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Beware when the Waiter asks "Have you been here before?"

So we were at BLT Steak on Sunset recently and our waiter asked us if we had been here before. we answered truthfully that we had not -- and now regret it.

What we got were two very ordinary steaks -- a Ribeye and a New York Strip -- and I'm sorry but for $45 a shot that just doesn't compute. When you spend $45 you should get something that's at least "good" not "ordinary." The meat was not very flavorful, not exceptionally tender, and halfway through i just stopped eating it -- why waste lots of calories on something that's not satisfying?

Which made me wonder -- did the waiter's initial question land us in the place where we would not be getting top food for the dollar?

Now I recognize high end places stay afloat by treating regulars well. They're the ones who come back a few times a month and drop a big wad. But it also means the one and done crowd get inferior treatment. So folks like us, who like trying lots of new places as well as returning to old favorites don't get the best treatment. And I'm wondering if that's happened to others at various restaurants around town.

The rest of our meal at BLT Steak was pretty good. The sides were excellent, the desserts were very good, salads, wine, all that were acceptable. But let's face it -- you go to a steakhouse for a good steak. And we sure didn't get that at BLT.

Future tip -- when the waiter asks that key question, don't be so quick with the honest response. You may pay for it in the end.

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  1. How would they know you are just "one and done". You would think they would make sure your first experience is amazing so you would want to return. I know some restaurants identify first timers and try extra hard with them, therefore building their "regulars". The cooks do not have 2 piles of meat, either a batch is good or bad, they may have gotten some average meat. Let them know, if enough people complain, they will tell their meat company.

    1. i seriously doubt they downgraded your meal because it was your 1st time. i would expect just the opposite - if a business survives or regulars - and restaurants do - it behooves them to make you come back again

      1. That's sort of ridiculous. There have been tons of negative reports preceding your visit.

        It's a trendy spot that's part of a chain...what did you expect? The wait staff are supposed to ask that question, which is usually followed by an offer of more information or an extra attempt to make you feel welcome.

        1. Usually, when it's my first time @ a restaurant, I've gotten free desserts....

          1. I don't think your bad meal has anything to do with you not being there before. When I've been asked that question and have answered no, some waiters explain how the menu is set up, recommend some dishes, etc. I don't believe anybody has given me an inferior meal just because I'm not a regular.

            9 Replies
            1. re: Miss Needle

              at nobu, for example, they ask, because they have a standard omakase (tho that isnt really omakase anymore, is it?) they give to first timers, to give a full taste of their signature dishes at that time. if you have been there before, they will feel freer to deviate from that

              1. re: thew

                Yup. I've gotten that at Nobu as well. There are tons of reasons why a restaurant may ask if it's your first time.

                And I do think it's always a good thing to be honest with a restaurant -- or with anything for that matter. Look at Robert Irvine.

              2. re: Miss Needle

                Yes, but the diners in the OP were having steaks at a steakhouse in the US. How much menu 'splaining could there possibly be under those circumstances?

                I can see the waitron inquiring if one is dining at a restaurant that offers multi-item and multi-course meal options (the example of a Japanese restaurant given below, or a tasting menu) for the first time: but at a steakhouse?

                1. re: mrbozo

                  As I haven't eaten at BLT Steak, I can't coment on how the menu and the restaurant is set up.

                  But ... what about something on the lines of:

                  "Our appetizers and sides are large enough to be shared. If you haven't dined with us before, I would highly recommend the tuna tartare. Our signature steak is the rib-eye. It's dry-aged for 2 weeks. As you can see, you have a wide assortment of sauces you can choose from. The price includes one sauce. If you want more, they are $3 for each sauce you choose. I'd highly recommend the BBQ sauce which we also sell for $9 a bottle so you can enjoy it at home as well. And I would highly recommend our famous _______ dessert to top off the night."

                  The above is purely hypothetical. But my point is that there are many reasons why the waitstaff may want to know if the patron has been here before. It doesn't only have to be at restaurants where you have tasting menus, etc.

                  1. re: mrbozo

                    I haven't been to this particular steakhouse; but I can imagine that some places include all of the sides in the price listed next to the cut of meat and that would be good information to have. Other places might price things differently. Some places might like to go over their definitions of "rare" and "medium" or what have you.

                    If such a restaurant trained their waitstaff to simply hold forth with a set of information about how the menu is set up or how they cook their steak for every table, there would be threads complaining about "why do we have to listen to this every time?" The restaurant is attempting to ascertain what information they need to give to the diner.

                    We're really working hard here to analyze a very simple question that, ultimately, most everyone seems to agree had absolutely nothing to do with the OP's unfortunately disappointing meal.

                    1. re: mrbozo

                      "Yes, but the diners in the OP were having steaks at a steakhouse in the US. How much menu 'splaining could there possibly be under those circumstances?"

