Word of Mouth

How to dine like a pro (and selfishly reap the benefits)

I've been on the front lines of the service industry long enough to have seen some pretty weird requests accommodated. I once came upon a diner who wanted to have his food cut into little pieces by the chef, just the way his mother did when he was five. I waited on a party that insisted on its own creative table arrangement next to a window so the group's spiritual leader could occasionally dramatically stick his head out into the fresh air and yell things into the greater universe. And I'll never forget the time a high roller at a fine dining establishment paid thousands of dollars to have his dinner set up like a game, complete with theme music that was to be played over the speakers - at the expense of the experience of other diners - when he entered the building. Every time I see something like that, I can tell you exactly what I think: "What the fuck?"

Given the rant I wrote about chefs refusing off-menu requests, it would be a little hypocritical of me to come blazing out of the gates declaring there's a right way and a wrong way to dine. It's your money; you should be able to eat dinner any way you damn well please. And unless you're asking the restaurant to do something they simply cannot do, you are always -- and I mean always -- right.

There is, however, a selfish reason to behave the way the restaurant would like you to behave: The more a server and chef like you, the more they're going to accommodate you. Hell, they'll also break the rules for you -- sending you free food and letting you get away with much more than your own theme music. Assuming you're into the red carpet treatment, there are a few things you can do to dine like a pro.

Ask for suggestions. Not only does your server likely hold the secret to what's best and what should be avoided, kitchens that get wind of savvy diners often take care to impress discriminating taste buds with interesting concoctions that aren't on the menu. Same goes for beverages. Who's getting to taste the crazy stuff the sommelier is hiding in the back? Not the guy ordering the house red, I can tell you that.

Arrive on time and with a complete party for reservations. There is no such thing as "fashionably late" when it comes to dinner reservations, especially if you insisted on 6:15 when the restaurant was trying to push you to 5:45. Reward their consideration by being polite. And if you're going to be a no-show? Call, or prepare to be blacklisted.

Come well before the kitchen closes and leave in a timely fashion. Rolling in five minutes before the chef shuts the oven down is like giving the kitchen the finger. Ordering three courses at that point is like peeing on the front steps. If you're literally about to starve to death, at least call ahead. And when it comes to closing, I've got news for you: Unless you're honestly being begged to stay by a member of the staff who you know well enough to text message, no one wants you to linger, no matter how much the servers fake smile and say in their cheery waiter voices that they're happy to have you. They probably have nothing against you, they'd just rather you get out so they can finish their work. Oblige, and they'll be grateful, willing to let you get to the intimate text messaging level required for them to do their work around you and let you nurse your drink long past the hour of the locked door.

Send beer to the kitchen. Instant baller status can be purchased, and all it costs is the price of a six-pack of PBR. Kitchen guys don't often get the love, and styling them out with beer--or a round of tequila shots--is a surefire way to win over their culinary hearts.

Tip right. This isn't rocket science. Servers take care of those who take care of them. As a blanket rule, I'd never go less than 20 percent, unless your service was horrendous (you're probably not going back if that's the case, anyway, so what do you care?). But what a lot of diners miss is the rules with freebies: If you get sent something for free by a server, consider it a friendly head nod, and make sure you tip on it. This is tit for tat. Your generosity will be remembered.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk