Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reggie's Rules for Dining in Better Restaurants, Part I

While there may be some on the blogosphere who claim that a gentleman doesn't dine in restaurants, it is Reggie's view that a fellow needn't be the opposite of one if he enjoys doing so.  Although Reggie has the good fortune to be a member of one of New York's venerable clubs where he is able to dine excellently whenever he so chooses, he believes that life would be far less enjoyable indeed if he were to confine his gustatory pleasures to only within such walls when venturing beyond the sanctity of his own dining room, or those of his entertaining friends.

Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

As readers of this blog well know, Reggie regularly eats out with pleasure in New York City's restaurants, and has reviewed a number of them here on this blog.  He believes that one of the great pleasures of living in New York is the access it provides to excellent, varied, and superb restaurants, and he believes that refraining from going to them would be silliness indeed.  He's working on a number of additional restaurant reviews at this time that he looks forward to posting for his readers' delectation in the not-too-distant future.

Fewer restaurants provide table-side service these days,
but it is such a pleasure when they do

In the meantime, I thought it would be helpful, Dear Reader, if I were to outline my basic rules for dining in what I call "better" restaurants, which is the type of restaurant I (mostly) choose to frequent these days when out for an evening in New York (or elsewhere, for that matter).  I have divided my essay into two parts: the first focuses on the primary, or most important, rules for doing so, and the second outlines additional rules of a more miscellaneous nature.  I may even add a third one, if I feel it appropriate to do so.

Reggie's Rules for Dining in Better Restaurants, Part I

1.  Dress appropriately for the establishment

It may be fine to wear cargo shorts and a tee shirt to a quick gobble at a pizza parlor or the Olive Garden (a "casual dining" restaurant chain that Reggie has never eaten in, but is familiar with from having seen their impossibly cheery commercials on television), but it is not at all appropriate, in his view, to wear such an outfit to what I call "better restaurants," namely those where the food is superior to the run-of-the-mill, the rooms are carefully and (sometimes) expensively decorated, the tables are covered with cloths, and the maître d' is dressed in a suit, or an approximation of same.

One should dress appropriately when dining in "better" restaurants,
such as at the Four Seasons on Park Avenue

Reggie is routinely shocked at what he sees people showing up wearing at such restaurants these days, and dismayed that the miscreants who do so are rarely turned away by management, despite said diners' brazen flouting of the establishment's (oftentimes) published dress codes.  Reggie firmly believes that if one is going to a "better" restaurant one should wear "better" clothes to do so, both out of respect for the establishment and for the sensibilities of the other diners who have made the effort to dress appropriately.

2.  When shown to your table, if you are not satisfied with its location it is in your right to request to be seated elsewhere

Sometimes a restaurant's maître d' will initially show diners to a room's less desirable tables, hoping that they can fill them before surrendering the room's better-placed, or more desirable tables.  While Reggie is sympathetic to the desire to spread diners throughout a restaurant's rooms, he believes one needn't accept a table located next to the kitchen's swinging doors or a busy serving station, simply because that is what one is first offered.  It is more than acceptable, in his view, when shown to such a table to nicely ask to be seated instead at a different table, if one is available.  All one need say is, "I would prefer to have a table over there, if possible, please," and nod in the direction of where one would like to be seated.  You may not get the exact table you wish for, but odds are high that you will at least be seated at a better table than what you have initially been offered.

3.  If the restaurant's tables are packed together, it is appropriate to acknowledge the diners on either side of you

Popular New York restaurants often jam their tables close together, with diners at neighboring tables sitting cheek to jowl.  If you should find yourself being seated in such a restaurant, it is basic good manners to acknowledge the diners at the tables on either side of yours, particularly if you have to "excuse me" your way between the tables to reach your seat.  A simple "Good evening" will do.

