Don’t Ignore the B-Sides

Most nights in countless restaurants all over the globe, a healthy collective of random tables will order the exact same thing. They’re commonly referred to as the Chef’s “Signature Dishes” in today’s foodie nomenclature. I despise the term and so should you—if not for the simple reason that it sounds like a line of frozen microwaveable entrees. These tables don’t know each other, but they have a lot in common. “We heard the [blank] is a can’t miss—best in the city,” they’ll tell the waiter as they hand back the menus they never bothered to consider. It happens everywhere. They say they “heard” about it, but they really mean they spent three hours scouring articles on Google and swiping through countless Yelp images and reviews of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

When people order this way where I work, our staff jokingly refers to it as the “Number 1”—our version of an upscale McDonald’s value meal. You learn to forgive them. They might never have a chance to dine with us again—whether because of the herculean task of securing a reservation or the trans-Atlantic distances they’ve traveled—but it doesn’t change the fact that they aren’t really experiencing the restaurant as it was intended. Signature dishes are poisoning our dining experiences. Our meals are becoming monolithic and our choices driven less by our personal tastes and more about the flawed wisdom of the masses.

Chefs put together their menus with the same thought and care as musicians do conceiving an album. Everything matters—from the order of the songs and the cover art to the recording equipment and the personnel in the studio. Our dining habits mirror the way we listen to music in the digital era—more and more diners follow popular trends and choose the hits over the deep cuts. We are more apt to click on the songs we know or the ones that come up at the top of the “Most Played” list when we search a particular artist. On the surface, we’re robbing ourselves of the joyful unpredictability of a spontaneous dining experience but, on a deeper level, of the possibility that we might actually prefer the tracks on Side Two. So why have diners become so fearful of flipping the record?

Take the time to read the menu. Making too many obvious choices can lead to disappointment.

My dear friend the late, great Gina DePalma would occasionally stop serving her wildly popular Maple Mascarpone Cheesecake at Babbo—an embargo against the general public for ignoring the rest of her pastry menu. She poured so much of her heart and soul into her pastry program and loved all of her desserts like her children. If you asked her which dessert was her favorite, she’d demure like a proud mother. Eventually, she’d cave in and reinstate the Cheesecake just so she wouldn’t have to listen to everyone complaining about her taking it off all the time. Maybe she was also playing a little hard to get. Either way, selling thirty cheesecakes a night while a seasonal tart she’d labored over for weeks went unsold drove her nuts.

Is there a statute of limitations on how long an iconic dish is still essential to the experience of the restaurant? There should be. As time goes by, some chef’s “signatures” don’t have the same luster—like a graying 70’s lite rock artist signing the same song over and over years past his prime. The song doesn’t always remain the same. Yet like pop musicians who have throngs of fans, well-known chefs face backlash if they don’t cook the hits. It incensed the Bob Dylan faithful when he plugged his guitar into an amplifier. But it was necessary to his evolution as an artist; and he was probably sick of singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” every night. As much as his fan base yearned for the old Bob, most of those people didn’t stop listening to him. His updated sound also brought new fans into the fray. They understood that experimentation is part of the creative process. It’s the same with food, but we’ve become too casual as listeners. The best way to get to know a chef is by tasting the dishes on his or her menu that aren’t popular.

As an audience, we affect the type of music chefs play. If we order conservatively, they’ll cook conservatively. We need to be more supportive of chefs when they have the courage to abandon the past and carve new paths. To accomplish this, we need to rearrange our mindset about what it means to be disappointed with what we’ve ordered. Dining is fraught with risk. It costs the same money whether you like what you’re eating or you don’t. As the expense of dining out has risen, so too has our procilvity to hedge—making safe choices and following the herd. But we need to understand that hedging, while limiting losses, also limits profits. Having someone you don’t know cook for you is already a leap of faith. But, in a restaurant, it’s so much more exciting to jump without a net.

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The Tyranny of the Tip Pool

Most restaurant staffs share tips. This means when you sign the credit card slip to reward your excellent server—let’s call him Darrell—that $50 you’re leaving doesn’t go directly into his pocket. In fact, Darrell only takes home a fraction of it. In a majority of restaurants, gratuities are consolidated into a common “pool”—a pool that usually has a lot of people who need to get paid swimming in it. Though your server may be the public face of everything that goes on at your table, the work involved in delivering seamless service is a team effort.