                      Visit any Arnie Morton's Steakhouse and you will never ask that question again. Your waiter comes and does an incredible dog and pony show with a cart full of raw steaks, raw vegetables and a live lobster - who they have trained to do the lambada across your table - (some hyperbole may have been added in to that last part strictly for entertainment purposes). I waive them off as best I can when they come to take my drink order. If I wanted a "floor show" I would spend more time in Las Vegas.

                      1. re: mrbozo

                        oh my gosh, the steakhouse we go to, you can pick your own cut of beef out. And there are three different weights, which I was glad to hear my first visit. Sometimes they have other entrees other than steak to offer, so that's another reason. In my mind, it's really great that they ask that question
                        It's a door opener is all, the customer is now able to persue with their questions if they have any. I don't always remember everything on the menu and also restaurants change things.

                        1. re: chef chicklet

                          Thanks to all for the edumacational replies. However, the OP did not mention having been presented at tableside a selection of various cuts of beef from which to choose his steak. It sounds as if he ordered from a printed menu. More info from the OP on the chain of events that led to the substandard meal would be helpful.

                          1. re: mrbozo

                            Oh, Morton's Steakhouse gives you a printed menu to order from. Their "floor show" is an extra added "benefit," provided completely free of charge. My point is, not all steakhouses are free of copious amounts of "splaining," Lucy.

                    2. Typically I've found that as a first timer, the server just tells you how the menu is set up, recommend some of their favorite dishes, and explains how the restaurant works, if it is an unusual setup.

                      If the restaurant is newer and not a chain, it may also give you a free appetizer/dessert or a coupon for future use. Yesterday I went to a newer non-chain restaurant that has not done much advertising yet and found that the server was quite friendly and helpful.

                      1. I'm chiming in in agreement with the general thrust of the comments so far: it bites that you got steaks you didn't like but I don't think it had a thing to do with having said it was your first time at a restaurant. Makes no business sense, makes no culinary sense and its way too much effort for the kitchen to have to try to go through.

                        You just got bad steaks.

                        1. "Have you been here before" is a weird question.

                          If you get this at a chain...yeah, you know what's coming, a metaphorical food wedgie or some kind of scripted fun that the waitstaff must say or could be fired.

                          If an upscale places asks the question, no wedgie but you have to wonder, why are they asking this question? Are you busting my chops? What freakin' different does that make?

                          Even if it's omakase, there's no need to phrase it that way and I sorta doubt a Japanese restaurant would ask it that way.

                          Perhaps it's semantics but asking it another way like, "Are you familiar with our menu?", is a more gracious approach, less presumptuous. Even a less direct question, like, "Is this your first time at XXX?" (even that's a bit weird). As to why you don't ask this question -- because good service shouldn't be based on when or if you've been before.

                          Beyond that, I don't think the bad steaks were due to the question, but the question shouldn't have been asked in the first place...not if you're going to drop $150+ in 90 minutes.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: ML8000

                            I agree with ML, particularly at a chain, the server is required to ask you that. If the answer is yes you are supposed to thank them for returning/say welcome back. If no, you give a general pitch about how things work or what they're "famous" for. It's certainly not to determine whether or not someone is a regular or to decide what kind of service to give - if you were a regular, would they need to ask?

                            1. re: ML8000

                              you can doubt a japanese restaurant would ask it as much as you want, but at nobu it is asked every time, for the exact reason I said.

                              1. re: thew

                                I stand corrected. It's still a very odd question.

                            2. Yeah, I don't see the logic here. Why would a server want you to have a bad experience? Their tip depends on you being happy. Even if they aren't the ones cooking your food, it all affects things. Do you think they have a box of crappy steaks in the back that they reserve for first timers?

                              I have never asked this question before, but I know that if I can tell my guests are familiar with our menu, I spend less time explaining things. If it's part of a corporation, they probably have a little speech they're supposed to give to first time guests.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Azizeh Barjesteh

                                Iceman, look around, here, there are numerous negative posts on BLT, as has been noted. I don't think your experience was that unusual nor the function of the question.

                                We just got the question last night at a seafood restaurant and the couple with us hadn't been there before. There was nothing really different from the last time I was there as the result of them saying 'no' and they enjoyed their food very much.

                                It might just have been a canned question for your server.

                                1. re: Azizeh Barjesteh

                                  In KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL Bourdain writes that some lower quality steaks are set aside for people that order well done, instead of throwing them away or using for stew.

                                  1. re: phantomdoc

                                    this is a separate topic from the op's.

                                    i am sorry if i burst anyone's bubble here, but when an order for a well-done steak comes back to the kitchen, no chef is going to reach for the most beautiful hand-cut steak in the bin. the most beautiful steaks tend to be served to people who will appreciate them (med-rare). when folks want to outright wreak a steak (and i know, i know, immune-compromise happens! please spare us the medical stories, it has nothing to do with what i mean here)-- the chef will reach for the steak which may be a little small, a little ugly, a little mangled by the apprentice on her first day of work.

