5-Step Guide to a Better Restaurant Experience

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 02.21.12
The first time Cecilia Nasti asked me to be a guest on her radio show "Field and Feast," she asked if I'd put together a short guide to making the most of your restaurant experience. Here's what I came up with. None of this excuses the service industry's obligations to us as customers, but that's a subject for another day.
► Do your homework. Good restaurants have good websites. Study the menu and get a sense of the place before you go. That way you can spend less time being bewildered and more time asking questions about dishes that piqued your curiosity.
 Listen to the specials. Let go of your suspicions that restaurants use specials to get rid of yesterday’s slow movers. The best chefs use specials to vent their creativity, to move outside the boundaries of the standing menu and work with the day’s best fish, a shipment of exotic mushrooms or the guinea fowl they bought at the farmers’ market.
► Give respect, get respect. I’m bewildered by the way people act in restaurants. They bark when they could just ask. They let go of common courtesies. You want better service? Make eye contact with your waiter. Say please and thank you. A lot.  Even to the men and women who fill your water glasses. Teach your kids to do the same. Yes, the staff is there to serve you. Help them do a better job by making them want to serve you. “May I please order...” will get you farther than “Yeahh, gimme uh...”
► Be a geek. Not the kind on “Portlandia,” where you want to know the name of the guy who raised the chicken. But ask questions that show you’re willing to learn about farm-to-table possibilities, that you’re curious about how grass-fed beef tastes different, that you’ve never been clear on the difference between fennel and fennel seeds. Good waiters will respond to your enthusiasm. This is especially true about wine. If there’s a wine-pairing option, ask for the sommelier, then ask if they might work in a rosé or make it an all-red lineup. There’s nothing like a professional wine wrangler who’s asked to demonstrate what he or she can pull out of the hat. This is especially true at Wink and Congress.
► Skip dessert. This is the same advice I gave in an interview with Weight Watchers. It’s unfortunate but true that some pastry chefs don’t enjoy the same prestige as their brothers and sisters on the line. If a kitchen cuts back, pastry’s most likely to get the knife. That means there’s an even chance that dessert, even at a decent place, is either an afterthought or came right off the truck. Always ask if the sorbet or carrot cake or chocolate gateau was made in-house. If not, save the calories for another appetizer or even a cheese course. Places to suspend this rule: Uchi and Uchiko (desserts overseen by Philip Speer), the Carillon (the newly acquired Plinio Sandalio), La Condesa (Laura Sawicki), the Driskill Grill (Tony Sansalone) and the upcoming Swift’s Attic in the old Kyoto space with Parkside’s original pastry chef, Callie Speer.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)