Being a Paying Customer Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

As with most consumerist pursuits in America, we think of dining out transactionally. A restaurant visit is a decision to pay for culinary pleasure, where our senses are centered in the delivery of nourishment beyond what we need and hedonism that we cannot reproduce in our own homes. Some are grateful for that exchange, others carry with them an attitude that talented chefs are lucky to have a hungry audience willing to pay to taste their cooking. To those unfortunate souls, the higher the cost of a meal, the more pleasure they expect in return.

Entitled diners have a tendency to oversimplify this calculus in a way that obscures their understanding about the proper cost of a meal. Those people might accuse a $50 steak of being too expensive by comparing it to a $20 steak they can buy from their local butcher or a $30 dollar steak served in a more casual eatery. The restaurant industry is competitive, which makes it easy for guests to abdicate their role in sharing the financial burden restaurants face like escalating rents and rising labor costs.

Aggrieved parties that write negative restaurant reviews online almost uniformly complain about prices. These guests don’t tend to evaluate a restaurant experience in terms of whether or not it was enjoyable but whether or not they perceived the transaction as profitable. Online critics and restaurant owners rarely see eye to eye on the appropriate cost of a great meal.

The forced deprivation caused by quarantine measures should make us all realize what an immense privilege it is to dine out. We’ve spent the greater part of the last few decades fetishizing chefs’ culinary imaginations and living out our voyeuristic fine dining fantasies through the lenses of our smartphone cameras. The more we conceive of our dining selves as vessels for arousal, the less we bring to the table in terms of making those sparks fly. Sex is never good if you just lay there. It’s the same at the dinner table. The restaurant industry needs your love right now, not your lust.

A restaurant’s primary function has always been to provide the public sanctuary. Its protracted absence has made public life less vibrant. Even as the pandemic ravages our industry, though, restaurants have continued to find innovative ways to welcome guests, facilitating intimacy at a time when proximity to others is forbidden.

Without restaurants, we’ve learned how integral the act of dining out is to the way we socialize. Meeting friends for drinks cannot be simulated with the same warmth remotely. Restaurants still provide the backdrop for indelible memories—romance, friendship, business deals, and celebrations. Without the adrenaline rush of a crowded dining room and the heartbeats of others, food cannot have the same impact. Restaurants are conduits for human connection.

Most of us haven’t comfortably occupied a seat in a restaurant in months. If we have, it probably didn’t put us at ease the way we remembered. The virus has placed a choke hold on the hospitality industry and suffocated so many hard-earned careers. Building a profitable restaurant takes years, but it takes only a matter of months to bankrupt one.

The industry won’t have an easy time digging itself out of this hole, but there are things we can do as guests to support the recovery effort, beginning with rearranging our mentality about the role we play in their success. If we want our favorite restaurants to survive, we need to be more than paying customers.

Having a deeper appreciation for the role that restaurants play in our communities means thinking not just about where we dine but about how we dine.

Guests who approach restaurant visits with the mentality that its primary function is to provide pleasure make it increasingly difficult for restaurants to please them. The constant burden to prove themselves is exhausting for restaurant professionals and fosters hostility in our workplaces, hastening burnout and substance abuse. Hospitality will have to change in the aftermath of the pandemic, but guests should too. You can help alleviate some of that strain by approaching future dining experiences more empathetically.

Start by thinking differently about what it means to have a reservation. With seating capacity limited in many municipalities, the effect of reneging on a reservation is even more devastating. Respecting your allotted time and being punctual is even more critical to a restaurant’s financial health than ever before. Ask the host upon arrival if he or she will need the table back. Even if there is no time limit, express your willingness to return the table if need be. The pandemic is making perilously thin margins even thinner. Yesterday’s dollars are needed to pay today’s bills. Without yesterday, there is no tomorrow.

Be vigilant about new safety protocols. Understand that doing so ensures the wellbeing of the people sacrificing their own health to serve you. Even though wearing a mask can be awkward while you’re trying to enjoy a meal, try to keep it on when servers visit your table. These sterile impediments hinder the staff’s efforts to deliver fluent service more than they do your comfort. Paying for a meal shouldn’t exempt you from abiding by the rules.

Table assignments also fall into this category. To maximize efficiency and profitability, restaurants have a floor plan that acts as a schematic for maximizing revenue. The pandemic has forced many restaurants to drastically gerrymander the way they partition space. Putting together this Tetris pattern has become even more complicated with the spatial restrictions and restrained seating capacities caused by COVID-19. Even if you don’t love the table to which you’ve been assigned, try to make the best of it without protest.


