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!!

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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.

It’s Time to Retire These Waiter-isms

The San Francisco Chronicle’s new restaurant critic, Soleil Ho, wrote a wonderful essay recently citing a melange of words she vows never to use in her restaurant reviews. This got us thinking about all the flaccid phrases and tired terms waiters peddle around the dining room every night that should be expurgated from the lexicon. In the spirit, we’ve compiled a list of things waiters should stop saying to their guests. 

“Have You Dined with Us Before?” – This phrase has become a common waiter crutch to suss out first time diners, but it has also become comically overused. A simple “May I help you with the menu?” would better cut to the chase. Greeting the table with this question can also come across condescending—as if the diner will be lost without the server’s road map for placing a proper order.

“Served on a Bed of…” – First of all, there is no such thing as a food bed. In fact, there is nothing remotely mattress-like about a pile of Brussels Sprouts. It’s perfectly sufficient to say a dish is “served with” something. Why does conjuring pieces of furniture paint a better picture? We don’t eat beds, so why should we use the term to describe a dish?

“Medallions” – Servers use this word to describe pretty much anything that is cut circular. The thought of eating an actual medallion is not even appetizing. Bottom line: this term makes everything sound like banquet hall catering food and waiters should remove it from the vocabulary of menu descriptors. What’s next… Doubloons of Hakurei Turnips??

waiter-speak

“Housemade” – It can be exhausting sometimes listening to servers describe ingredients on the menu as “Made in House”—Housemade Pancetta, Housemade Tartare Sauce, Housemade Cheesecake. It’s obviously a term meant to make the food sound more homespun and appealing, but nice restaurants should make everything in house without having to call attention to it. Also, the proper English is to say homemade.

“Pan-Seared” – This term began popping up in the late 90’s as a sexier way of describing the way certain fish and meat are cooked. Apparently, guests were supposed to be impressed that the chef was using a pan to sear something. Todays diners are more savvy about food so maybe waiters can leave the pan part out now. Let’s just go with seared.

“Cuts the Richness” – This phrase is often deployed by servers when recommending a wine pairing. It’s meant to suggest that the wine has good acidity, but it’s totally unnecessary to speak in such abstract terms. Waiters love to overcomplicate the description of things because they think it makes them sound smarter.

“Our Signature Dish” – The notion that chefs must have “Signature Dishes” has stifled creativity in restaurant kitchens. In the era of social media, groupthink has homogenized the way people order and waitstaff couching its recommendations around what is popular reinforces these bad habits.

Size Does Matter

If the number of people in your party changes last minute, let the restaurant know in advance. The Maitre’d or host may have a specific table planned for your party and unexpectedly arriving with more or less people may throw that plan out of whack.  Don’t just assume that the restaurant will have a larger table to accommodate your augmented group. Showing up with less people, on the other hand, may result in the restaurant wasting precious real estate by holding a larger table for you than is needed. It isn’t as easy as you think to get all parties seated on-time and situated in the appropriate tables over the course of a given evening. Throwing a wrench in our plan could end up adversely affecting your experience and/or sabotage some other innocent party’s. It isn’t fair that another group’s experience should suffer because of your lack of consideration. Don’t expect to be seated incompletely either.  Make sure your party arrives together or as close to the same time as possible. Seating incomplete parties can disrupt fluid service and most busy restaurants, worried about the potential domino effect, won’t do it.