Getting the best from expensive restaurants
I was browsing the NYT Dining Out Forum, and came across the following advice from Steven Shaw: "One of the secrets of getting excellent treatment in top American restaurants, by the way, is to take steps early on to let the waitstaff and kitchen know your expectations" and to show that you genuinely care about food. I've seen similar advice on these boards.
How exactly is this done, particularly if you're:
1. Rather shy
2. Very bad at pretending to be something I'm not (I don't claim any moral superiority for myself on this score; it's just a fact)
3. Not knowledgeable enough about food to make questions or comments that would impress my waiter/waitress with my sophistication. (And yet I still enjoy good food, and my palate has gotten pickier in the two years I've lived in Manhattan.)
"Just being yourself" isn't the answer; as I said above, I'm shy, and I am uncomfortable chatting with strangers. I'd be especially uncomfortable doing so for ulterior motives.
Frankly, I resent the idea that I have to put on a performance to get my money's worth at an expensive restaurant. I enjoy places like Jean-Georges and Lespinasse, but when I read stuff like this I feel like saying "the heck with it."
I have been reading through these replies and some make sense and some do not. I may be wrong, but I think most of these answers come from people eating in New York restaurants. Right?
I live in San Francisco, and we have (in case you don't know) some excellent restaurants. San Franciscans love to eat and we enjoy food. However, all this baloney about trying to impress a waiter or the chef declaring that diners are not really that interested in the food is stupid. True, a few people go to restuarants for the "scene", but here, at least, we go to eat and enjoy (hopefully) the food.
For example, yesterday, I was a guest at one of San Francisco's hottest and newest restaurants. It takes months to get a table there. (I won't mention the name). BUT - - my entree was not good! Since I was a guest, good manners prevailed and I said nothing. However, I was telling a friend yesterday evening about the meal and we agreed that this place won't last long in SF. I don't care how fancy or gorgeous the restaurant is, and this one is, if the food is not good, San Franciscans will stop going.
In case you are wondering, my entree was a rack of lamb that had gobs of fat on it and no flavor. Inexcuseable for a restaurant of this supposed standing. The amuse bouche was very good as was the appetizer and dessert. The main course was priced at $32 and if I had been blindfolded I would not have been able to tell you what kind of meat I was eating.
So, no matter how I might have chatted up the servers, the food would not have been any different. So, go to a restaurant, order what you like or at the server's suggestion and if it isn't good, don't go back. It's that simple. I was interested, by the way in reading about the flop that the Ducasse restaurant is in NY. Again, trying to impress the servers there would apparently be of no help. Servers are there to do just that, serve. If they are really good they can be helpful in their suggestions and their good service can make your meal all the more enjoyable and they should be properly rewarded. They are not there to become your buddy during dinner!
As a waiter, bartender, wine steward, Maitre D', FOH Manager (I have held alll of these positions in the last 22 years of professional food service in fine dining establishments) please allow me to reply to your dilema. #1- there is no need to try to impress the waitperson with your extensive knowlege of food and wine. They are there to assist you with having a pleasurable dining experience. No server of any caliber will steer you toward the worst dishes on the menu. If you are unsure about what is best, a simple "What do you recommend?" often works very well. As a server, I would always have several recommendations about the menu readied in my mind before going on the floor. My job is to give you great food and service, if you are unhappy with either, it reflects upon me. Fine dining houses will always keep the servers informed as to what the chef is recommending from the menu, and the best wines to offer to compliment the dishes. Many restaurants pride themselves on doing one or two dishes as "signature items" and any really good house won't be afraid to have more than one.
As far as being something you are not, please do both of us a favor and don't...you don't have to be "chatty" or witty or anything...and believe me there is nothing worse than someone trying to be "impress me with their knowledge" (it very, very rarely works) Be straight forward and ask!!! A simple "I would like to try something new, and this dish looks good, would you recommend it? and why?" will usually get you on the right track. I hope this helps. Bon Appetit!
Adam, you've gotten good replies, so I'll address this from a different perspective.
It's not just fancy restaurants. Eating out is work, and it's very interpersonal work. Which some people like and excel at more than others.
This is why take-out and delivery are so popular...they're much more passive activities. And note that the 'net delivery people have strict "no tips" policies...that's because the tipping decision is an interpersonal issue many find stressful and energy-intensive.
I go through shy cycles myself, or times when I just don't have the energy/interest in facing a lot of variables, and here's how I deal with it:
1. the aforementioned take-out and delivery
2. go to places where I'm a regular or otherwise know the scene, and can feel comfortable and relaxed
3. go to places known for really good service (e.g. any of Danny Meyer's places) and let them process me through their velvet machine
4. cook myself (only a worst-case scenario thing, of course)
I share some of the characteristics that you mention: shy, uncomfortable "chatting up" waitstaff; inability to "pose" as something I'm not, and limited sophistication when it comes to the foods I actually enjoy a lot in upper-end restayarants. (I don't think I share your budget, though :-).)
I do think there are ways one can communicate one's interest in the food (which is the thing that gets me to these sorts of restaurants) without not being oneseelf. I think that asking certain kinds of questions of a waiter/waitress can help, even if they aren't the kind to "impress" with culinary or enologica; sophistication. Asking how dishes are prepared (with a tone indicating curiousity, not concern) and asking what the server feels are the special strengths of the restaurant are two that can let them know you're after the best meal possible. (Although I appreciate Anthony Bourdain's advice to pay attention to a server's manner and body language when answering such a question, in order to tell discern true enthusiasm from a kitchen's directive to push a dish. But in high-end places I hope this wouldn't be a problem.)
