Restaurant 101: The Host

The front desk can be your best friend or your worst enemy whether you are a guest, a server, or a front of house manager.  The amount of information that a host is privy to and the logistical finesse required to keep service running smoothly is enormous.

Nowadays, however, the host is becoming an endangered species. As minimum wages rise along with the cost of food, wine, and technology, many restaurants are absorbing the role of the host and re-assigning necessary tasks to managers and servers. So, while one should never be rude to a host, one should also never assume that the person behind the front desk is a low-status employee. Chances are in many cases that the manager or even the owner is the one greeting and seating the guests during service. Treating them shabbily when you have assumed they are underlings meant to bossed about is a surefire way to guarantee yourself the minimum level of service throughout your meal.

The Basics

The person behind the front desk, first and foremost, answers the phone. The only way everyone else is able to focus on service is knowing that the phone, squealing like a hungry baby, is being tended to.  The front desk makes reservations, cancellations, fields questions about the menu, directions, parking information, and screens calls for the managers/ owners.  Simultaneously, this person greets guests as they arrive, seats them in a friendly and efficient manner, communicates any allergies or special requests to the chef/manager/server.. to the chef/manager/server about any food allergies or special requests from each table.

The host keeps the front doors sparkling, the entry way clear. She polishes the menus and replaces soiled pages.  She sells retail merchandise if there is any. She checks bags and coats and receives any deliveries such as flowers or cakes for guests.

The Dining Room Diplomat

If you visit any establishment frequently, it is a great idea to make friends with the front desk. This can be as simple as being kind on the phone, and making your requests as politely as possible.  Shouting, insulting, belittling or otherwise making a scene will get you the minimal amount of service from the front desk, and may even get you 86’d from the restaurant (especially if the owner happens to be the one behind the desk at the moment).

A good host is wrangling a ton of logistics simultaneously, and trying to make it look effortless.  She knows a lot of things that you don’t, in fact. She knows that a certain table might look enticing, but there is a draft from the front door and she noted that you are wearing a strapless dress. She knows that a party of 20 is coming in half an hour from a college graduation and they will be right next to that awesome looking table.  She could try to tell you this, but you probably wouldn’t listen.

A host must be pleasant all the time.  She is trying to seat the dining room evenly, to accommodate everyone’s special requests, and ensure that tables clear in time for the next seating.  She graciously field calls for the managers and owners, she must assign stations in the dining room to the front of house staff, take to-go orders over the phone, sell retail merchandise, give directions from any part of town, know the history of the restaurant and the chef, check the ladies’ room every thirty minutes to ensure it is clean and stocked, all while ensuring that the phone never rings more than 3 rings and that no guest waits un-greeted at the front door for longer than a minute….. and receive birthday cakes, floral deliveries, check coats and luggage all while wearing a cocktail dress.

To Tip or not to Tip?

Hosts typically get paid a bit more than servers and other tipped staff  because they are not in a direct sales position and they have larger administrative responsibilities.  The servers ‘tip out’ the hosts, usually 1-4% of their tips from the dining room (about $1-10 per server, depending on the night).  So if the host checks your coat, tucks away your two heavy suitcases, and arranges for the  flowers you had delivered to be set on your table prior to your arrival, tip her.  Usually a dollar or two per coat or bag checked, and $5-$20 for any additional service.

Attempting to jump in line on a busy night by offering a fifty dollar handshake….? In some places that can get a host fired, so it is generally best to avoid putting someone in this position. Also, offering a tip to a manager or owner is generally perceived as uncouth, and as mentioned before, managers and owners are becoming more regular attendants at the front desk.

Bottom line: It is not wrong to tip the host for checking bags/ coats, or to thank her for taking care of your special requests. But try not to grease her palm in order to jump to the top of the waitlist.

Restaurant Etiquette: Tipping

It seems that with every passing day the protocol for tipping changes. Service charges are springing up on checks while the tradition of automatic gratuity for large parties is going the way of the dodo. What is restaurant customer to do?

I’ll be honest with you, it is currently a frustrating situation that varies from restaurant to restaurant, city to city, and state to state due to a patchwork of wage and gratuity laws.

1 Google it, or call the restaurant. Especially if you are dining in a major city like New York, Las Angeles, or Chicago, as several restaurants (even casual spots) have begun applying a standard 18% service charge in lieu of gratuity. Some restaurants no longer permit gratuities of any kind. Currently, it is best to find out in advance what the tipping procedures are at each establishment you visit.

2 When splitting payment between cash and credit card, do not give the cash tip along with the cash to go toward the check. Leave the cash tip separately on the table.

3 When dining in large groups, double check if gratuity has or has not been applied to the check. There is no need to double tip, certainly, but one should not assume that gratuity has been included (as a change to tax law in 2014 altered the way restaurants may apply these charges).

4 10%- 15%-18%-20%. The same standard still seems to apply, even in cities where there is not a sub minimum tipped wage. A 10% tip is still the standard way to show you were dissatisfied with the service provided. 15% is the average in quick service spots or smaller towns, 18% is the standard is major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and 20% is the universal indication that you were beyond satisfied with the service you received.

Restaurant 101: Expo

Expo: short for “expediter”, a person who organizes the flow of food from the kitchen into the dining room. This requires a strong knowledge of how long it takes each dish to cook (cook time) and how quickly the kitchen is currently cooking each dish (ticket time). Good expos will alert servers or managers if ticket times are getting long, or if a particular station in the kitchen is getting overwhelmed so that adjustments can be made in the dining room (i.e. If the grill cook is buried in orders and steaks are taking 25-30 minutes to come up, the servers will push pastas or salads). the Expo also typically adds the final garnish to dishes; a wedge of lime on the tortilla soup, sides of ketchup with the burger, a sprig of parsley and lemon with the halibut.

