and the served. Something that hadn't occurred to me until fairly recently was how readily I've always taken for granted that being a good guest and a good host are not all that different.

Sometimes, when service is particularly brusque, my soup is lukewarm and there's no salt on the table, I feel wistful for a time when these things barely registered on my radar - not because I noticed less, but because I cared less. There's no doubt that the experience of dining at a restaurant can differ wildly depending on a number of variants. Occasionally, I'm faced with a bracing reminder of just how abstract those variants really are. When all is said and done, eaten and paid, the dining experience is subjective.

Still, there are formulas likely to increase the chances of a good experience - and vice versa - even if some tried and true recipes aren't necessarily your personal preference. For instance, I hate waiting in long lines for food, and am generally glad to take whatever table is available. What makes me far more uncomfortable than a fussy child at a nearby table is a dining companion with a long list of demands and a low threshold for not having those demands met.

There's a fine line to be drawn. I take seriously the non-negotiable cardinal rule that I will be gracious and good to staff, but in exchange, I want to go to restaurants where the staff's rules of conduct follow suit where I am concerned.

In the Huffington Post on May 2, the food writer Adam Roberts, also known as "the amateur gourmet" of eponymous food blog fame, published 10 Things That You're Doing Wrong at Restaurants, a solicitous bomb of bad advice. In his introduction, Roberts elucidates his authority on the topic of dining out: "I've been eating at restaurants my entire life, having grown up to parents who didn't cook and who love eating out more than life itself."

If Roberts's list of pithy guidelines are intended to serve as the universal approach to dining out, then I must live in a different universe. Though I may not have grown up eating in restaurants every day, I don't think that doing so necessarily guarantees better insight into how they operate or how best to enjoy them. For instance, I don't particularly enjoy dessert immediately following dinner, so I'll continue to cheerily ignore Roberts's admonition against the sharing of a single dessert, which he condemns on the premise that fully experiencing a restaurant should include examining the pastry chef's chops.

My hackles were also raised by Roberts's very first tip in which he advises diners to refrain from accepting a table they don't like, and to consider leaving the restaurant if met with anything short of yielding compliance on behalf of the management. My experiences in this department have tended to reinforce my opinion that there's a time and a place for ambience, and there's a time for taking in stride the limitations of a cramped or crowded restaurant.

Those of us more interested in terrific food are happy to suffer a little in order to get it. A restaurant filled with people usually (not always, but usually) speaks for itself. Seated next to a misbehaving toddler or someone talking obnoxiously on a mobile phone? I've found that when good, old-fashioned communication fails, there are always the failsafe options of deferring to a higher power, deferring to comedic resources, or deferring to the door, in that order.

Another gripe I had with Roberts's catalogue of rules, however, was his warning not to ask the kitchen to omit an element from a dish. "I understand that some of you are allergic to mushrooms or zucchini or mushroom-shaped zucchini," he writes. "But if there's a dish on the menu that has, as a component, something that you don't like or that you're allergic to, you're better off choosing a different dish than asking them to remove that component. That component is there for a reason: it's meant to balance out the other elements on the plate and if you throw that balance off, your dinner will be disappointing."

While Roberts's point about the integrity of a finished dish is not lost on me, it's still a ridiculous piece of advice. The same rules that apply to fine dining simply don't apply to the everyday dining public.

If the restaurant dining room is a forum for a chef's creative expressions, then the paying customer is the lifeblood of that art gallery. With the exception of fine-dining restaurants, where the degree of food preparation makes it appropriate to alert the kitchen of any food allergies or aversions beforehand, it's the diner's responsibility to manage his or her expectations upon requesting that something be altered.

While I don't advocate the expectation that the kitchen will custom-create something to satisfy a special request, especially without a little advance notice, how hard is it, in many cases, to leave out an ingredient when a dish is being assembled on the line? Assuming the restaurant is not a chain or franchise where dishes come frozen or pre-assembled, is it really that big a deal asking for the chicken to be left off a Caesar salad?

Having admitted that I feel this way, I must also concede to having witnessed overzealous micromanagement backfiring in adults, for a multitude of reasons but I don't see how it's my business or anyone else's, provided nobody goes hungry or holds the kitchen responsible for the blandness of their skinless boneless lunch.

By contrast, these are my recommendations for getting the most out of a restaurant.

  • Establish relationships with places. Cultivate familiarity with the management and staff. Become a regular. You'll get better tables in the future.
  • Treat your servers with respect and expect the same in return.
  • Be humble and candid, but never entitled, when encountering a problem with something.
  • If you have special dietary needs, let the restaurant know as soon as possible.
  • If you're going to be more than 15 minutes late for a reservation, call the restaurant and inform them.
  • Order whatever you want that's on the menu. If you want something that isn't on the menu, manage your expectations.
  • Don't make assumptions. Ask.
  • Don't behave as though it's your home; do behave as though it's someone else's.
  • Tip generously. Remember that it's for the service, and not for how you enjoyed (or abhorred) your food.
  • Unless you're dining solo, put your mobile phone away.