Return the table in a reasonable amount of time. Guests who overstay their welcome make an already challenging situation even worse. A restaurant is a finite space. It needs available seats to sell more food, and it needs to sell more food to stay open. Since March, most restaurants are operating at fifty percent capacity or less. When people monopolize their seats, it hurts twice as much.

Its helpful to think of a restaurant reservation like booking an AirBnb. Even though you’re paying a premium to stay there, you’re still a guest in someone else’s home. Good guests will recognize the privilege of occupying a space that isn’t theirs and treat it with the same respect they would their own homes. You have a check-in time and a check-out time that must be adhered to. Making unreasonable demands of your host just because you paid for it would be untoward, and doing so might risk jeopardizing your standing on the platform.

In the end, it’s incumbent upon each individual guest to monitor his or her own conduct and that of their company. This could apply to someone in your party who refuses to follow whatever safety protocols are in place. It’s unfair to put the onus on management to diffuse the situation when you and your other dining companions could easily police the situation yourselves.

There are other ways to support restaurants beyond your comportment as a guest. Since March, many people have bought gift cards from their favorite restaurants or donated to staff GoFund Me accounts. Take it a step further. Stop into your favorite local restaurant. Talk to the owners. See how they’re doing. Ask what they need. Perhaps your church group has a holiday event catered every year. Offer to front the payment. If there are any business services you can offer through your profession, make them pro-bono. Volunteer a day of labor or offer to help clean the area outside of the restaurant. Do anything that might help offset input costs or increase revenues.

Most restaurants function like non-profit businesses, so donating your time and money to support one isn’t really that much different from charitable giving. It’s for a good cause. Your neighborhood restaurants provide a vital service to the community and should be considered as integral to its health as schools, parks, religious centers and libraries. Only a very small fraction of restaurants actually make money. Sixty percent of restaurants don’t make it past their first year, and eighty percent go out of business within five years.

The disruption caused by the pandemic presents the perfect opportunity to begin changing our behaviors to be more accommodating toward restaurants. As so many of our beloved establishments close, we’ve learned how fragile these businesses are and how much less dynamic our communities are without them. When iconic restaurants close, they take an irreplaceable part of a city’s cultural history with them. As the surviving restaurants in our neighborhoods begin to reopen, we should approach them with a renewed sense of responsibility about our role in their success beyond purchasing food. Simply put: Ask not what your restaurant can do for you, but what you can do for your restaurant.

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Restaurant Life

Quarantine Meals at Home That Feel Like a Restaurant

Over the course of this mind-numbing period of isolation, restaurant chefs have saturated social media outlets with cooking tutorials, offering advice to ham-handed home chefs on how to improve their quarantine meals. Optimizing use of our pantries has turned even the most sophisticated epicureans into primal hoarders. Obsession over dried beans borders on the occult. Tinned fish—long relegated to the dusty back aisles of the grocery store—has become improbably trendy. Our living spaces have transformed into culinary incubators—scallions regenerating in our windowsills and sourdough starters that demand weekly feedings like quarantine pets that live in our refrigerators. Through it all, though, the collective heartbreak over missing restaurants is a lengthy trail of tears that winds its way through communities of all sizes across the globe. We all just want to fucking go out for dinner godamnit!

A restaurant in Philadelphia recently began offering video conferencing to its delivery customers through a portal where the owner virtually “serves” his clientele from inside the dining room of his restaurant. He stands beside your virtual table—water and wine already poured for you—and happily takes your order with music playing in the background. His novel approach is a timely reminder that good food always tastes better with great service.

The absence of restaurants is causing more heartache than many of us expected. They are are the glue that holds communities together—fortifying relationships and offering sanctuary for special occasions and personal milestones. Birthdays and anniversaries have come and gone in recent weeks with no brick-and-mortar place for people to congregate with their loved ones.

Great restaurant experiences are so much more that just delicious food. They etch themselves into our sense memories. The crisp skin of the Duck a l’Orange you had in Paris on your honeymoon. The briny seawater liquor of the clams in the Linguini alla Vongole you had along the water in Positano. The porky juices that erupted from the Xiao Long Bao you tasted for the very first time in Taipei.

Without being able to rely on these restaurant spaces to commune, the fabric of our society frays. Though many establishments continue to fulfill orders for takeout and delivery, the pandemic has forced many of us into the uncomfortable space of having to cook for ourselves and dine in our homes. Ironically, we need restaurants the most during times of crisis. It’s infinitely easier to put your anxieties aside when you have a trained staff feeding you and cleaning up your mess.