4.  Be polite and pleasant to the staff

Once you have been seated, have good manners and acknowledge your servers as they go about their business of attending to you, since they are human beings and have feelings, too.  Do thank the person who takes your order and delivers your food, and also the busboy when he pours your water or removes your plate at the end of the meal.  You needn't go overboard in doing it, but you shouldn't ignore them, either.

A well run restaurant, such as Swifty's on Manhattan's UES,
is staffed with professionals trained to serve you expertly 

If your server appears to be somewhat over-familiar with you, and asks a few too many questions along the lines of "How are we doing tonight?" it is appropriate to respond "Well, thank you," and leave it at that.  You needn't feel compelled to ask them how they are "doing" or engage in exchanging names with them, at least if you are not so inclined.  Do be polite, however.

5.  When seeking the attention of the staff, do not make a show of impatiently waving your hand or—God forbid—snapping your fingers

Such activity is vulgar and is to be avoided, and is a decided disincentive to the person whose attention you are seeking to come to your assistance.  Simply raising your hand and making eye contact is usually sufficient to draw the attention of a restaurant's staff.  On the other hand, if you feel you are being egregiously ignored, for whatever reason, it is in your right to (discretely) bring it to the maître d's attention, so that they can remedy the situation.

6.  If the food you ordered is cooked improperly, it is in your right to send it back to be remedied

A restaurant's management would rather you be a satisfied customer than a disappointed one, as satisfied customers are repeat customers and disappointed ones are not.  So, if you ordered your salmon cooked "medium," and it is delivered to you either undercooked or overdone, do not hesitate to (nicely) send it back to have it cooked the way you asked for it (or replaced with one that is).  That does not mean you have license to be persnickety, or unreasonable, or difficult about it—just politely ask that the food you ordered be cooked the way you requested it (and are, incidentally, paying to have provided to you).  The same goes for a bottle of wine—it is appropriate to send a bottle back if it is "off," but it is not acceptable to send it back simply because after tasting it you don't care for the vintage.

7.  Do not speak loudly or use vulgar language, don't fight, and do not engage in conversations that are insulting to those near enough to hear what you are saying

You are not sitting in a cone of silence.  Respect the fact that the people within earshot are paying to spend a pleasant evening out, and listening to their fellow diners' foul language, squabbles, or less-than-flattering commentary is not part of what they have signed on for.  Keep a lid on it when out in public, please, and confine such unbecoming chatter to when and where you don't have an audience of strangers forced to listen to it.

A restaurant is not the proper venue to engage in fisticuffs

Now, Reggie admits that there are certain, very rare instances when it is permissible to take off one's gloves in public and really let one's dinner companion have it, audience be damned.  But Reggie believes that one should be extremely selective when doing so, and that one should only do it when one has been most shockingly and violently provoked.  It should be reserved only for those once-in-a-lifetime situations where one's dinner companion has (for whatever reason) insultingly and maliciously crossed a line with you that must never be violated, where there is simply no going back.  But only then.  Reggie is, in fact, working on a post about just such a confrontation that he once had (rather spectacularly) in a restaurant more than a decade ago, that he looks forward to sharing with you, Dear Reader, one day.

Now, getting back to the subject at hand . . .

8.  Do not allow the waiter or busboy to remove your plate until everyone else at the table has also finished eating

Many restaurants attempt to clear a diner's plate as soon as he (or she) has finished eating, even though there may be others at the table who have not yet finished.  This practice is to be discouraged, regardless of the establishment's intentions or general practices.  Reggie firmly believes that plates should only be allowed to be removed when everyone at the table has finished the course at hand.

The proper knife and fork placement for signifying
that one has not yet finished eating, and that
it is not yet appropriate to clear the plate from the table

Just so there should be no confusion in the matter, Reggie advises that when one has finished eating and others at the table are still eating, one should (a) be careful to place one's utensils on one's plate in such a manner that it is clear that one has not yet finished, and (b) if the waiter or busboy attempts to remove the plate anyway, then one should politely inform them that one has not yet finished, and only allow them to remove the plate once everyone else at the table has also finished.  It is only after all of the diners at the table have finished eating that it is appropriate to arrange one's silver in the four o'clock position signifying that one is ready to have one's plate taken away.