Sometimes the expo also runs food to tables himself, but in busy restaurants, he usually stays on the dining room side of the kitchen line, in the liminal space between the back of house and front of house, the intercessor between the servers and the chefs that keeps everything running smoothly.

Hospitality @ Home: Picking a potluck dish

It’s the season for cookouts, and if you are anything like me, you cannot go to someone’s house without bringing something to contribute. But what to bring?

Here are a couple of tips for potluck and cookout dishes:

1Bring a dish that you know is delicious. Even if,  when you ask the host what you can bring, you end up with a course you don’t immediately have a dish for (salad duty when you are a baker at heart, or vice versa), don’t just wing it. Ask friends for a surefire, vetted recipe (you can hardly go wrong with anything from Cooks Illustrated or Serious Eats), or order something from a local bakery or beloved restaurant that you know is great. It doesn’t matter if a potluck dish is made by your own hands, so long as some level of care went into it’s preparation and it is tasty. Sometimes, the best thing to make is a to-go order. And that’s ok.

2Bring serving utensils for your dish. You can tie your utensils to your casserole dish with a length of twine, but don’t try to serve a tray of macaroni with a flimsy single use picnic fork. It will only end in tears, and potentially in white plastic shrapnel invading your lovely casserole.

3Bring something that can sit at room temperature for a couple of hours. If it is over 75 degrees, avoid anything with mayonnaise or shellfish or both. Alternately, you can sub vegan mayonnaise or pesto on pretty much any sandwich preparation where regular egg-based mayo gives you pause.

4Avoid icings that can melt. Like whipped cream or light butter creams. If possible, avoid icings at all if the event is outside, as they mostly serve to attract bees and wasps. But if you must use a butter cream, be sure to stiffen it with lots of confectioner’s sugar. The greater the sugar to butter ratio, the less likely it is to melt.

5When in doubt, bring beverages. Wine, beer, Sangria, a big old batch of pre-mixed margaritas. Vodka watermelon. Or go teetotal with a nice sweet tea, lemonade, or fruity minty, virgin bramble.

Here are some ideas for great Potluck/ cookout dishes that are more creative than a casserole—

Kale Salad : https://wherethesideworkends.com/2013/05/08/hospitality-home-kale-salad/#more-914

Greek salad: https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/greek-salad-105279

Ribs: http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2016/06/oven-barbecue-bbq-ribs-recipe.html

Pan Bagnat: https://food52.com/recipes/6896-pan-bagnat-le-french-tuna-salad-sandwich

Pressed sandwiches of any kind, like a Mufaletta

Brownies, blondes, cookies, hand pies

Pasta Salad: http://www.seriouseats.com/2015/06/how-to-make-the-best-pasta-salad.html

Sangria: https://wherethesideworkends.com/2010/12/13/hospitality-home-holiday-sangrias/

Margaritas: https://wherethesideworkends.com/2012/05/25/hospitality-home-batch-margaritas/

Fresh fruit lemonade: https://wherethesideworkends.com/2012/06/21/more-than-you-ever-wished-to-know-about-lemonade/

Restaurant Etiquette: Children in the Dining Room

As the classic 1980’s ballad goes, children are the future. And there are many things that we ought to teach them well, one of which is how to co-exist in a shared space with other people.

Some of my favorite guests in restaurants are precocious little gourmands, but there are some things that adult companions of children would do well to keep in mind when dining out:

1The waitstaff are not childcare professionals. They are here to perform a job that involves carrying hot, heavy plates and trays full of highly breakable glassware. No one wants to see a child with a bowl of hot soup or a tray of martinis spilled on them. Not to mention that the restaurant is liable for the safety of all of their guests and staff during the course of the service. So should another guest trip over an unaccompanied toddler who is running through the hallway to the lavatories, it could be a horrendous collision. It is also worth noting that restaurants are not in the business of vetting their customers. Permitting unaccompanied children to race through a dining room with several entrances and exits is no different than permitting a child to race through a carnival or a department store.

2Make special needs known in advance. While restaurant staffs are not childcare professionals, we are in the business of working with the public and accommodating may different types of people. If your party needs space for a stroller, a wheelchair, or a more secluded table to help ease the anxiety of a young diner who is sensitive to large groups of strangers, etc, let us know in advance. We want you and your guests to be comfortable, and knowing in advance helps us plan for you.

3Ask if the restaurant offers a children’s menu before you arrive. While some establishments may not have a formal children’s menu, most any restaurant will have an informal array of dishes (plain pasta, lightly seasoned chicken with vegetables) that are designed to please the palates of young diners. If, on inquiring about a children’s menu the response from the restaurant is that they do not offer alternatives for children, or that they do not have high chairs or booster seats available then you know that this establishment is not attempting to be child friendly and your party may be more satisfied by taking your dinner elsewhere.

4 Most restaurants will offer crayons or coloring sheets for children, but not all do. It is a good idea to have some diversion available for the children in your party. Though if your diversion makes noise, such as a movie on a tablet or phone, please bring headphones. The table next to you may not wish to have the dialog to Finding Nemo as the soundtrack to their anniversary dinner.

5 If your child has reached her limit and needs to go, the most polite move is to request to have your food boxed and have the check brought rather than subject the entire dining room to the dulcet screams of a toddler meltdown.