Visiting a restaurant has several steps. One of the first is to find a parking space. If you have a handicapped sticker for your car, you’ll have no problem. Most restaurants have twice as many handicapped spaces as they ever need. Researchers tell us that on April 20, 1997, at a Denny’s in Harrisburg, Pa., all the handicapped parking slots were filled. This is the only time in restaurant history this has happened.
Another aspect of dining out is to discover that all restaurant greeters know how to count. As you and your date enter, the greeter smiles, inspects you and says, “Two?” If you are with a party of four, he/she looks at your group and says, “Party of four?” All my life I have wanted to reply, “Yes, but we have 16 friends arriving in half an hour. They’ll be roaring drunk and riding polo ponies,” just to see what the greeter might say. But, coward that I am, I always remain silent and go to my designated seat.
Don’t be afraid to state your choice of a table or a booth. A table seat exposes you to the stares of other diners, but it gives you a better chance to watch the TV screen instead of facing your unshaven, yawning husband for the next hour. A booth is more physically intimate, but it increases the odds of your having to listen to the Texan in the next booth regale his buddies with the story about the red-headed pole dancer in Waco, as he (the Texan) bounces his 265-pound body against the back of your seat just as you ingest the first spoonful of your clam chowder.
Next, your server will arrive with menus and an introduction. “My name is Andrew (or Elaine) and I’ll be your server today. Can I offer you a drink, to start with?” If you’re hung over or have lots of money you should order a drink. It will settle your nerves, but will cost you anywhere from five to fifteen bucks. In the 1960s, when I quit drinking, you could buy a beer for a dollar and a martini for two dollars. No more. But today if you don’t immediately order an alcoholic beverage, your server may disappear for 15 minutes, as he/she attends to drinking customers who will probably be bigger tippers than pinchy-faced teetotalers (that’s you.)
Studying the menu is a critical part of the restaurant adventure. The typical menu gives as many as 1,822 choices, grouped in categories that may include starters, steaks, salads, chicken, fish, pasta, vegan, seniors, Mexican, desserts, side dishes, Weight Watchers, and sushi.
The latest trend in many restaurants lets you choose two or three different entrees, instead of just one. This encourages the customer to believe that the new list price ($16) for the selections is a bargain. It’s not. It’s an inflationary scam meant to screw the customer.
When two or more diners are seated, they give up their original identity such as Joe Jones and wife or the hospital luncheon group. They immediately become “you guys.” That’s how almost every server in the USA refers to his/her customers. “Are you guys ready to order? I have some great recommendations for you guys.” I’m not sure how the you-guys custom started, but it’s harmless and quite democratic – even an all-female table of customers is known as you guys.
Another common practice is for restaurants to serve customers twice as much food as they can eat. That’s because food is the smallest expense the owner will bear. If you dine out several times a week and eat everything you are served, you will die six years earlier than you otherwise might have.
It’s important to be kind to your server. She (or he) is pursuing one of the toughest, lowest-paid occupations known. If your food is slow in coming, or is not prepared as well as it could be, it’s seldom your server’s fault. The defect is usually in the kitchen or in the office of the owner, who has hired three fewer servers than the restaurant should have. You should routinely tip the server at least 20 percent of the bill. If you are on a tight budget, skip ordering coffee or iced tea (at $2.50 a glass) and add the savings to the tip.
Avoid noisy restaurants. If you cannot easily hear what your dinner companion is saying, you are in the wrong place. If the restaurant requires its servers to drop everything and go sing happy birthday to a customer, leave the restaurant at once and never go back.
These are only a few suggestions. If you agree with all of them, I’d be surprised.