The proper knife and fork placement for signifying
that one has finished eating, and that it
is now appropriate to clear the plate from the table

The point here is that it is up to the diners to dictate to the waiter or busboy when it is appropriate to clear plates from the table, and not the other way around.

9.  Tip appropriately, with the general rule of thumb being 15%-20%, and higher if service has been exemplary

Restaurants in New York City charge a combined city and state sales tax of 8 ⁷⁄₈%.  When determining the proper amount to tip in the city's restaurants, most diners simply double the sales tax as a tip, which is an appropriately generous payout rate of 17 ¾%.  When service is better than average, though, rounding the tip up to 20% is merited, and if the service has been truly exceptional, well, then sometimes paying as much as 25% is justified.

Next: Reggie's restaurant rules pertaining to children, the use of electronic devices, doggy bags, and when one should call ahead . . .


Photographs of restaurant interiors from LIFE Images and Google Images; photographs of cutlery and plates by Reggie Darling  

27 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Dear Mr. Darling,

    I wholeheartedly agree with all of the excellent points you highlight in your essay. Dining out is one of the greatest pleasures I derive from living in San Francisco, which has its fair share of excellent dining establishments. As a follow on to Point 8 (where one's plate should only be removed when everyone at table has finished their meal), I'd also like to add that I firmly believe that the check for one's meal never arrive before one asks for it, EVER! Although, this rarely happens at "better" restaurants I've had the pleasure to frequent, it has been known to happen at least once to my horror.

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  3. Good Morning, Reggie. As I would expect, you are absolutely on the mark. Number eight, the removal of plates before everyone at table is finished, is a particular dislike of mine.

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  4. Excellent Reggie. I always feel when the server wants to clear the plates early, we are being rushed and then the other diner(s) feel hurried.

    I won't even start on the dress attire I have seen!

    xoxo
    Karena
    Art by Karena

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  5. Excellent post. I especially like the knife and fork placement signals.

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  6. I think these rules will serve well in any restaurant, not just the more formal/elegant ones. A little courtesy goes a long way to making the experience more pleasant for everyone. Looking forward to more in this series.

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  7. Reggie, I could not be more in agreement. I am surprised at the number of restaurants that take plates away as soon as an individual is finished, perhaps assuming that is a sign of good service. As I am a slow eater - and talker - I am often the last finished, so it has been difficult to keep all the other plates in the table.

    You might be amused by a dear former client who always discreetly signaled to be directly led to the "worst" available table when dining out with his wife. She always refused the first table offered, no matter what, so it allowed the husband to then suggest the table he actually wanted in the first place.

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  8. Wow hard to follow up the comment from Laurent, but... Maybe Reggie could include a sentence or two on the placement of one's napkin at the end of the meal- I am constantly amazed to see the creative things diners do with their napkins- A big wad in the center of the table, a wad in the center of the plate or my favorite , which never grows old, unfolded and draped over the plate giving the impression that something has died on the plate and one is waiting for the coroner-

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  9. My biggest peeve is wait-staff, and I am referring to staff of mid-range places, who ask if you're still "working" on that... I am sorry, I don't work on my food, thanks.

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  10. Incredibly salient points and rules from top of list to the bottom...particularly rule about dressing appropriately and treating staff with courtesy.
    Another great post Sir!~

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  11. Come to think of it, this set of rules, especially as stated, is a good idea for all restaurants.

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  12. Laurent, methinks you're trying too hard.

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  13. A friend, delightful in many ways, but hell to dine out with, was just here for a visit. I try to avoid dining out with him at all costs, but he was insistent that we must, to repay my hospitality. When out with this friend, I make a point of having a few extra bills in my pocket to sneak onto the table ('oh, I've forgotten my jacket, I must go back and get it') because it is such a point of honor with him to figure out as small a tip as possible. If karmic retribution is a real thing, at least I can take comfort in knowing that he will come back as a waiter in his next life.

