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.

Your Favorite Dish is Sold Out? Big Deal.

It’s difficult to remember what restaurants were like before people dined out to take photos of their food and invested hours online sifting through reviews weeks ahead of their reservation. The world was a much simpler place. The company you kept mattered more than the food you ordered. There was no such thing a Cronut. It used to be that a famous dish on the menu only became known through word of mouth or perhaps the occasional write up in the local newspaper. We didn’t get so emotional when a particular dish we loved was taken off the the menu or sold out.

Some restaurants still revel in being known for specialty items, broadcasting their prowess in flickering, neon humblebrags like: “Home of the Original Stuffed Clam” or “The Place for Ribs.” But there’s hardly a need for restaurants to flex anymore, the world has already seen it all on the ‘Gram. Social media has made having a signature dish a curse as much as a blessing. Now when we dine out, we’re not only comparing our restaurant experiences to our neighbor’s or friend’s account; we expect it to live up to the multimedia accounts of hundreds and thousands of strangers and, of course, the Kardashians. 

The most epic tantrums that occur nightly in restaurants come from guests incensed when popular items are sold out or signature dishes have been replaced on the menu. These meltdowns have intensified as guests spend more time and energy anticipating and planning their restaurant visits. The build up creates pressure which makes the explosions of disappointment even more combustible. “We made this reservation months ago and that dish is the only reason we came!!” they’ll say when the waiter delivers the bad news. Pacifying these irate guests is not unlike soothing crying children whose parents have just told them they can’t have dessert. 

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It’s a sensitive subject for restaurant managers and servers. We understand the reality that any dish on the menu can be sold out on any given night. That’s just how the economy of a restaurant works. It’s an imperfect science. If a restaurant only sells four orders of salmon on average every night, the chef isn’t going to buy ten pieces of fresh salmon every day just in case more people order it. Throwing away unsold food isn’t a good strategy for survival. Unfortunately, conveying this calculus to disappointed guests that had their heart set on a particular dish is difficult to do without seeming inhospitable

The fact remains though: Restaurants should do their best to make you happy but they don’t owe you anything. Food is perishable and supply chains fluctuate. An ingredient shortage often impacts the industry as a whole, not just one specific restaurant. You’re upset that your favorite sushi place is out of Uni but half of the city’s sushi bars may also have missed their deliveries. Many dishes take days in advance to prepare. It’s impossible to “whip up” a few orders of braised short ribs that needed to be salted days ahead of time and braised in red wine for hours.

Of course, guests are entitled to be disappointed that a dish is unavailable but it should never provoke outrage. When guests lose their cool, they’ve clearly convinced themselves that there is only one way to enjoy their experience. Approaching dining out anywhere with this kind of tunnel vision is self-sabotaging.

It’s actually a sign of your fluency as a diner to demonstrate how open you are to enjoying your meal despite missing out on a dish you’d hoped to try. Servers will work harder to make you happy. No one hates it more when dishes are sold out than the staff. Waiters’ lives are so much easier when they can give everyone everything they want every single night. Ask them for solutions. Understand that there is more than one path to having a great meal and always approach ordering with an open mind. You never know. You might end up liking your dish even more than whatever the Kardashians ate. 

When Saying “No” is Not An Option

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An ornery guest who dined at one of my tables recently sent a surly email to the restaurant when she noticed after the fact that a market price item on her bill was more expensive than she expected. She claimed in her email that the server (me) had neglected to inform tell her price of the dish and, therefore, felt entitled to some form of reparation.

When the management team approached me with her grievance, I assured them with absolute certainty that I did quote the price. The trouble was that the woman complaining wasn’t the person who ordered the market price item. Her husband did, and she may not have overheard our conversation about the price. Our staff is always careful with market price items to avoid sticker shock. I distinctly remember reviewing the market prices for all the dishes on the menu when he inquired about the dish he eventually ordered. 

It’s not unusual in the service industry for customers to contact the restaurant with improbable stories about the staff’s incompetence. Sadly, those calls vastly outnumber the ones that lavish praise. When guests have a dispute, management handles them with kid gloves. Defending the staff only fans the flames, so we use whatever tools we have at our disposal to put out the fire, even when we suspect them of arson. 

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For management, defending employees against guest complaints is a Catch 22. Even when we know we’re right, It feels inhospitable to prioritize our version of the events over theirs. In cases like these, it comes down to he said/she said and it’s a usually a no-win situation for the restaurant. When diffusing guest complaints, we always take the path of least resistance. There’s an old adage that a happy guest will tell five of their friends but an unhappy one will tell one hundred.

After she continued insisting that I had neglected to quote the price, the restaurant folded its hand. In her subsequent emails, she claimed to have spoken with her husband and he didn’t recall my telling him the price. It may be true that he didn’t remember but that doesn’t mean I never told him. In the end, much to my chagrin, management refunded her the full price of the dish. But I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. 

The restaurant business is all about giving pleasure and sometimes we have to swallow our pride to give our guests the pleasure of being right.

But, in doing so, we also set a perilous precedent that invites buyer’s remorse as long people plead their case with conviction. Reinforcing guests’ behavior in this way can extend to other scenarios where recompense is expected: Sending back food they’ve eaten but claim they didn’t like, deciding halfway through a bottle of wine that the wine is off or complaining after the meal that a server manipulated them into ordering more food than they needed. Servers are trained to preempt these maneuvers, but it’s impossible to eliminate them altogether. 

When conflicts with guests arise, restaurants focus on damage control regardless whether there is any merit to the complaint. With the power that social media platforms give individuals to spread misinformation, our alleged crimes never go to trial. One spiteful guest can permanently scar a restaurant’s reputation and that forces restaurateurs run their businesses from a place of fear. The result is that the industry has inadvertently empowered dissatisfied guests to exploit our fecklessness to get their way. That’s what happens when saying yes is the only acceptable answer.