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Turning the Tables

Learn about restaurants from the inside out in Steven Shaw's new book

Thomas Matthews
Posted: July 29, 2005

For too many restaurant reviewers, restaurants are the enemy.

These critics use false names, disguises, phony credit cards. Ostensibly, they want to avoid being pampered. In truth, they're lying in ambush. When a server is clueless or arrogant, or a dish is flawed, or some other aspect of the dining experience falls short of perfection, a nasty review exposes the ugly truth: This is what happens to the "average" customer.

In Turning the Tables, Steven A. Shaw takes a refreshingly different approach. He knows that restaurants are run by human beings, who have good days and bad days, and that good customers tend to bring out the best in them. Shaw's goal is to teach "average" customers how to earn VIP treatment, simply by knowing how restaurants work, and by working with them to get the best dining experience possible.

Start by learning the names of the maitre d', the server and the sommelier, Shaw advises, and make sure they know yours. Learn what the restaurant does best, rather than asking for something it doesn't do well, or at all. When mistakes are made, speak up promptly, but don't direct your anger at the wrong target: If the kitchen gets backed up, the long wait for your dish is not your server's fault. Give praise where it's due; tip generously; return frequently. With a little effort, you'll become a friend of the house, and the VIP treatment you receive will be earned, and genuine.

I've spent a lot of time in restaurants, and I can testify that Shaw's advice works. At 16, I worked as a busboy in a supper club that featured a burlesque show. The waitresses were funnier than the comedians (and kept me so busy I hardly had time to watch the strippers). I've been a waiter, a kitchen runner and a bartender. When a customer is nice to the server, the service gets better. That's not an injustice, it's human nature.

A restaurant reviewer's responsibility is to evaluate the baseline. I was at a fancy midtown restaurant for lunch not long ago and saw that the day's amuse bouche was a dollop of salmon mousse on puff pastry, garnished with salmon caviar. Then Henry Kissinger was seated at the table next to me. His amuse was a crab cake the size of a hockey puck, with a ladleful of what appeared to be Beluga caviar on it. Next came my amuse: two crab cakes, two ladlefuls of Beluga. It was fun to watch Kissinger's amazement.

Was this standard treatment? Of course not. Did it affect my evaluation of the restaurant? I don't think so, except to understand that the owners would go to great lengths to please customers considered important. I believe that's much more common than restaurants trying to cheat customers considered unimportant. That's Shaw's conclusion, too, and if his book only convinced readers on that one point, it would serve a valuable purpose.

But Turning the Tables doesn't stop there. Shaw emulates George Plimpton (who wrote about brief escapades as a boxer, baseball player, etc.), working a few shifts in restaurant dining rooms and kitchens to understand what happens behind the scenes. His amiable, clumsy persona helps throw into sharp focus the impressive skills of the real professionals.

Shaw's book wanders a bit as he explores various aspects of the restaurant industry. I most enjoyed his visits with restaurateurs, from Gray Kunz at the high-end Café Gray in New York to Ed Mitchell at the down-home Mitchell's Ribs Chicken & BBQ in Wilson, N.C. The tone is relentlessly positive, but then, why would he publicize people whose work he didn't admire?

The sharpest criticism is aimed at the critics. Shaw judges Zagat and Michelin and finds both wanting. He targets a number of reviewers by name (though he does have some kind words for Wine Spectator). Shaw saves his warmest praise for a Web-based food-centered forum called eGullet—which, we learn, he founded in 2001. I am a regular reader of eGullet and often find it instructive and entertaining. But like many Web communities, it develops its own biases, heroes and villains, and tends to reinforce its own prejudices. Shaw's book is evidence enough that the best guide to any experience is often an educated writer with a passionate point of view.

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Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out
By Steven A. Shaw (HarperCollins, 192 pages, $24.95)

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