    I always smile as I place my flatware appropriately to my stage of completion, knowing that not one waiter in twenty, in any level of establishment even has a clue that it means anything---but nice try.

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  14. Couldn't agree with you more although I would guess that there are busboys and perhaps waiters in even the nicer establishments who wouldn't recognize the significance of the cutlery symbols in number 8! Can't tell you how many times my plate has attempted to be removed prematurely!!

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  15. Elizabeth Post is no longer with us, Reggie, and there are no good books of etiquette; you should write one.

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  16. I especially like the knife and fork placement signals. Great post!

    Year Old Birthday Party Ideas

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  17. I've always cherished your hospitality to insult.

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  18. LizaE: Thank you for your comment. Yes, one of the objections that one has when plates are removed before all are finished eating is that it gives the appearance to those who have not of being rushed, which is unpleasant indeed. And to add insult of a too-eager presentation of one's bill to that injury is too much to tolerate, as you rightly point out. Thank you.

    Stephanie: Your are correct: one should be courteous and expect courtesy wherever one is, whether lofty or low. Manners know no boundaries. Or at least shouldn't! Thank you.

    TDC: Thank you for the amusing story of your client. It sounds like he knew his wife well, and understood how to turn what some would find a maddening habit of hers to his advantage.

    Thomas: Thank you for your question. When dining in restaurants (or other public establishments, such as one's club) at the end of the meal one leaves one's napkin on the table to the left of one's plate (if it has not yet been cleared) or at one's place (if it has). The napkin should not be folded, but rather left undone (but not in a wad or a ball as you note). When dining in one's or others' houses (i.e., privately) one leaves one's napkin on the table, as above, but folded, rather than loose. That is, unless one is drunk, and then one can't really remember how one left it, or recall how it is that said napkin wound up in one's pocket the next morning!

    Pigtown Design: Yes, that is maddening, isn't it?

    Parnassas: Yes, I agree--as does Stephanie as you will note.

    Anon 5:17: I believe you may be referring to Laurent's initial comment, since (sadly) removed by the author. Laurent is one of the more interesting and erudite voices on the blogosphere, where he graces his readers with his named authorship, unlike those who leave snarky comments under the veil of anonymity.

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  19. DED: It is maddening to dine with friends who are stingey (sp?) when it comes time to split a bill or when tipping. It is, in fact, a personal pet peeve of mine, since I am (usually) the one who ends up making up the shortfall. When I once confronted an acquaintance of mine why he did not put in his fair share when it came time to divvy up a bill, he said he didn't do so because he didn't find the meal "worth it." Needless to say those of us at the table (this is when I was young and went out to eat with a gang of friends) shouted at him and made him cough up the extra couple of dollars, which he did so reluctantly and complainingly!

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  20. Quintessence: Yes, as you and DED note, it is a rare busboy indeed who understands the differences that one's cutlery placement means, or is intended to convey. That is why I added point (b) which is to inform such person when they (still) attempt to remove one's plate that one has not yet finished (even though it is obvious that one has), to prevent them from doing so. It is even more maddening, though, when they come back several more times to attempt to remove one's plate before the rest of the table has finished eating!

    Anon 10:06: Thank you, the thought has crossed my mind...until I acknowledge to myself in the cold light of day that I would be lucky if even three people would buy it.

    Laurent: Not exactly sure what you mean by this comment (and I am saddened you felt compelled to remove your initial one), but my intention was anything but an insulting one. My apologies if it has been taken that way, sir.

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  21. I love the part about appropriate clothes. You used to be able to say, "Something you would wear to church is fine for a nice restaurant," but as I have seen cargo shorts, pajama bottoms, and Crocs at Mass (God might not care, but I do), that advice no longer applies.

