Stop Storyboarding Your Restaurant Meals

“May I offer any recommendations on the menu?” the waiter asks cheerfully. “No,” the guest answers, ”We already knew what we wanted before we sat down.” That’s strange, the waiter thought, I haven’t even told them about the specials and they’ve already decided?

Without skipping a beat, the table proceeds to order the most talked-about dishes on the menu. It’s obvious to the waiter that they must’ve scoured the Internet in the days leading up to their reservation to prepare in advance. Even after hearing the specials, they were unwilling to veer from the script. “Everything sounds really good but we’ve just heard so much about the [appetizer] and the [entree] that we have to try them,” they say proudly, returning the menus. 

Technology has drastically changed the way people make decisions in restaurants and has caused table-side negotiations to become more anti-social. Waiters approach tables to offer guidance and routinely find everyone on their phones swiping through photographs of popular dishes. Instead of asking about specific menu items, some guests unapologetically show the photos to the server and ask him to identify it.

The “Show-and-Tell” method has become a very common way for restaurant guests to solicit help navigating the menu from their servers. These guests only care about the most photogenic dishes that look good on their Instagram. Some guests don’t interact at all. They forgo help because they’ve already invested time beforehand researching fan favorites and critically-acclaimed dishes. They willfully trust the opinions of total strangers over the staff’s expertise. 

Storyboarding-restaurant-meals

The “storyboarding” of restaurant meals is a poisonous trend that turns potential great restaurant experiences into pedestrian ones. More diners are planning their meals in advance like film directors who have a particular vision of how their films should look aesthetically. But dining this way negates impromptu decisions that might stray from the original plan but improve someone’s meal. Often the storyline they’ve scripted ahead of time is static instead of the dynamic experience they would have had if they’d approached dining more openly. 

A restaurant visit is meant to be a spontaneous experience. One of the joys of great restaurants is their ability to surprise you unexpectedly. That can’t happen with so much advance planning. Everyone can recall thanking a waiter for a suggestion that changed the course of their meal. One could argue that as restaurants have become more expensive—the cost of bad choices has gone up too—so preparing in advance is a preemptive measure that can help curtail disappointment. Unfortunately, safer choices don’t always mean better ones.

Putting so much faith in other people’s opinions will often lead individuals to make poorer choices for themselves. Ordering based on popularity—instead of one’s own personal preferences—sets these guests up for failure. Just because everyone raves about a particular dish, doesn’t mean that it’s the right dish for everyone. Chefs work very hard on every dish they put on the menu, and it drives them batty when guests only gravitate toward the “signature” dishes. 

Negative reviews on sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, aside from grumbling about prices, often condemn signature dishes as being “not worth the hype.” In most cases, these diners were let down because they ordered popular items instead of approaching their meal with a blank slate. Groupthink makes diners less adventurous and their choices more monochromatic. Servers are now tasked with trying to force guests into conversation about the menu when it used to be the other way around. 

Luckily, it’s very easy to correct these bad habits. There are simple steps you can take to avoid the pitfalls of storyboarding. First, read as little as possible about a restaurant beforehand so you don’t arrive with too many preconceived notions. Engage the staff and ask about “sleeper hits” not just the “blockbusters.” Be more open to suggestions and willing to take risks with your order. Step out of your comfort zone. Instead of everyone at the table ordering the same famous dish, try to diversify your menu choices by including that dish among a variety of other shared plates. Approach dining out with the understanding that pleasant surprises can’t happen without the possibility of disappointment. It’s always worth chancing because restaurant experiences can only be great if you let them. 

Don’t Sabotage Your Restaurant Experience

The initial moments of your restaurant experience can set the tone for the entire meal and you should be mindful of your role in making those moments successful. There are some common pitfalls you can avoid that might injure your relationship with a restaurant staff. Having your server on your side from the beginning will pay dividends when you need something. Cultivating that relationship is a worthwhile investment and you should start earning capital the moment you sit down. Remember: Your server is an advocate for your needs. Spoiling that relationship at any point is not in your best interest. Here are some common mistakes people make that sour their rapport with servers:

Ignoring the Waiter’s Greeting – When your server says hello, he or she is also gauging the temperature of the table. Are you friendly and enthusiastic? Do you seem to want service to play a smaller or larger role in your dining experience? If you seem unfriendly or disinterested (even if it’s not intentional), you risk the server misreading your distraction as ambivalence. Stop whatever you’re doing (for god’s sake get off your damn cellphone) and take a moment to say hello. It will make a big difference in the server’s attitude toward you going forward. 

Rejecting Your Seating Assignment – It’s impossible for every guest to be happy with their table. Some tables are nearer to speakers, some are closer to the air conditioning vents. No table is perfect. Maitre’ds and hosts do their best to seat guests where they are most comfortable, but it can be a very complicated puzzle when parties arrive late or show up in larger or smaller groups. When you walk into a restaurant and immediately start picking furniture, the staff is watching and branding you a difficult guest before you’ve even said a word.

Declaring “We Haven’t Even Looked” at the Menu – You may not like being pestered to order quickly but busy restaurants have time constraints for each booking. Part of a restaurant’s business model is moving tables along as quickly as possible while preserving excellent service. If you put yourself in an adversarial role because you refuse to order in a timely fashion you are unnecessarily casting yourself as an enemy. It’s acceptable to want to slow down, but it’s better to politely ask for more time than to sound like you’re protesting against being rushed. 

