We Need to Stop Judging New Restaurants So Quickly

New Restaurant Opening

In our feverish race to be the first to dine at the latest hot new restaurants, it’s easy to forget that every restaurant has a lifespan—an arc of development—that’s inevitably more awkward in its infancy. A restaurant needs time and experience to mature like a human life does. It needs to learn to stand and walk before it can run. Newborn babies are adorable, but they often throw up all over themselves.

Now more than ever amidst wage pressures, rent increases and rising food costs, the restaurant industry needs us to be a more forgiving, empathetic audience. One visit should never define our opinion about any restaurant. It’s like going out on one date with someone new and telling everyone that he or she is a bad lover when you never even kissed.

Anyone who works in hospitality will tell you that opening a new restaurant is a nightmare. The kitchen inevitably melts down, people wait too long for their food, servers order the wrong dishes, steaks come out overdone, line cooks walk out in the middle of service. None of these issues are excusable, but they happen more often in the early going. 

Of course, new restaurants should do everything in their power to be ready on day one to offer great food and service. Most do. But the same food or service should be even more finely-tuned six months to a year later. Chillax, your Instagram account can wait. 

New restaurants

Critics rush to file opinions even more compulsively than civilians do when a trendy chef breaks ground on a new project. They crawl over each other to be the first to publish reviews, often while a restaurant is still in an embryonic state. It’s easier to forgive shrewd critics than merciless foodies; at least critics have the inherent excuse that it’s their job.

But the mortality rate among newly-opened restaurants would likely be lower if critics showed more restraint by delaying their reviews until these restaurants are given time to work out the kinks. Gratuitous slandering on crowd-sourcing sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor doesn’t help matters any either. This interim period when a restaurant first opens is critical to its future. It’s the time when we should be the most patient not the most ruthless.

If you don’t feel compelled to dine at a new restaurant again because your first experience was so bad, fine. But it isn’t fair to call it terrible after only one visit. If you do decide to go back, though, try to wait at least a month before you return. Start by telling your server or a manger that you dined there when it first opened and had a disappointing experience. Lay your cards on the table. Ask the staff for recommendations and show openness to enjoying the restaurant the way it is intended not how you intend it to be. 

Great restaurants will capitalize on these opportunities to win guests over. Bad ones will make the same mistakes all over again. It works the same in reverse. Your first experience at a new restaurant might be mind-altering while your second visit may be disastrous. Either way, we shouldn’t make judgements until we take the necessary time to ascertain that a restaurant is disciplined or complacent about its own excellence. It’s impossible make this calculation fairly after just one meal. 

Is Restaurant Etiquette Dead?

A well-heeled guest recently beckoned me, her waiter, to the table to urgently ask what apparently she thought was a very important question. “Why is that woman over there wearing a hat?” she asked scornfully, nodding toward a young woman wearing a cream-colored winter cap festooned with a stringy pom pom on top.

Sensing that I was flummoxed, she stared deeply into my soul for an uncomfortable moment and disdainfully pulled back on her crown of braided blond hair. “Hmmpf,” she muttered quietly to herself, “I guess times have changed, but that isn’t very classy in an elegant restaurant like this.” She seemed a bit young to be such a faithful disciple of Emily Post.

I didn’t disagree that it seemed out of place for guests to wear hats in the dining room, but I also wasn’t about to walk over and pull the hat off this poor woman’s head either. Is that what she expected me to do? Whether the woman wearing the hat was, in fact, cold or just making a fashion statement, it seemed inappropriate for either of us to intervene for the sake of defending some antiquated social mores.

It’s true, times have certainly changed when it comes to restaurant etiquette. Perhaps that’s a good thing. After the fury of the moment subsided, the woman asked for the check. She and her companion had plans to see the ballet. I hoped for her sake that no one in the audience had the nerve to show up in jeans. The usher might get an earful.

After she left, I thought about how much time she’d spent at the table on her cellphone. She discharged it often throughout the course of her meal to take photographs and videos of the food and some of our table-side presentations. Of course, it’s commonplace these days for guests to film everything, but what’s more intrusive in the dining room of an upscale restaurant: the incandescent lights of a cellphone screen or someone’s harmless headgear?

restaurant-etiquette

I served another couple recently that was so consumed with the social media ramifications of their meal that they lowered every plate of food they’d ordered onto the banquette to meticulously photograph each one. They MacGyver-ed an iPhone swaddled in a linen napkin with its flash on as a makeshift studio light and snapped portraits of each dish using a second iPhone. The parties seated around them looked on incredulously, distracted by their odd behavior.

One evening, I witnessed two elderly guests sitting next to each other wearing identical eyeglasses that had dual spotlights attached to each hinge like they were about to inspect diamonds or descend into a coal mine. To onlookers in the dining room, it may have looked like the restaurant was being invaded by extra terrestrials.

Deploying digital technology this way has always clashed with the analog charms of a restaurant, but the two are inseparable now. Parents anesthetize their young children with makeshift home entertainment centers—propping up iPads on the bread basket and sealing their young ears with noise-cancelling headphones to quarantine them from any human interaction whatsoever.