    I would also add, although your readers would never be caught dead doing this, that texting, talking on the cellphone, or otherwise engaging in electronic communication while at the table is rather rude.

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  22. I agree with all of these rules. I was dining at a better restaurants last week with some friends and family. I looked down the table to add to the conversation, then turned back to my plate to finish my food only to see that it had been removed by a very, very quiet busboy.

    It is annoying when the staff try to remove empty plates before everyone is finished with their meal, it is just plain wrong to remove a plate that still has food on it! I've decided that that particular busboy should be required to wear bells.

    Count me as 1 of the 3 who would buy your etiquette book if you wrote it, but I would buy at least 3 copies!

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  23. Christopher SpitzmillerDecember 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM

    This is really a very good post. I especially, like the part about being kind and curious to the staff. There is nothing worse than showing poor class, by talking down to a waiter. Every person in this world is important. I also agree with the part about wearing the right cloths. Manors these days are rarer and rarer to find. Thanks!

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  24. I adored this post! It drives me insane when waiters remove plates when everyone isn't finished. And I get so upset when my husband doesn't stop them! I am forwarding this to him right now!!

    and the Clothes......Lord have mercy!

    We are living in "Inner Slobbovia"; or "Outer Slobbovia" predicted 60 years ago by Al Capp! He was the author of the wonderful comic strip "Li'l Abner!

    People wearing cargo shorts, athletic shoes and flip flops out to dinner in lovely restaurants! And baseball hats on backwards!!!
    It makes me want to scream and cause a scene; but Reggie says no.

    What Al Capp really was ,was a sociologist! Or cultural anthropologist! He seriously nailed so many archetypes. Slobbovia is now where we all live!

    Here is a new low: at the beautiful little Episcopal Church in Montecito; some children of acquaintances were dressed in t-shirts, flip flops, and shorts!!! On Christmas eve!!! (and they were not even clean!!!)

    Someone commented on these children; and another acquaintance said..."Oh, those kids are 'feral'!!!"

    It is so clearly the parents' fault; I actually feel sorry for the children; but no one will for long as they grow up!

    Dreadful!!! No standards, no respect!

    I sound like my Grandmother! "the world is going to hell in a hand basket!"
    Reggie!! Keep it up! I will buy 300 of your books!

    ps thanks for the flatware code........I am going to pass that around! I am printing it out for our club manager.

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  25. I was a student ambassador when attending university and we had to learn a lot of etiquette rules. There is one I can't quite remember nor can I find anywhere: what is the proper placement of cutlery if one is dissatisfied with the service? Maybe upside-down and crossed? Any info on this?
    Thanks- Paige in Louisville, Kentucky

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  26. Reggie, this post was such a pleasure. You probably won't even notice the comment, it's so old--but I had to say thanks. It brings back memories of dining out with loved ones in fine establishments with good service... But it also recalls, equally, times when service has been appalling. I don't mean little crusty neighborhood joints--I find those tend to be at least good-humored and well-intentioned, if not up to (or interested in) etiquette--and really that's all one needs; at base etiquette is just an approximation of good intentions.

    What's terrible, really, is hopped-up "fine dining" in mediocre hotel restaurants or on cruises, where snooty waiters make a show of correcting diners (!) on how their silverware should be placed, or on the pronunciation of drinks or food. Good grief. If it weren't for my beloved but increasingly geriatric grandparents (who are excessively fond of both cruises and bad hotel restaurants), I'd happily never set foot in either again. I wish I could make every "fine dining" waiter read it, in the hope that they stop volunteering condescending misinformation.

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    1. Hello Magpie: Thank you for your comment. There is little worse than a condescending waiter. The misery of enduring one can ruin an otherwise (mostly) pleasant evening! I find that one has the last laugh, however, when it comes time to tip them. Also, a pointed critique of said waiter to the maitre 'd is not out of place. Rgds, Reggie

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