Bad Restaurant Behavior

Soliciting the WiFi Password – Restaurants don’t owe you internet service. If they offer it, it’s usually advertised. But if it’s really so important to be connected, ask the server if the restaurant has WiFi after you’re ordered food and drinks not right away. Waitstaff, understandably, can get frustrated serving smartphone zombies all night. It’s a pain in the ass trying to get people’s attention who are constantly on their phones. If you immediately ask for WiFi when you sit down, you’ve become just another zombie. 

Asking Your Waiter’s Name – Guests wrongly think that asking the server his or her name is a way of restoring humanity to the servant/recipient relationship. Tactfully executed, sometimes it can. But when guests ask servers to introduce themselves it can often feel like they need the server to be a puppet. Waiters don’t like when guests invade their personal space and sometimes coming on too strong right off the bat with your need for an introduction is a turn-off. If you need to be on a first name basis, wait until you have a more established relationship with your server before you ask his or her name. 

Making Unnecessary Demands About Water – Of course, you are entitled to your water served however you like but being demanding about the first thing you ask for suggests you can be high maintenance. Asking for water with no ice, lemons on the side, hot water with lemon or bottled water at room temperature may be important to you but understand that doing so may alienate your server. Try to keep your water service simple or ask for modifications later after you’ve already ordered your meal. 

Requesting Bread Before You’ve Ordered – Restaurants will often withhold bread service until you’ve ordered for the obvious reason that you’ll probably order less if you’re filling up on bread. As input costs rise, many restaurants have done away with bread service altogether or charge for it.  If a restaurant sends complementary bread, it’s usually as a courtesy and should be treated as such. If you’re really that hungry, order. 

If Your Waiter Could Yelp About You

Let me start by saying I never Yelp about my guests. Ive been working at this restaurant for a long time—WAY before you read about it on Yelp—and most people consider me an excellent waiter. I get great reviews all the time, so I can only assume since you were such a problem when I waited on your table last Friday night that there must be something lacking on your end.

First of all, your Open Table guest notes said you were a VIP. I guess maybe my expectations of you were a little too high from the beginning. The minute I approached the table I knew it was going to be a long night.

“Welcome to the restaurant,” I said cheerfully. You didn’t answer. I set the wine list on the table in front of you but you were too busy on your iPhone to bother acknowledging me. It’s obvious that impressing your friends on Instagram with still life portraits of napkins and cutlery is more important than considering the menu. 

“Can I bring you something—”

“Tap water no ice,” you interjected dismissively, “and some bread right away.”

I guess this must be how Open Table VIPs act, I thought to myself. After I poured the water, you ordered a Casamigos Margarita and asked if the bartender could make it with agave nectar. Does this look like a Mexican restaurant? Sorry, señor.

“Fine, fine, fine, just NO sugar. I’m Paleo,” you said.

Your friends at the table must’ve been really impressed by your story of how you saw George Clooney in an elevator once in Beverly Hills. I wasn’t. Even George knows Casamigos is total basura. Why do you think he sold the brand? Maybe you should go back to Cocktail School and learn how to order a proper drink. 

Like clockwork, you start waving me over like you were hailing a cab after I already checked in with you five times to see if you were ready. Of course, NOW you’re in a hurry and need to order RIGHT AWAY. Maybe if you tell me one more time that you have Hamilton tickets I’ll feel a greater sense of urgency. Probably not, though, because I’ll be too busy in the service station ridiculing you to my colleagues. I told them you must have given all your money to Lin-Manuel Miranda because you obviously don’t have the funds to order a proper two-course meal.

When your food arrived, it must’ve looked like I was enjoying standing there waiting for you to move your iPhone while I tried to serve your Abalone Crudo. It was hard to fight the urge to tell you right then and there that you pronounced Abalone wrong when you ordered it. It was obvious to me that you thought you were ordering Tuna. That’s Albacore, Einstein. 

When I finished putting your plates down, I couldn’t believe you had the nerve to ask if I could divide your salad too? Do I look like your mommy? You want me to cut your food into tiny pieces and spoon feed you little bites while I make roller coaster and airplane noises? Don’t be such a baby. Use the serving utensils we gave you like everyone else. This is a fine dining restaurant, not hospice care.

Someone should petition Open Table to revoke your VIP status. There are so many diners better than you. Even that guy with the bad hairpiece and the emotional support animal who always sits alone on Table 42 and drinks Beaujolais puts you to shame. He comes in all the time—ten times the VIP you’ll ever be. Do you hear me, Open Table?

After all that, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when the busboy cleared your table and you asked me to bring you a toothpick. You seriously can’t wait until you leave to grab one at the door on the way out? I’m sure your dining companions got a real kick out of watching you pick your teeth while they considered the dessert options. Real classy. Of course they declined dessert because the sight of you poking and prodding your gumline doesn’t exactly scream “Hey… Let’s have a slice of Key Lime Pie!!”

The highlight of waiting on you was delivering the check. Obviously, you never asked me for it, but I dropped it anyway. I figured you were inconsiderate of me all night so it only made sense that I return the favor. Your ten percent tip was just the icing on the cake. Maybe if you tipped respectably, I might not have resorted to shaming you on Yelp.

Oh… and just in case you thought I didn’t see it, I’ve already read the salacious one-star review you posted about your experience and I have two words for you: Fake News. Your “alternative ending” was worthy of an episode of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

Honestly, I can sleep at night knowing that the odds of your ever sitting in my section again in this restaurant (or in any other restaurant that could potentially employ me in the future) are slim to none. If it was up to me, you would never be allowed back into this restaurant again—unless maybe you’re ordering take out.