Ten tips for dining out: Refining our favorite pastime

By Jack Rubyn – Marin County

(Originally appeared in Wine, Food & Friends Issue #67, Fall 2003)

Defining our expectations and communicating our desires are key elements to partaking in a satisfying dining experience. We all want a great meal with attractive ambiance, comfortable surroundings and attentive service. Today we pay a great deal for a meal. We should expect and receive a dining establishment’s best effort. Anything less is unacceptable.

We have all had great dining experiences as well as unpleasant ones. The great ones are etched in our mind’s eye, every detail carried in our memory as we enthusiastically describe our restaurant visit to friends and acquaintances. You all know the unique elements of culinary success that keeps us searching for another unforgettable experience.

There are so many elements at play and so many terrific restaurants in a multitude of venues that when asked to name my favorite, I respond that the “best” is a matter of the moment. It is easy to name four-star restaurants, but even they are not suitable for all occasions. The simplest of experiences can be grand and the most opulent ones disappointing. But with a little work and following a few simple rules, you will enhance your dining experience immeasurably:

Rule 1: Before going out, decide on what you would like to have–meat, poultry or seafood. Will it be one course or five, a tasting gastronomic adventure or simpler fare? Set the stage and pick the appropriate venue. All restaurants do not excel in every category of cuisine but do well at what they know best. There is nothing worse than being with a diner who is searching the menu for a dish that is a departure from what the restaurant specializes in. Make sure the venue meets the occasion for your palate and your guests.

Rule 2: Understand what you are ordering. Ask questions of the staff, especially as to how the dish is prepared. Cooking styles have changed in recent years. Since most dishes are prepared to order, it makes it easier to state preferences. Inquire and express your expectation. Most experienced waiters can identify what you have in mind if your desire is well communicated.

Rule 3: If you receive a dish you do not like, mention it immediately to your waiter in a manner respectful of the chef and the restaurant. Be clear and specific and have a resolution in mind. You will be surprised how well they can deliver when they understand your objection and most of all your sensitivity. This is the
number one failure of diners and can ruin an otherwise recoverable experience.

Rule 4: Do not expect the best service or food on a Friday or Saturday night. What you can get on a Wednesday or Thursday night when you receive the full attention of the chef and staff will make the weekend experience seem trivial.

Rule 5: Become a regular patron. A restaurant knows the significant value of a repeat customer. Thousands of dollars are spent on advertising trying to attract you, but it does not cost them a nickel for you to remain a loyal customer and make recommendations to your friends. Word of mouth is money in the bank to a
restaurateur. You will be amazed at the level of service, quality of food and appreciation you will receive as a friend of the house.

Rule 6: When ordering wines, ask the waiter or sommelier for suggestions in a price range. This will tell them about your taste and experience. Do not be afraid to ask and learn. Many establishments now offer a recommended wine by the glass to accompany each course. This can be fun and a great tasting experience. Have one diner choose the wine sampling menu and share (ask for an extra empty glass), and augment the dinner with a bottle of your favorite varietal. Try something different and you will better understand and increase your enjoyment of wine.

Rule 7: If you want a specific table mention it at the time you make your reservation. If you have never been there before, ask a friend who has, or log on to the Internet to become familiar with the restaurant. The Internet is an invaluable tool to preview a menu, read reviews, find the location, parking, and other necessities. Call and inquire about guests with special dietary needs. Most restaurants are now prepared to create wonderful menus for special circumstances, all it takes is a call, and your guest will feel special and impressed by your thoughtfulness.

Rule 8: Examine your bill. More times than I care to count the bill is wrong–either added incorrectly, charged for the wrong wine or a dish that was not received. Remember that your visit is also a financial transaction; be attentive, if the bill is wrong, point out the mistake politely so that it can be corrected.

Rule 9: Tip. I always leave 20 percent. Waiters are not well paid by the hour, they work hard, and their expertise should be well rewarded. Usually your tip also covers the support staff. They will remember your kindness and it will come back to you ten fold in future visits.

Rule 10: Show your appreciation for a great meal. Thank your waiter and more importantly thank the owner, Maitre’d or manager personally. Also, be sure to personally thank the chef if possible. Some kitchens are far from a glamorous environment; you can make a chef feel appreciated by applauding his or her efforts. Perfecting your experience and approach to dining will reap huge dividends. Bon Appétit!