You might not notice the quiet infantry of food runners shepherding your plates from the kitchen to the table or the agile crew of buspersons swooping in to harvest dirty dishes and keep your table unencumbered by crumbs. Your cocktails sure as hell aren’t going to make themselves, so of course the bartender gets a piece of the action for that delicious martini he transferred to your dinner bill. He usually also needs a barback to help restock the bar—like a single parent with another hungry mouth to feed. Hostesses or maitrés’d, though they often are not directly involved with table service and rarely receive tips, may also be awarded a cut. In fine dining, a sommelier—whose presence is justified by stimulating wine sales—is necessary, and of course so is forfeiting a healthy chunk of gratuities in exchange for his salesmanship. Every one of these roles described here is essential to your experience and, to varying degrees, everyone’s pay is determined by the tip you choose to leave.

So, consider that $50 tip you left Darrell. Most likely, twenty percent will be divided among the bussers and another twenty percent for the food runners—that’s $10 each off the top. The bartender and wine steward will take ten percent apiece, so there goes another $10. In some restaurants, the hostess or maitre’d will take $5 more bringing the tip-out total to $35 which leaves poor Darrell with a whopping $15 in his pocket—less than a third of your total tip. Oh… and unless you tipped cash don’t forget the three percent service charge levied by the credit card companies that the restaurant often conveniently passes along to Darrell. Whatever is left at this point will be paid on a check at the end of the week where Uncle Sam will be tipped out at least another twenty-five percent in the form of whatever federal, state, local and social security taxes may apply. So that $50 tip turns out to be about $10 of take-home pay. If even. Considering Darrell just spent the last two hours accommodating your obscure requests and enduring your abuse, ten measly bucks isn’t much of a reward.

TipsRestaurant managers want their staff to make more money. After all, their employees work on a commission of sales so, in theory, it’s a goose-gander relationship. If tipped employees aren’t making enough money just put less people on the floor, right? Actually, it’s not really that simple. Running with a skeleton crew might please the staff but often at the expense of service when it stretches everyone too thin. As diners become more savvy, restaurants can ill afford slippage in their standards of service. So if staffing less is impractical, restaurants are forced into a form of gerrymandering—redistricting the floor plan to expand individual waiter’s stations while adding more support staff to handle the grunt work. The pie is the same size, it’s just sliced differently—more smaller slices and fewer bigger ones. Restaurants that struggle to find and retain FOH more often experience high turnover due to overstaffing not because of lack of business.

It bears repeating: Just because a restaurant is busy doesn’t mean its front of house staff is making a lot of money. Finding the right formula is very challenging for restaurant managers to maximize the earning potential of its staff and foster an environment conducive to retention. Restaurants that have abolished tipping are facing the same challenges. In order to make a reasonable amount of money, most waiters rely on volume. Using the example above, if Darrell has ten tables throughout the night who all tip $50 each—at $15 take home pay per table—he can walk with $150 in tips. Anything under that is considered a shitty night. Anything over that is gravy. This is why tipping well when service is exemplary makes such a difference. You can be the gravy.

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The 7 Biggest Overreactions In Restaurants

Waiting tables feels more like babysitting when customers don’t get what they want. Perhaps there is some kind of regression to the womb when grown adults sitting at the dinner table are expected to behave themselves in a civilized fashion without any parental supervision. It’s amazing how the most minor issues provoke such violent reactions among guests when their expectations aren’t met. Here are the seven most common things that countless customers get overly upset about but are totally excusable:

1. Items on The Menu are Sold Out –

It happens all the time. You had your heart set on a particular menu item and now you’re crestfallen when you find out it’s not available. As frustrating as it can be to feel slighted, restaurants don’t owe it to every guest to make sure they have unlimited inventory. Of course, they should try their best to avoid “86”-ing dishes. Most restaurants do. Ordering the right amount of perishable food while minimizing waste is a tricky balancing act where being stuck with a surplus of product cuts into margins. Chefs are often at the mercy of market conditions when they purchase certain ingredients. Input costs can fluctuate wildly which makes it difficult to offer the same dish at the same price every night. Reprinting menus is expensive and sometimes missing items must be conveyed verbally. Occasionally, items may be unavailable because of supply constraints or delivery issues with specific purveyors. “But the [sold-out menu item] is the only thing I can eat!” some cranky patron always whines like a toddler with a soiled diaper. No, it isn’t. You’re exaggerating. You know what—we’re really sorry you can’t have the Tuna dish you order EVERY TIME but if we only had five of them because that’s all the fishmonger could sell us that day and we sold them all before you arrived, tough shit! Order the Snapper and stop being such a baby!

