Making The First Move

The relationship you have with your waiter is remarkably similar to a first date. You’ve never met before. Someone usually sets you up. You meet in a restaurant. There’s a good chance they could be a total douchebag. If it turns out you don’t get along, you have to pretend you like each other for the next two hours. Like bad dates, you have to find ways to make the best of it.

Try not to forget that your waiter has been on thousands more of these bad “dates” than you have. He’s probably already had a handful of bad ones the same night he met you. Many waiters behave like jaded singles—we feel like we’re never going to have a special table who loves us for who we are. It’s not easy to open up and be vulnerable when you date so many assholes.

As a diner, one subtle thing you can do to stand out from the crowd is to make the first move. You don’t have to just sit there waiting for servers to come over and start talking to you. Speak up! There are a few good “pick-up” lines you can use to disarm their defenses. Of course, you have an equal chance of crashing and burning as you would trying to pick up somebody at a bar; no strategy is foolproof. But like a first date, you have nothing to lose. Here are a few phrases we recommend springing on your server next time you sit down:

“We’re really excited to be here!” – It’s hard for even the most disgruntled server to hate people who are enthusiastic about their dining experience. Since most diners are not even paying attention, it will come as a relief to your server that you actually care. Even if you don’t, pretend like you do. Most conscientious hospitality professionals will feel worse letting down an excited guest than someone who arrives to the table ambivalent.

“I think you took care of us last time.” – It doesn’t matter that you’re lying. It doesn’t even matter that you’ve never actually been to this restaurant before. Servers don’t remember most of the people they wait on anyway. You all look the same to us. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be flattered by the recognition. “Wow, I must have done a really good job last time,” the server will think to himself. Pretending you recognize him will juice the waiter’s confidence and encourage him to give your table a little extra love.

“We’ve never been here before!” – Waiters are always a little bit more gentle when they’re taking someone’s restaurant virginity. They will often ask you, “Is this your first time dining with us?” It’s annoying to have to hear it so often, but preempting the question will change the dynamic. The meta-message you’re sending is that you’re open to suggestions. Most waiters will savor the opportunity to play a more prominent role in your experience.

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“Did this restaurant used to be [insert phony restaurant name]?” – There’s usually some kind of backstory behind every restaurant space. Few waiters will skip an opportunity to show off a little knowledge for their guests. Even if you don’t really care to know the answer, ask anyway! Small talk can be annoying but disrupting the rote pattern of the server’s welcome and steering the conversation into something other than food and drink will be a refreshing change of pace.

“Are you one of the owners?” – Don’t spring this line on your waiter too early. You’ll seem desperate. Most of the time, waiters get treated like pieces of meat. The ones who have a more proprietary work ethic sit around most nights like Cinderella wishing that someone, ANYONE will acknowledge their work. Asking if they’re an owner is a subtle yet effective way of flattering without pandering. If you sell it really well, you’ll have your waiter in your back pocket the rest of the night.

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.

Closing Time

imageNo one is going to prevent you from sitting down in a restaurant right before before they close, but you should never do it.  We understand your right to patronize an establishment within their advertised business hours. Why should a restaurant advertise that it’s open if it’s not hospitable to guests at any time of the night? It’s purely an issue of courtesy. If someone calls you at your office job and keeps you on the phone for an hour and a half after you were scheduled to leave work you wouldn’t hang up the phone on them but it would certainly be considered an inconvenience. People often take advantage of the flexibity of restaurant hospitality and feel entitled to it. Friendly late-night places often attract a similar crowd—romantic couples who enjoy having an entire dining room to themselves, solo diners who seek a quiet place to bring reading materials, or Europeans who are accustomed to dining at a later hour.  Enter at your own risk. Restaurants do not often perform at their peak in the closing hours.  For staff, there is usually an elaborate regimen of busy work associated with the end of the night—kitchen and waitstaff have a tendency to take their hands off the steering wheel when it’s time to go home.  A kitchen filled with cooks standing around waiting for you to order and finish your meal is a room full of enemies. If you work in the industry there is an unwritten code about being the last one in or out. We just don’t do it. And neither should you. Be respectful of the long hours the staff puts in and don’t take advantage of them by arriving right under the wire or overstaying your welcome. If you are planning a late visit, give the restaurant a call right before. Firing a warning shot will soften the blow.