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May 19, 2005 02:59 PM

Etiquette for fine dining

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My husband and I are about to celebrate an anniversary at a fine dining establishment (where the menu starts at $58 for 3 courses). Having had only one other similar fine dining experience in my adult life, I'm hoping you can give me some etiquette pointers to my questions below.

We made reservations at Open Table and requested a quiet table if possible. I plan to call the restaurant to confirm. When do I call (day before, week before)? Can I repeat the quiet table request? Should I say it's for a special anniversary, or not bother?

We won't be doing the tasting menu (hubby is non-chowish, and they won't do a tasting menu for just one), but I know I'll have lots of questions about the menu items. Would it seem like I'm a picky eater if I ask lots of questions? I like everything, I just enjoy knowing about the ingredients & prep. Or should I save questions for after I start eating?

Would it be bad if I whipped out my Seafood Wallet card and asked them about a certain fish on the menu? For example, my top choice so far on their website menu is the Black cod item but I want to know if it's from Alaska (ok to eat) or WA/OR/CA (overfished) or US Atlantic (depleted, so I doubt it's the one on the menu but you never know).

Is it ok to order the 3-course menu, but not make dessert my 3rd course? I try to limit sugar intake, and special occasions deserve exception, but none of the desserts on the website menu (nor having cheese) really appeal to me more than the non-dessert items do.

Finally, I don't really drink wine (it clogs up my nose making my taste buds diminished, not to mention I get drunk on half a glass). I have ethical issues supporting the bottled water industry. I don't often like sugary drinks. So I really like tap water best. I feel funny ordering tap water at such a nice place though. Will I get poor service just because I didn't order a drink?

Well that's about it. My dinner's next weekend, by the way. It's our 11th anniversary, and we meant to do this for our 10th but there were many family events last year around our anniversary and we never had time to squeeze in a romantic dinner for 2.

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  1. I would call the day before and there is nothing wrong with repeating the table request or mentioning it is a special occassion. Neither will guarantee anything, but it won't hurt either.

    There is nothing wrong with asking questions, especially about the ingredients and preparation. I would highly doubt they do a 3 course where the 3rd course is something other than dessert. It can't hurt to ask, but at best I would expect something like a fruit or sorbet substitute for whatever desserts they are offering.

    Lastly, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with sticking with tap water. If you want to feel less self-consciuos, refer to it as something other than tap water if you bring it up. plain ice-water shuold do just fine.

    1. I would definitely repeat the quiet table request and tell them what is the occasion when you confirm. Bw sure to call at a time that they are not as busy (perhaps 3pm) so they can take more time to talk to you. Ask them about courses for the 3 course menu. Depending on the restaurant, it may be a problem, it may not. In some places it is chose any three, in some it is fixed. But you would be supprised how accomodating some places are if you ask politely.

      Do not be afraid to say to your server that tap water is fine, and in fact preferable. You don't have to tell him/her why.

      Do not be afraid to ask questions about ingredients, etc. Restaurants want you to enjoy your meal and have no problem answering whatever they can. They may not know where the fish is from, but it doesn't hurt to ask. Just don't be superior about it.

      Have a great anniversary. You didn't say where you were dining (or even what city) but here in DC, I often have a three course meal that doesn't include a dessert or cheese (then I have a 4 or 5 course meal)

      1. If you made reservations through Open Table, there's no need to call to confirm, but there's certainly nothing wrong with communicating to the restaurant that you really want a quiet table. I would call the day before and just be friendly and tell them it's a special night for you. If they're any place of quality, they'll want to help make that night as special as possible and will oblige your request. Also, if, once you get there, they escort you to an unsuitable table, you should feel comfortable asking for a different table, although you may have to wait for one to become available. That's your call to make.

        Think of your server as a friend/advisor. They are there to answer your questions, so feel free to fire away! Don't be shy. Again, if this place is truly "good", the servers will be happy (even eager) to help you feel comfortable about dining there and making the most of your experience. YOU are in charge of setting the mood. As soon as they come up to the table, feel free to share your concerns, expectations of the evening. You'll feel more relaxed, which is the most important thing.

        I wouldn't take the menu on the website as gospel. Most places post some dishes to give you an idea of what they offer, but change their menus daily or weekly depending on what's fresh, available, etc.

        Overall, you seem to feel intimidated by this place, which is understandable given your inexperience. But I have to stress- they are in business to provide you a good meal and make you happy enough to want to come back. I'm certainly not advising you to treat them with anything less than total respect, but I am saying that it is perfectly reasonable to ask for what you want. Like tap water...I do it myself all the time.

        Have a good time!

        1. Thanks so much for the responses so far, they've helped a lot. Just to clarify:

          The menu starts at $58 for any 3 courses on the menu, but I'll ask when I call to confirm if that means I can choose a non-cheese, non-dessert last course.

          It's at Manresa (Los Gatos, CA) if any one wants to know.

          And yes I'm high maintenance! I admit it :). But atleast I feel bad/concerned about it.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Alice Patis

            What's the point of a meal like this if you can't be high maintence? That's the point: to be special. It's not as if you're harassing some below-minimum-wage-plus-tips-wannbee-actor at the local coffee shop. These people are professionals whose job it is to pamper you (and who are charging you top dollar for the privilege of being pampered). Be polite, of course (as I know you will be). But don't be afraid to ask for what you want.

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              Hey - watch it on the wannabe-actor jibes...

              I agree - be high maintenance. High maintenance people that KNOW they are high maintenance and willing to tip for their high maintenance-ness are perfectly fine....that means you are high maintenance and NOT a bitch. Good for you (so am I - the former server-wannabe-actor-who-was-fantastic-at-her-job-

              Congrats and have a wonderful time!!

            2. re: Alice Patis

              if you are eating at manresa you are in luck!

              I have always found them extremely accomodating with substitutions, allergies, dietary retsrictions, etc. If you let them know up front, I'm sure they can make arrangements for you.

              and have never felt intimidated asking any questions.. most of the wait staff seem to actually like it when a patron takes more than a passing interest in the food.

              have a fabulous dinner! please report back afterwards!

            3. During my last visit to California, many of the fine restaurants actually listed where the fish and beef was from - I didn't have to ask. They also were proud to list the local farms where their heirloom tomatoes and vegies were from so you sound ahead of the curve, Alice! Lots of places have been overfished and it's just wrong to not be conscientious on this little ole planet of ours.

              Don't worry about not drinking wine - lots of people are taking medication and don't drink because they can't mix the two. Same for lots of sugar - just pass on sweet dessert.

              When I want plain tap water I ask for a large iced water with a slice of lemon. It usually comes out in a fancy glass - no problemo.

              It's your anniversary - enjoy it. When you confirm your reservation tell them it's your anniversary and you want a quiet table. Now what grinch would deny you?