Waiters are accustomed to dealing with people’s dietary peculiarities when they order. Some guests find joy in manipulating the menu to suit their needs or their budget. It comes with the territory, so servers learn to live with guests who dedicate themselves to finding loopholes to exploit. We understand that a menu is a template for success not a rule book, but of course—like everything in hospitality—some guests take more liberties than others.
There will be guests who request to have their salad served after their entrees because they think it makes them seem more cosmopolitan. It doesn’t. Others will order appetizers as their entrees because they prefer to eat light. It’s not ideal, but it’s forgivable. Occasionally, you have a table that cobbles together small plates into a meal or asks you to course their food in an unorthodox way. It’s pointless to resist. Just give ‘em what they want.
But one menu hack that most servers find intolerable is when a guest orders a side dish as an appetizer. Although there are exceptions, the decision to order a side dish as a first course is often a veiled attempt to game the menu for a cheaper alternative to the appetizer choices. Even the most well-intentioned guests come across completely obnoxious when they do it.
Naysayers will bristle and scorn at the elitism of presuming that menu items should only be served at the times of the meal that they are intended to be. They’ll say if people want a small dish as their appetizer, it’s their prerogative. Why should you ostracize those people, even if the decision is a financial one? These are all valid points. But just because you can do something in a restaurant doesn’t necessarily make it right. You shouldn’t order a sandwich, ask for more bread and then make a second sandwich by redistributing what’s inside the first one. Yet some people do.
Implicit in these choices is a disregard for the experience that a restaurant is trying to craft for its guests. You have no obligation to honor that framework, but if you don’t you may be perceived as someone who abuses privilege.
So follow the template that’s given to you, if you can. It’s better to have the side dish come alongside your main course (as it was intended to be) instead of having it come beforehand even if it means you’ll end up waiting longer or feeling out of place while your tablemates enjoy their appetizers. After all, it wouldn’t be called a side dish if it was meant to be the center of attention. Accepting that will make you a better diner.
So many restaurant meals begin like this: You’ve barely even glanced at the cocktail menu before an anxious server approaches the table and asks if you have any questions.
“Could you give us a minute?”
“Sure, sure… take your time.”
Moments later, before you’ve even had a chance to open the menu, a suited staff member, presumably a sommelier or manager, asks if you’d like to order drinks or have any questions about the wine list. Fearing another intrusion, you obligingly order drinks.
After the waiter delivers the cocktails, he recites the specials and asks if you need any help or if you’re ready to order. You haven’t even had a sip of your drink and he’s already badgering you into making menu decisions.
“Sorry, we haven’t looked yet,” you say, summoning as much compassion as you can muster without showing you’re annoyed by his pestering.
“I’m so sorry,” the waiter apologizes nervously, “I’ll can give you some more time.” He stands uncomfortably close to the table glaring at you and pounces like a bobcat the moment you put down your menus.
This scene probably sounds hauntingly familiar to anyone who dines out a lot. As the industry struggles to combat shrinking margins by increasing cover counts, restaurant meals are getting shorter. Input costs—food, labor, rents—are skyrocketing and raising prices is always a last resort.
The only way for many restaurants to protect their profits in today’s challenging economy is to go faster. Allowing guests to dictate the pace of their meals is a luxury of yesteryear and most casual places can’t afford to relinquish the steeringwheel anymore.
Even in the busiest restaurants, management has had to find creative ways to minimize turn times. Waitstaff are browbeaten nightly prior to their shifts about the urgent need to expedite table turns. In popular restaurants, the need to turn tables is often emphasized over the basic tenets of hospitality. Excellence is still expected, it’s just expected faster.
Maitre’ds, who are responsible for seating everyone punctually, have become merciless toward incomplete parties and tardy guests. If they seat latecomers or an incomplete party, there will be likely be rigid conditions attached for returning the table at a particular time.
Busy restaurants often aggressively over-book to account for no-shows and last minute cancellations. Many parties with prime time reservations will be given earlier slots even though the restaurant knows it’s unlikely they’ll be seated on time.
Getting more people through the door often requires making false promises. It also necessitates swiftly turning, if not flat out rushing, the first tranche of tables to seat the second and third wave of reservations on time. Talk to any restaurant manager about their priorities and, if they’re being honest, almost everyone will admit it’s turning tables.
As a result, hospitality norms have eroded out of necessity. Our primary focus used to be on making you happy, now we’re focused on making you happy in a shorter period of time. If you’re eating slowly, the kitchen may send your main courses before the appetizers have been cleared. Busboys are more likely to hover like vultures around your table, looking to clear your plates at the precise moment you take your last bite.