Home-cooked meals tend to be more slapdash. Throw everything in the Instant Pot and come back in an hour. Dining as a family unit has become less important than it once was. Digital distractions make it hard for us to dine at home with the same sense of abandon that we have eating out. It used to be that the only disruption was the occasional trill of the corded telephone—now we must deal with the constant pinging of notifications from Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Tik Tok and the seemingly endless barrage of apps that compete for our attention.

Recreating the structure of a restaurant meal at home isn’t easy, but there are some strategies that may help you emulate the adrenaline rush. The most important element is to make it fun. Do things that will force you to stay focused on what’s happening at the table. Be creative. The best restaurants obsessively pay attention to detail. The more effort you put into making your meal at home special, the more joy everyone should get out of the experience. Here are few simple ideas to get the ball rolling:

Make a “Reservation” in Advance – This might be more challenging for larger families than for couples, but rather than sitting down to dinner whenever the food is ready to be served, set a fixed time in advance for everyone to be seated. If she lives in your home, have Alexa remind everyone in the house that dinner starts at 8pm. Having a fixed “reservation” time formalizes the event, so it becomes an engagement rather than a casual gathering. Even if dinner isn’t completely ready at 8pm, it’s a nice time for everyone to sit around the table, have some cocktails and share conversation while they wait for dinner to begin.

Light Candles at the Table – This may seem like a small gesture, but softer lighting can make the experience feel more intimate. As restaurants always do, avoid using scented candles, if possible, as they will obscure the aroma and flavor of your food. If you can’t find any candles, improvise a centerpiece using seasonal fruits, vegetables, houseplants or flowers. A little table decoration can make an everyday meal feel like a special occasion. Dig deep and channel your inner Martha Stewart!


Print Dinner Menus – These don’t have to be anything fancy. You can even write them by hand on pieces of scratch paper. Analog touches like this are often healthy reminders to everyone that we need to slow our digital lives down. If you have children, ask them to help you design the menus with crayons or markers. You can also let them role play as waiters and go around the table to take everyone’s order. It’s a great way to keep everyone engaged, and your printed menus can also be a nice keepsake as a memento of this crazy time.

Get Dressed Up – Let’s be honest, most of us have been lying around in sweatpants and hoodies for over a month. Showering has become optional. Putting on a button down shirt, a pair of nice slacks or a dress feels like such a hassle. Who are we trying to impress? But there’s something about wearing nice clothes to the dinner table that makes the occasion feel more luxurious. You don’t have to do this every night of the week, but, even if you’re having a casual meal, wearing nicer clothes is a way to make your dining room at home feel more like a night on the town.

Create a Music Playlist – Many restaurants hire third parties to program music for them because playlists are critical to creating the right energy in the dining room. Think about what you’re serving and try to match the music to the cuisine. If your recipes originate from a particular country, find some cool music by some of its native artists. If what you’re cooking doesn’t fit under the umbrella of a particular ethnicity, just pick music that you like and that you think your company will enjoy, too.

Choose Someone to Be the “Server” – It’s fun to have someone else bring you things, so you can relax and enjoy yourself. Delegating those responsibilities to one person any given night is a nice way to recreate the service experience you get in a restaurant. Even better, divvy up the duties so that everyone has an alternating role—clearing plates, getting dessert ready, making coffee. Try to set it up so that everyone can enjoy at least some time to sit back and be served, just like they would in a real restaurant.

Quarantine Meals

Plate Your Takeout Food on Proper Dishes – Whether you’re cooking yourself or ordering takeout food, break out your best plates—even the tacky ones that your grandmother passed down that’ve been in storage for years. Sure, the disposability of takeout containers is more convenient and limits the clean-up, but it also takes some of the poetry out of enjoying well-presented food. Take a little extra time to carefully remove the food from its containers and plate it artfully like a restaurant chef would. Even garnish it with a chiffonade of your own chopped parsley.

Decant Your Bottle of Wine – You don’t have a wine decanter? No problem! Find another vessel like a glass pitcher you use for iced tea or a clear flower vase. Just improvise—even a quart-sized Mason jar or a glass milk bottle will do the trick. There is something about letting your wine “breathe,” even if it isn’t an expensive bottle, that makes drinking it more ceremonious. These extra little touches distinguish restaurant dining from simple meals at home.

Invite Other Friends to Join Remotely – Don’t just plan a Zoom chat with friends, invite them to have a virtual dinner together! Share a few recipes a day or two before then connect through one of the many teleconferencing apps. Not only will it be nice to see friendly faces, but it will be fun to compare notes about your shared cooking projects. As with restaurant meals, bad food can always be rescued by great company.