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How to get the most from your Dining Experience

Everyone thinks that the path to a pleasant dining experience rests in how much you tip, but the key to getting the most out of your meal begins the minute you decide to eat out, and it hinges on five key factors: choosing the restaurant, time of day, ordering, attitude, and payment. Let’s begin.

Choosing your restaurant.

In today’s volatile economy restaurant chains rise out of nowhere everyday just to sink just as quickly back into obscurity. However, literally hundreds of choices from national chains like Olive Garden, to refined New York steak houses or and mom and pop diners are available to people in every region of the country, on any budget. This then begs the question, “Where do I want to eat?”

Your night begins here, with this very simple yet important question. It’s more than just a matter of Italian food or vegan tacos – it’s about your expectations.

What do you want – “want” being the operative word? You can dine anywhere, but you’re choosing to be there so make it for the right reasons. Are you looking for fine dining and an extensive wine list to dazzle a client or a cozy booth to spend hours catching up with an out of town friend? We “go out” for more than just food – we pay for an experience, and even if you’re there for a quick bite, asking yourself a few questions can tease out your ideal atmosphere. Questions like:

Am I willing to wait a long time for a table?
Do they take reservations?
Is it loud?
Is it a family style restaurant?
Is it expensive?
Is the menu large or small?
Am I willing to try something new?
Am I in a hurry?

The answers to these few questions can help assess the mood you’re in, and a little forethought can save you a two hour wait in a noisy, kid-filled lobby to finally sit at a table in a restaurant that doesn’t serve salmon. Instead of just heading out the door and picking a restaurant based on the spinning marquis that catches your eye from the freeway, put a little thought into your expectations.

Choosing the time

Let’s say for the sake of argument that you choose a mid-sized regional chain. Excellent, most people do. You’ve been to an establishment like this before, even if it may be your first time at this particular chain or location, therefore you know what to expect, right? Not always. A restaurant is just like anything else, with its unpredictable qualities, but the one truth you can count on is that timing really is everything.

When you dine is almost as important as where, and the time of day determines the type of food being served, the quality of the wait staff, and the promptness of your seating and your food’s preparation. The clock is the resounding drumbeat that rows the slave ship of dining forward, and no one can afford to ignore it.

Here are a few constants to the timing issues of a restaurant:

The busiest times are from 12 noon – 2 p.m. and from 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. These are commonly called “the rushes” and well over half of the restaurants total income is collected between these four hours.

Service during the rush will be worse than during slower times. With a more frantic atmosphere, and more tables sat in each section, the staff will have less time to banter with each table and will have a harder time dealing with complex orders unless they are adept at their job. The best servers tend to be scheduled toward the end of the rushes and into the slower times. Contrary to popular perception, servers make the most money at the slower times in between rushes because there are fewer staff on the floor. The best servers therefore will be working in between rushes.

Lunch items are rarely available for dinner, but when they are it’s at a routinely marked up price for the inconvenience it causes the kitchen. A sandwich that costs $6 at 3:58 p.m. will often cost $9 at 4:01 p.m.

Reservations, especially for large parties (8 or more depending on the location) will often be difficult or impossible to make during the rushes.

What does that mean for you, the customer?

Expect delays

We all know that, but if you truly expect that what took the kitchen 7 minutes to prepare at 3:30 will take 15 minutes to prepare at 7:10 you will enjoy your experience more. Rush times are dining gridlock, and laying on your horn and screaming at the car in front of you (your waiter) won’t accomplish anything. One easy way to avoid the stress is to get in the carpool lane with a friend – I usually bring along Jack Daniel’s or sometimes Mr. Cuervo, but a few sips of a root beer float can calm anyone down while they’re waiting for they’re blooming onion.

Also, due to the cluster that a dining room and kitchen become during the fast periods, expect problems. No one is perfect, and even if they are, a mistake involving your order has to pass through a few very busy people, like the prep cook, line cook, kitchen manager, expo,and food runner before it hits your table. More diners equals more workers which equals more complications. Do your best to handle it stoically. So your steak was undercooked? At least you aren’t the guy that got a shard of glass lodged in his throat.