2. Your Table Isn’t Ready –

Restaurants cannot predict how much time a specific party will occupy the table. Most restaurants do their best to build a reservation book that is both fair to the guest and favorable to its own profitability. A restaurant reservation does not guarantee that you will be seated at your assigned time. People arrive late, get caught in traffic, or show up incomplete. A wait fewer than thirty minutes should be considered a minor inconvenience. Have a drink at the bar and enjoy your company. If you don’t drink alcohol, have a glass of water. Hydrate. If you have to wait longer than thirty minutes, most good restaurants with competent staff should offer some form of reparation for your trouble (a complimentary appetizer, another round of drinks, etc). The host knows you’re waiting so there’s no need to continually harass him or her about an ETA. In most situations, the restaurant is doing everything it can to manage the situation and get you seated as quickly is possible. It is never in their best interest to upset you, so give them the benefit of the doubt and align your chakras.

3. You Found A Hair in Your Food –

Fact: Most of us have probably inadvertently eaten a million strands of hair in restaurants without knowing it. Is it absurd to consider that we shouldn’t mind it so much? We get it—nobody wants to eat someone else’s hair. Truth is, even the most pristine kitchens are vulnerable to incidents of hairs finding their way into people’s dishes. Kitchen employees are well-trained in handling food and go to great lengths to avoid all kinds of contamination. Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way of preventing someone’s hair from getting into every single plate every single night in every single restaurant. Sorry, dude. We don’t expect you to rejoice when you find one, but it’s an issue about which diners could stand to be a little more forgiving. There’s a pretty good chance—unless you are a bald man—that it came from your head anyway.

no-service-ketchup4. Your Waiter Forgot Something –

You asked for Dijon mustard like five minutes ago and it never came. You really need some mustard. Here’s an idea: Ask again! It’s not a big deal. Restaurants have a lot of distractions; often more pressing issues than your condiments. The waiter may have gone into the kitchen to get your ketchup and the chef ordered him back out into the dining room to run plates of hot food. The biggest customer meltdowns tend to happen when food arrives incorrectly or items are omitted from the order. Bear in mind that it isn’t always the server’s fault—sometimes it’s a kitchen mistake. Directing your anger at the server isn’t always punishing the guilty party. You have a right to be disappointed but it isn’t worth getting angry about. Take a Xanax—it’s not the end of the world that you didn’t get your Duck Fat Fries.

5. The Coat Check Lost Your Belongings –

We’re sorry we can’t find that Leopard print scarf that you checked with your hideous Mink coat. We understand it was a gift from your dead Aunt and, for sentimental reasons, cannot be replaced. Obviously, you think throwing a tantrum and delivering a dramatic soliloquy at the host stand is a better solution than allowing us to investigate. When airlines lose checked bags, most people understand that it’s a random occurrence and everyone is vulnerable. Acting like a spoiled child is not going to return your possessions. Give the restaurant an opportunity to fix the situation or to reimburse you for loss or damages before you start flinging accusations about theft or incompetence.

6. You Didn’t Get Free Refills –

If you don’t want to be charged for refills, inquire about a restaurant’s policies toward refilling drinks. Respect restaurant’s prerogative to decide for itself whether to charge for refills. If you don’t agree with their policies, go somewhere else. These days coffee is often too expensive to refill—many restaurants use high quality coffee grounds for drip coffee which makes it cost prohibitive to offer guests a bottomless cup. Every server doesn’t need to attach a disclaimer to every glass of iced tea he serves or proclaim, “Just in case you thought I was going to bring you an extra five diet Dr. Pepper’s for the price of one, you were mistaken.” Don’t roll the dice and wait for the check to come—take the extra five seconds and ask the server if he plans to charge you. You might feel like you’re being a cheapskate, but you are being a cheapskate.

7. Your Server Wouldn’t Make Separate Checks –

NoSepchecksMost waiters cringe when they have tables who immediately request split checks before anyone has ordered a scrap of food. The most common reason people ask for separate checks is because they don’t trust their dining companions to fairly divide up the bill. Guess what? That isn’t your waiter’s problem! Maybe you should find more reliable people to dine out with next time? In busy restaurants, waiters don’t have time to itemize your bill. If you need to divide the bill into separate payments, ask the server to process multiple credit cards for different amounts. But unless you’re splitting payment evenly (which most POS systems are programmed to calculate automatically), you should do the math yourselves. Please spare the waiter your outrage. We both know why you’re getting so upset—because you’re lazy.

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