Although dining out may sometimes seem fraught with frustrations-getting through on the phone, securing a reservation when you want it, dealing with a staff not always on its game, finding a reasonably priced wine and paying for it all-an evening out should be a joyous, delicious experience. In fact, I truly believe that the overwhelming majority of restaurateurs and their staffs seek nothing but your happiness, so that you will return again and again and tell others about the wonderful time you had. Sometimes, however, that isn't the case.
Getting and giving good service is a matter of rapport, not one of angling for advantage. Problems, both real and imagined, can often be explained in the infamous words thrust upon Cool Hand Luke: "What we've got here is failure to communicate." Too often people go into restaurants anticipating slights and prepping for confrontation. Some, I believe, go looking for them. I once was seated at a corner table at New York's '21' Club when a woman not three inches from me at the next table barked, "Well, who are you to get that table? This is the last time I come here!" When I offered to exchange tables with her, she sniffed, "No, thank you. The damage is already done."
A basic strategy for getting good service is to behave like a civilized person, not like a celebrity or an orange-haired real estate developer. Proper behavior on the customer's part helps ensure a positive response from the waitstaff. Always remember, a good waiter is looking for good tips, and most waiters do a very good job in a tough profession to earn them.
Here are a few suggestions:
Become a Regular
Absolutely the best way to get great service is to frequent a restaurant and let the owner and manager know it. Restaurants depend mightily on their regulars, whose desires and eccentricities become well-known to the staff.
One regular at New York's Four Seasons, ad exec Ned Doyle, once told owner Alex von Bidder, "Don't ever show me a check, because I would never eat in this goddamn place if I knew what it cost." Regulars are treated with the same deference as celebrities. A first-timer shouldn't expect to be fawned over like Cameron Diaz or Tom Brokaw. Eat there once a week and you will be.
While just about every dress code has been tossed aside-under duress from smart-aleck boors contending their Armani blue jeans cost more than most guys' blazers-it's well worth your while to accede to whatever guidelines a restaurant might reasonably set. If jackets and ties are "preferred" or "suggested," you're being signaled that most men in the room will be so attired. In other words, showing up looking like Adam Sandler on location is not going to get you the best table or the best service. (Unless, of course, you're Adam Sandler.) And if your captain or waiter is better dressed than you, just what kind of respect can you expect?
Always Make and Honor a Reservation
Even if you know a restaurant won't be close to full on a Tuesday night, you'll make the restaurateur very happy by letting him know you have chosen to dine at his establishment that evening. A name in the book is an interested party to be won over and given extra good service. Also at that time, express any personal desires, needs or restrictions, from air-conditioning concerns and food allergies to wanting a quiet table. Ask the name of the person taking your reservation, end your conversation by thanking him or her by name, and, if there is a problem when you arrive, seek that person out. At that point, reiterate your requests. And show up on time, or at least call if you'll be late. You can't imagine how helpful this is to a host trying to seat people at peak times.
Work With the Wine Guy
More and more restaurants have sommeliers, but most servers have only rudimentary training in wine service. (Happily, I now find that American waiters have an overall better grasp on wine than their European counterparts do.) You will have to gauge whether the server knows the list or not: Overhearing "Excellent choice, sir!" at every table is a dead giveaway that he does not.
A sommelier is there to help, not to dictate, so if you do have questions about a particular wine to go with your food, take advantage of his expertise. Also, let him know what you're willing to spend on a bottle. Believe me, good sommeliers are delighted when they find wonderful wines they can sell at good prices.
When shown the label, inspect it quickly to make sure that the vintage and vineyard designation match what you ordered, and if anything is awry, this is the time to ask, not after you've drunk half the bottle or seen the bill. The first taste should be carefully poured to whomever ordered the wine, and, if you wish to pour your own from then on, tell the server so. He or she should, of course, be attentive to each table's need for a refill, but a sommelier can get distracted when guests showing off their wine knowledge engage him in conversation for 10 minutes. Likewise, some impassioned sommeliers can spend too much time going on about the wine they are serving at another table while ignoring yours.
I find that in a good restaurant a mere glance at a server and a slight indication with two fingers that my glass needs to be refilled is sufficient to get attention. I learned the two-finger rule at Disneyworld, where all employees point with two fingers, because one finger looks rude. Interesting, and true.
A lot can go wrong in restaurants, and long waits for food and wine can become frustrating. Do not start waving your hands and rolling your eyes. Arching an eyebrow, making eye contact and beckoning the waiter by raising two fingers to cheek level should bring him over pronto. If you still have trouble, ask to see the manager, whose job it is to keep everyone calm and happy. Be discreet enough not to ask the busboy to help remedy such problems.
Of course, surly service (which some customers seem to thrive on) is never acceptable, whether at a renowned macho steak house where they pay no attention to reservation times or at a dim sum house in Chinatown where no one speaks English. But then, you know better than to expect three-star service at such places anyway. Base your expectations on reasonable service and they will probably be met.
It is very strange to me that the same tycoon who would think nothing of closing down an auto factory in the morning allows himself to be intimidated by a restaurant worker in the evening. This tycoon tips lavishly, lest he be thought cheap-even if he has no desire ever to return to that restaurant. Fifteen percent has been creeping up to 20 percent for minimally good service these days, even among Americans in Europe, where the service charge is included! If you wish to register your displeasure with service, a low tip will do it with telling force, backed up by notice to the manager or maître d' on the way out. If on the other hand you want to show your appreciation for good service, a baseline of 15 percent is standard. Servers are dependent on tips to make a living-their wages tend to be set low with this in mind. Most restaurant workers are mindful of the fact that you will be making a contribution to their salary, and will treat you accordingly. Sometimes they go the extra mile-tastes of wines you asked about but didn't order, or arranging your special request of the kitchen-and you should respond in kind when the bill comes. After all, dining out is an exchange of goods and services for cold, hard plastic. You've paid for the goods; if the service is commendable tell a manager so, and thank the waiter on your way out and with your tip.
Mind Your Manners
It is very important to learn the dining customs of other countries: You'll be treated better, and you won't ruin it for the rest of us. For instance:
Of course, you can take all the advice I just gave and stick it in a cocked hat if you plan to throw money around big time. Take for example the late "plumbing contractor" John "The Dapper Don" Gotti who reputedly tipped an amount equal to his restaurant bill. Boy oh boy, did he ever get good service!
Contributing editor John Mariani has been writing for Wine Spectator since 1993.