Ordering

You’ve picked your restaurant, you’ve chosen a quieter time, and now you’re ready for the most important part – the food. Ordering only takes a few minutes, but it’s here that your night can fall apart or become the feast you’ve always dreamt of. How do you enhance the situation?

Be prepared.

If you have to wait in the lobby for fifteen minutes, instead of glaring at the hostess, why not ask for a menu? She’ll be happy to have something to pacify you with, and you can channel your rage into imagining what it would be like to sink your teeth into the tri-tip steak sandwich instead of the busboy taking a thirty minute smoke break. If you know what you want when the waiter comes around, you’ll obviously get your food faster, but you’ll also immediately gain the gratitude of a busy waiter or waitress. They want to get you in and out the door as fast as possible despite what you might think.

Keep the questions to a minimum

Obviously a reiteration of the last point, but to be more specific, in most circumstances asking questions of the staff gets you nowhere. For instance, if you ask, “What’s good here?” You will get one of three responses:

“Everything.” (aka I’m new here and I have no idea what’s on the menu).
“The Porter Steak is popular. You can have it with pan-fried shrimp and garlic mash potatoes.” (aka the porter steak is $38 dollars, and the shrimp costs another six bucks, sucker)
“The burrito is wicked awesome bro…but oh yeah, we stopped serving that at 3 o’clock.” (aka I’m stoned out of my mind, and I’ll probably forget your order on the way back to the kitchen)

It’s rare to get an honest suggestion, and even if you do it might not be what you like. Servers are salespeople and when given an opportunity to “upsell” (make you pay more money) they’ll take it. If you have to ask how an entree is, be specific. Ask about a certain item or better yet, point to one that is already on someone else’s table. Take control of the conversation.

Be focused

Don’t ask for a hundred things, one at a time. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not that big of a deal to order things on the side of your meal or to ask for substitutions. Most places are fine with it, and they have buttons built into the computers to handle most orders. If you want swiss cheese instead of cheddar and an Eiffel Tower made out of jello instead of fries, by all means ask for it. However, if you remember ten minutes after you ordered that you want your steak served with the orange chicken marinade, and you want just broccoli instead of the soy beans in your vegetable mix, then you might be bordering on annoying. Think about what you want, and order it, but do it all at once. Don’t pester your server with one task after another. If you really like bbq sauce, ask for two sides of it. Don’t send them back for more over and over. Servers call it being “ping ponged” or “run” and any table that does it is likely to get anything from lackluster service to unholy vengeance. Remember this simple mantra: You are not the only person in the restaurant.

Attitude

This aspect of dining out is subtle, and obviously some people are more relaxed than others, but I bring it up to stress a point that can’t be made too often; that simply being – you determine your mood, not the things around you. If you choose to let the small annoyances that are bound to happen in a restaurant wash over you, the food will taste better, the conversation will flow like the house wine you’re drinking, and your evening will remind you of why you dine out in the first place – to enjoy yourself. Someone else is doing the dishes, someone else is doing the cooking, so who cares if it takes a few more minutes, or if your waitress just broke up with her boyfriend? Put a smile on, look your waitress in the eye when she starts crying into your ceasar salad and and treat everyone around you like you’re here for a good time. The staff will respond in kind, and who knows you might even get a free dessert…or her number you big stud.

Payment

At last we come to the all important tipping section of the night. Pay promptly when the check is presented, and then tip according to your service, keeping rule number 4 – attitude – in mind. If you had a great night, don’t just show it by doodling a pirate ship on the receipt, leave some cash. If you didn’t have a good night, draw the pirate ship, but just leave out the beautiful rainbow you had arcing across the sky – your waiter doesn’t deserve that kind of happiness. And if you really had a bad night, wait for them in the parking lot and show them why your nickname is “Steel Toe Pete,” because… you know…you love to tap dance after you’ve had a rough night. It keeps away those blues.

You show ’em Pete.