                                    chefs have similar ideas of beauty as regular human beings do-- they do not want to wreak something beautiful, they prefer to wreak something that's already flawed, saving the beautiful thing for a perfect preparation. more rudely, and i am sorry to offend, but most chefs would have the attitude toward a customer who would order a well-done steak in a restaurant (unless the server says: "for a nice regular, she's just pregnant!"), that it's a "pearls before swine" issue: the customer would not be able to distinguish a premium steak from one not as good, especially after the overcooking would essentially destroy all the attributes of the premium steak.

                                    it is fair to say chefs attempt to serve their best products to the folks who have the best chance of appreciating them, and will reach for the least-premium product in the case/bin for those who won't, but this is different than saying that chefs go to the lengths of *ordering* a box of lower-quality steaks just for the well-done-ers. i've never seen this. and i'm ready to be flamed now.

                                2. I was asked exactly that just last week while having lunch at an upscale restaurant. I'm so glad the waitress asked because she went on to explain the menu, which had no delineation between starters and main. Thanks to her, my friend and I understood the menu's concept better and went on to have a wonderful meal.

                                  I don't see anything presumptous at all about the question. Trying to read more into it is silly. And I never waste my time thinking that a restaurant is trying to psyche me out by asking such a question. Call me crazy, but most of the times, the staff at a restaurant is simply trying to be helpful.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: gloriousfood

                                    gloriousfood, I'm still rolling this one around in my head. Of all the questions asked by servers, this would be the last one I would attribute to a bad meal.

                                    Iceman, other than at the obviously not so good BLT, have you ever been asked this question before and had the exact same experience?

                                  2. And sometimes it's just chatter. I was wondering did they follow up with an announcement of a special, or make a recommendation?
                                    Could be that the waiter was warning you, so you would not be disappointed. In my past when I worked at hip pasta place, I would sometimes steer people away dishes that I knew would not be what a real Italian food lover would want. Some customers are mighty clear about what they expect. I realize these are a couple of steaks. Did you know you were going to pay that much for a steak before going there? On the menu did it say where the beef was from? I don't order steak out often for exactly what happened to you.
                                    One could always respond with a smile, and say "Why do you ask?"

                                    1. If you book using Open Table you get asked "that question" each and every time you set up a reservation. Maybe you could simply use Open Table when available and then the courtroom phrase could be used "Already asked and answered" if your server inquires again.

                                      1. At a steakhouse, I usually translate that question as "do you know what counts as a rare or medium steak is at this restaurant?" just to head off complaints about steaks being overcooked or undercooked and to keep orders from coming back to the kitchen. For instance, "rare" at Peter Luger is warm in the middle, and would probably be considered underdone at another restaurant.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: David A. Goldfarb

                                          Exactly right. We went to Tracht's for the first time and the question was asked. The conversation that followed included their definitions of rare etc.

                                          1. re: David A. Goldfarb

                                            Rare is cold throughout at my restaurant. I agree temperatures vary a ton from restaurant to restaurant.

                                          2. I really think that the OP's theory defies logic. If we begin with the assumption that a restaurant typically treats its regular customers "better", then the question arises of how those regular customers became regular customers.

                                            I think that the obvious answer to that question is, if the customer is satisfied enough on the first visit he/she will return to the restaurant for a second time. If that person is satisfied on the second visit, then...well, I think that this progression is fairly clear.

                                            The OP's theory only makes sense if a restaurant has a cherished cadre of regular customers and does not want any additional regular customers. While that restaurant may indeed exist somewhere, I am not aware of any establishments that want to discourage repeat business. That would certainly not be a formula for business growth, and growth is the lifeblood of the continuity of a business of any type.

                                            I'm sorry, but the OP's theory just makes no sense, unless he has stumbled upon the odd restaurant that does not want to increase its base of repeat customers.

                                            1. I appreciate all of the comments -- calm and otherwise.

                                              I was merely throwing out an idea, trying to better understand why I got a not-so-great steak at a high end restaurant. The answer probably was a simple one -- BLT Steak isn't that great a restaurant, and we dropped $200 for a meal that was something of a disappointment.

                                              I certainly don't think any restaurant would go out of its way to give a new customer (or any customer for that matter) a bad experience. But I also sense that some restaurants do want to make sure regulars are taken care of -- maybe that's not true.

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: Iceman

                                                " But I also sense that some restaurants do want to make sure regulars are taken care of -- maybe that's not true"
                                                You're not totally off on this although, "Regs" are usually recognized and taken care of from the get go, EG: Preferred seating, comped goodies, etc.

                                                1. re: Iceman

                                                  We are regulars at several local restaurants...and yes we do get preferencial treatment. Most often comps, one place we have a guaranteed table, but we drop a couple of thousand bucks there a month. We're not the people who are there on Mother's Day...we're the people who are there every Tuesday night while the economy is slow. I don't think that is a bad thing in and of itself. And the places we go certainly don't discount service to their non-regulars but recognize our loyalty.

                                                2. The only places I've been asked that question are places that have some kind of "special", either cuisine or ordering procedures. I doubt that you were given a lesser treatment because you were a first timer. Maybe they are just mediocre in general.