Likewise with wine: I know very little about European wines vs. California, and haven't yet taken the time to master the similarities/differences between European terroir and CA varietals made from same grapes or in similar styles. So if a wine list is all or mostly European, beyond asking for recommendations, I might also ask "is this similar to..." or how would this compare ro...", thereby letting them know that I have a sense of what I like.
Another thing is that when a server asks how everything is/was, saying (honestly) "I really liked this, and here's why" can ilicit appreciation, or even an extra goody, if the message makes it to the kitchen.
All of these are for me are honest questions that are easier to negotiate than trying to appear ultra-sophisticated or deserving.
That said, I realy do empathize with you own position, as I certainly don't always do these things, and if I'm at a place where the chef him- or herself walks through, I can rarely think of anything to say beyond that I'm enjoying the meal.
I agree with Caitlin - show an interest in how dishes are made and a sensible amount of respect for the server's advice (without asking them to go over every dish or wine, or dithering). Choose among the more "challenging" dishes on the menu - dont settle for chicken, veal, pasta primavera, pad thai, steak etc. unless you have reason to think that particular dish is especially good at that place. Any way, large or small, by which you show you are discerning and interested in seeing the best that the restaurant is capable of can help the quality of your meal.
I think you may be mis-reading Shaw's advice. My interpretation is that he means things like telling your waiter early on that you have theater tickets and need to be done by a certain time, or that you prefer a quiet meal and don't want him to interrupt you unless you call him over.
If a waiter is negligent or incompetant, then nothing you do is going to make a difference. But different people expect different kinds of service, and the waiter can't guess which type you are. If you don't tell him, he'll give you his best one-size-fits-all service, which may or may not please you.
re: Josh Mittleman
The context made it clear that Shaw was talking about the quality of the food, not just about special requests for service. I'll quote what followed my earlier quote: "Chefs and waiters know that only a miniscule percentage of their customers are serious about food and wine--the vast majority are at the restaurant just for the sake of being at a popular place (or perhaps simply for nourishment). If you can identify yourself as a caring customer, you will assuredly be rewarded."
re: Adam Stephanides
Maybe it's as simple as, when the waiter asks "how are you tonight?" just saying something like, "Very well, thank you, I have really been looking forward to eating here". Just convery your enthusiasm... like, "that dish was wonderful, I loved the caramelized onions or the way the tuna was seared just so or the hint of coriander in the vinaigrette" you get the idea.
But, hey it's not everyone's style and the minute you feel like you are putting on a show to get something back it won't work. I am one of those with natural enthusiasm and talkative-ness so it's easy for me to say!....
I would also recommend this class I heard about called something like "How to Get the Most from Your Restaurant Experience" taught by Arthur Schwartz (he has the radio show Food Talk) at the New School. I think it's a one-time 3 hour seminar or something for about $30 (guessing here) but he does seem to have a ALOT of ideas about it, about how and when to speak up, your responsibilities as a diner, etc.
You can check his class schedule at his website www.thefoodmaven.com or check with the New School (though I just got the catalog and saw nothing in the culinary section... but don't know if it's listed in this section). He may even have some tips on his website.
P.S. I am irked by the idea that the chef is snoozing thru it all and needs to be poked by some diner saying, Hey I'm here for the real deal!!
re: Jessica Shatan
I agree that enthusiasm is probably the most important element in the equation. Curiosity is more important than knowledge, too.
And nothing can beat going to the same restaurant many times within a relatively short period of time. I've found this to be valuable in Chinese and Indian restaurants, where service tends to be gruff or diffident, especially if you greet the waitperson with a knowing smile.
Jessica, I don't think it's a matter of waking up a chef as finding out what the chef cooks best, or at least what you will enjoy the most.
Adam, youou know that moment at the fancy restaurant when the waiter asks if you have any questions about the menu? Even if you are shy, do you really have no questions? That's the point at which I tend to ask the waiter about all the words/ingredients on the menu that I don't understand. If I establish rapport with the waiter, I might say something like: "This is my first time here, and I'd really like to try some dishes that you are really proud of, stuff that I can't find easily at other places." Sometimes, when I'm on a visit out of town, I'll say: "I'm in Cincinnati for one day, and friends here recommended your restaurant. What can't I miss?" If you see a glint of pride in the waiter's eyes, you are probably going to taste the best the restaurant has to offer.
re: David Feldman
re: Adam Stephanides
What irks me is members of the media talking out of their hind-quarters. As a chef with 18 years of experience, I find these bits of mis-informed wisdom annoying in the extreme. The idea that you have to "wake me up" in order to receive my best efforts is insulting. The reason pro cooks put up with crazy hours, crazy co-workers and the occasional moronic restaurant critic, is that we love food. A little bit of ourselves goes into each dish for every customer, not just the serious foodies. Case in point: one night, a restaurant I used to work for was filming for a TV spot. FOH management comes back and asks me to prepare some entree's and to make sure they looked good since they were for the ad. Later, they come back to give me an "attaboy" for the presentation. All I had done was plate the food as I would have done for anybody else. Don't get me wrong; not all food writers are bad, just take what they say with a grain of salt.