Ten Rules for Hassle-Free Dining
in New York City
by John Kenrick
"How dare that damn maitre'd make such a fuss just because we didn't have a reservation," the woman exclaimed as she took a seat behind me at a performance of 42nd Street. "Who was he to tell us we should have called?" Her husband added loudly, "Its not like they didn't have empty tables. Thanks to him, we had to go wolf down burgers at that dump down the block, where the waiter had the nerve to complain about the tip. When I waited tables in college, I took whatever I could get."
If the house lights had not gone down, I might have offered these two self-righteous "thirty-somethings" a few home truths. And no, they were not on fixed incomes; they were in town for a medical conference. (I know because they loudly bitched about that during intermission!)
As a former restaurant manager and lifelong food lover, I have seen the dining experience from both sides of the menu. While I am the first to admit that some waiters and restaurant owners have attitude problems, I believe that most diners who have trouble in restaurants bring it on themselves. It doesn't have to be that way! Here are ten basic pointers that can make eating more pleasurable, particularly pre-theater dining in Manhattan. However, I find these rules work equally well most anywhere.
1. Make a Reservation - You would not believe how many people fail to grasp this concept. Some of the same people who reserve theatre seats months in advance expect to waltz into any busy restaurant and grab a prime table without warning. Be sensible! Popular eateries need to be called several weeks in advance, but a same day call can often secure something at one of the quieter mid-Manhattan bistros. Either way, you are better off making a call and sparing yourself the disappointment of being turned away on a busy night. Reservations are almost always free. (Some restaurants have been so burned by no-shows that they require a credit card number to guarantee reservations on busy nights, and I can't blame them.)
Another good reason to call ahead in a town where restaurants come and go with amazing speed, it is wise to verify that a restaurant is still in business. Don't laugh! I have even seen savvy theatre critics caught off guard when a favorite eatery closed without fanfare.
If you've grab theater tickets on the spur of the moment and don't have a reservation, you still have plenty of options. Try a restaurant before the rush begins. Some places may be able to accommodate you before their reservation list kicks in, and restaurants that do not take reservations are often easy to get into before 1 PM for lunch, 6PM for dinner. If things in the theatre district get crowded, the lesser-known midtown restaurants a block or so Westward on Ninth Avenue offer pleasant, economical dining (see #6 below).
2. Show Up a Bit Early - In a world where celebrities and regular customers get special treatment, no reservation is iron-clad. It never hurts to show up ten minutes before your appointed time. This usually prevents anyone "bumping" your reservation into oblivion. If you are delayed, call and let the manager know directly. But be reasonable. A busy eatery cannot be expected to hold your table for a half hour or more.
3. Let 'Em Know You're Seeing a Show - When making reservations (and when you first greet your wait person) make a point of mentioning that you have a show to catch -- it never hurts to clarify your needs. Most waiters will make a point of getting you on your way in time for the first curtain.
4. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables? - A table that looks empty to you may be reserved. If your party of two wants a table that seats four, don't get upset if the manger refuses making optimal use of limited space is part of a manager's job.
5. Courtesy Beats Intimidation - You don't need to tip a manager in order to get a good table. In fact, many managers now consider it an insult if you wave money at them the moment you arrive. On the other hand, a smile and a polite word never hurt, and charm is sure to get you further than pulling an attitude. Bellicose statements like "You obviously do NOT know who I am," pave the road to restaurant hell.
Please don't stoop to lying about who you know. When I worked at the old Russian Tea Room, one loudmouth showed up with no reservation on a packed night and tried to get a table by proclaiming to the woman at the door that he was great friends with the owner. He didn't realize that the woman he was yelling at was the owner. Yes, he eventually got a table, but not until he made himself look ridiculous in front of his wife and friends.
Have you ever noticed how often customers speak at waiters without ever really looking at them? Be a human being and speak to your server -- a little human interaction goes a long way. The waiter you are kind to is more likely to be kind to you, so do like momma taught you and play nice!
If your waiter is one of those rare, resolutely rude specimens, be nice anyway, and remember that an insulting tip is the best revenge. Some friends and I once had a nasty waiter who got our orders wrong and treated us with obvious contempt -- like we were responsible for his unhappy life? We left a 25 cent tip, and when the fool chased us to the front door to complain, the restaurant's owner got into the discussion. Our polite explanation of the tip left the waiter looking like the creep that he was -- and we were invited back for a free meal, with management's apologies.
6. Have Back-Up Dining Choices - When delays are unavoidable or you get tickets at the last minute, it is useful to know a few decent midtown eateries that do not require reservations. A few blocks West of Times Square on 9th and 10th Avenues, you will find dozens of good neighborhood restaurants where reservations are usually not an issue. You can expect the food and prices to be appealing, and your business will be appreciated.
7. Complain Politely - Did you ever make a mistake on your job? Well, so does every other human being, including cooks and wait staff. If something is not right, don't take it personally. A discreet word to your wait person will usually lead to a satisfying resolution. If not, speak politely but firmly to the manager. If that fails to get things on track, do not humiliate yourself by making a scene. Get the owner's name and contact info, and write a letter. Yes, it almost always works -- and how! I have seen written complaints set off genuine uproars in both large and small restaurants, and sensible owners will usually go out of their way to make things up to you.
There are times when it pays to be creative. In a packed French restaurant, a friend and I once found some parchment stuck in our frozen deserts -- such paper is often used in storing food. My companion courteously explained the problem to our waitress in French. She uttered a classic French expletive (winning a laugh), swiftly replaced our desserts, and the appreciative manager treated us to a complimentary round of cognac.
8. Get Your Power Trips Elsewhere - All too often, diners take out their frustrations on wait staff and managers. Restaurant employees are there to serve you a meal, not to take abuse. If you need a power fix, stay home, order delivery, and play a violent computer game on the "beginner" setting.
9. Drink Moderately - You've probably heard of "road rage " and "air rage"? Well, the media should start discussing "restaurant rage" when customers literally go berserk in eateries for little or no reason. Like its namesakes, this usually occurs after a customer has had (surprise, surprise) a drink or two. Mind you, plenty of people are jerks when stone cold sober, but alcohol turns them into first class asses. By all means, enjoy a cocktail or some good wine with your meal, but know your limits. If nothing else, it is crazy to pay good money for Broadway tickets and then get so bombed that you'll never remember the show.
When I worked at the old Russian Tea Room, a customer who was treating a table full of friends downed one too many vodkas. When his credit card company refused to accept the charge, he went ballistic, screaming like a maniac and refusing to offer any other form of payment. Everyone in the restaurant had their meals disturbed by his theatrics. While herding his visibly embarrassed companions out of the place, he went out of his way to kick in one of the restaurant's etched glass door panels. This genius forgot that we had his credit card info! The NYPD had no trouble tracking him down. To avoid criminal charges, the troublesome customer paid for the meal and shelled out top dollar to replace the custom glass. The moral -- drink to enjoy, not to forget.
10. Tip With Some Heart - Never stiff the staff! Or if you prefer it in Biblical terms, tip unto others as you would have them tip unto you. The overwhelming majority of wait staff in good restaurants work damn hard to please their customers. With pathetic wages and usually no benefits, they depend on tips to make a living. Today, 15% is the absolute minimum acceptable tip amount. The question is, did you get minimal service? If the staff took good care of you, 20% is more like it, and increase that if they did anything extraordinary. In fact, I cannot recall the ast time I tipped less than 20%. Did the maitre'd hold your reservation on a busy night? Say thank you with a paper President or two!