Staffs of fine dining restaurants are resigned to being filmed without permission. Guests consider us part of the scenery. But imagine if the same people decided to film their doctor giving an exam or their lawyer taking a deposition. Having the nerve to do so would be outrageous. But why is a restaurant experience that much more of a spectacle than a trip to the dentist?

It’s partially our fault. The restaurant industry balked at the opportunity to take a stand in the early innings of the smartphone invasion. It should have treated them the way theaters do, insisting that attendees keep their phones in their pockets while they’re seated or at least implore them to use discretion. Instead guests act like boorish spectators at a rock concert.

Unfortunately, hospitality ideals make it difficult to enforce house rules without offending people. Suggesting that someone is dressed inappropriately, misusing their phone or being too loud can result in public shaming online or negative reviews on crowdsourcing apps like Yelp. Defending controversial policies can seem elitist and exclusionary. It puts restaurant management in a difficult predicament. Most restaurants these days have to choose their battles very carefully. No matter how much integrity there is behind our desire to set a standard for etiquette in the dining room, it’s a battle that we know we can’t win anymore.

Helpful Hints for Holiday Dining

No matter how curmudgeonly we get about guests’ improprieties, we always try to keep our focus on giving constructive advice and finding ways to help you become a more fluent diner. Between now and the end of the year, restaurants will play a big role in your holiday festivities. Many of you will dine out frequently, sometimes traveling to cities far away or maybe returning to your hometowns. Your holiday dining may occur in restaurants you’ve never been before or falling back on those old familiar neighborhood places. Some may seek out trendy places that appear in every critic’s year-end “Best Of” lists.

The holiday season—though often the most lucrative for hospitality professionals—is the most difficult time of the year to work in restaurants. Guests arrive with unreasonable expectations, dysfunctional families are easily triggered and staff is always burning its candle at both ends. Bear in mind that the people serving you are sacrificing time away from their loved ones to facilitate your sharing a great meal with yours.

Here are some helpful hints to make sure you get the most out of your holiday dining experiences:

Ask what time the table is needed back – Christmas is the season of giving. Turn times are a harsh reality of the restaurant business that becomes even more harsh during the holidays. The simple act of showing consideration goes a long way. Most restaurants will pander and tell you to keep the table as long as you like—even if they can’t afford extending the courtesy to everyone—but acknowledging that the table may be rebooked is guaranteed to boost your status with the restaurant hosting you.

Elevate your tip percentage – We know, we know… you always leave a great tip for the waiter. But if your standard tip is twenty percent, go up to thirty! Most tipped employees don’t receive holiday bonuses. Because they aren’t salaried, any additional income during the holidays usually comes from guests’ generosity. Dig deeper into your pockets at Christmastime and show your appreciation. Being generous pays dividends, especially at the restaurants you patronize most frequently. Plus, tipping well just makes you feel good.

Offer the waiter a glass from your bottle of wine – Servers rarely get a chance to taste bottles of wine from the list because they are often too expensive for management to open for educational purposes. It’s always a great way to build solidarity with the staff to welcome them to sharing your wine. You might even order a second bottle, ask the waiter to fill everyone’s glasses, then tell him or her to finish the bottle at the end of their shift. Drink and be merry!!

holiday-dining

Be respectful about unwrapping gifts at the table – We understand that friends and family often plan gatherings in restaurants as an occasion to exchange gifts. However, you should still be mindful how that can impede the staff’s ability to serve you properly. Don’t turn your table into an Oprah’s “Favorite Things” Giveaway episode. Order first before you open gifts so the server doesn’t have to fight for everyone’s attention. If possible, wait until your meal has been fully served before you unwrap gifts and always clean up any wrapping paper and holiday paraphernalia. Never leave your garbage behind!!

Don’t Wear Out Your Welcome – Especially if your holiday dining occurs on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, be respectful that the people working also need to get home to be with their families. If you notice you’re the last table in the restaurant and it’s getting late, pay the bill and thank the staff for being there to take care of you at such a late hour. They’ll appreciate the kind words, but they’ll appreciate even more when you get up and leave.

Leave a Positive Review for Your Server – The effect that review sites such as Yelp and Trip Advisor have on a restaurant’s success can be very influential. Unfortunately, guests with negative experiences often drown out the positive ones. Customers who leave thrilled rarely feel the need to leave feedback. Sharing your comments about a great service experience during the holidays can help balance the scales.

Stay Home on New Year’s Eve – Sorry, restaurant owners, but you’ve sucked for too long on NYE. It’s always nice to have a place to convene with friends and family to ring in the new year, but we can’t condone dropping wads of cash on overpriced cookie cutter menus and cheap Prosecco toasts at midnight. Restaurants never serve their best food on New Year’s Eve and food choices are usually very limited to simplify kitchen operations. Celebrate on January 2nd, and you’ll get the same experience or better at a third of the cost.