There’s a good chance the check will arrive without your asking. Didn’t that used to be rude? Once taboo, managers have also become less gun shy about asking lingering parties to vacate (though they will usually extend an olive branch, like buying everyone drinks at the bar).
If you choose to abuse the power to stay as long as you like, there may be consequences. Developing a reputation for habitually lingering (we call it “camping”) may negatively influence your ability to make reservations in the future. Most restaurants with computerized reservation systems have notes on your profile where they log your tendencies.
Of course the restaurant values your business, but it just doesn’t value yours as much as a guest who also respects the parameters of a normal table turn. People always like to think restaurants are democracies, but they are not. Restaurants are meritocracies. Because they are private businesses, favoritism may exist when it protects the bottom line.
All restaurants make an effort to treat every guest equally. But, as a guest, you have endless opportunities to distinguish yourself. The more loyalty you show to a restaurant, for example, the more leeway you’ll be given for dictating the pace of your meal. Extending that courtesy to everyone can be crippling to revenue and upsetting to other guests who are seated late because of it.
Rather than making demands about slowing down your restaurant meals or holding the table hostage, make an effort to work within the restaurant’s parameters. Showing awareness of the need to return the table is guaranteed to make the staff more gracious toward you. If you’re finished your meal but don’t want to leave, politely ask someone if they could find space for you at the bar for after dinner drinks.
Whether you like it or not, the best catalyst for enthusiastic service is always spending more money. Once you stop buying things in a restaurant, your entitlement to occupying the table expires. Management always does it’s best to extend courtesy to everyone dining to give them as much time as possible to enjoy their experience but, like everything, there are limits.
Restaurants serve as communal spaces, but the seat you’ve procured doesn’t belong to you. Staying seated in it for a long time is a privilege not a right, and, as the restaurant industry struggles to serve our communities, we ought to respect that more. Otherwise, our favorite restaurants may start disappearing sooner than we think.
Classic French cooking approaches steak temperatures with a simple elegance. There are four basic ways the French order steak. Bleu means very rare, quickly seared on each side. Saignant, literally meaning bloody, is a bit more cooked than bleu, but still quite rare. À Point implies “perfectly cooked” (the closest to our Medium Rare) and Bien Cuit, well done. The French don’t fuss with superfluous language around ordering meat; you like your steak one way or the other. The behavior is anchored in a tradition of respect for the chef’s expertise and deference to the talent in the kitchen.
Americans aren’t able to speak so abstractly about cooking meat and are more suspicious of the chef’s faculties. To make steak temperatures more scrutable, restaurants (with the blessing of the USDA) devised a vernacular to help diners better understand the different gradations of doneness. The approach is rather dogmatic with five concrete meat temperatures, now ubiquitous: Rare, Medium Rare, Medium, Medium Well and Well Done. Restaurant chefs have adhered to this scale for generations but they are a constant source of headaches for hospitality professionals. No matter how streamlined these guidelines have become, there will always be differences in perception around how we should define them.
Today’s diners are becoming increasingly nuanced about how they like their meat cooked. As palates become more sophisticated, defining proper meat temperatures has evolved into a significantly more complicated conversation. It’s disturbingly common to hear guests request “plus” temperatures, meaning they want their meat cooked a shade in between two standard ones. “Medium Rare Plus” implies they like their steak cooked a little more than Medium Rare but not quite Medium. Unfortunately, most restaurant kitchens are too busy to handle this level of specificity.
Trying to make guests happy who order their meat cooked outside of the standard spectrum can drive servers—and chefs—to madness. If we insist that guests adhere to the accepted scale, we increase the likelihood that they’ll send their food back. If they’re unhappy with the finished product, they’ll blame us for not making enough of an effort to understand their preferences. If we allow them to order fabricated steak temperatures that don’t exist, we must face the rage of an ornery chef who bristles at anything that strays outside of protocol. As with many hospitality conundrums, we’re always caught between a rock and a hard place.
A restaurant kitchen isn’t an artist’s studio; it’s a factory. As a guest, you have a responsibility to understand that not every element of your dining experience is customizable. When you dine in a restaurant, you are enjoying plates or food that were engineered to be efficiently served simultaneously to a dining room full of hungry people. Expecting your initials monogrammed on every dish shows a lack of respect for the orderliness that is necessary for a cohesively functioning kitchen.
If waiters could somehow escort every guest who ordered “Medium Rare Plus” into the sweltering kitchen to explain to the grill cook how they like their steak, not a soul would ever ask for it that way again. The power that many guests feel when it comes to the peculiarities of cooking their food is in the luxury of not having to deal with the shame of facing the sweaty cook who’s making it. Good guests won’t abuse that power.