Restaurant 101: Planning a Party Out

when planning a private party at a restaurant, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Know your budget. You can have a fabulous Bridal shower or 60th Birthday celebration at any budget. Establishing your budget up front will save you a lot of time with venues, because it allows them to give you the best options within your budget. Beware of the old ‘champagne tastes on a beer budget’ trope, though. If you have a tight budget, don’t approach the most expensive restaurant in town for a Saturday night reservation and expect to talk them down. You will be wasting everyone’s time. It’s not a very enjoyable party if you have to watch the bottom line of the check the whole time to ensure you don’t go over budget. Set your budget first. Then pursue options that fit.

2. Know your guest count. Even if your guest count is only a ballpark, have a reasonably good idea of how many people you are hoping to entertain. Some restaurants have several options for parties of various sizes and if you book a room for 30, but in the end will have 45 guests, this may change things considerably.

3. Set a menu. Set menus are designed to speed the service of large parties and prevent long waits for food. Frequently they are multi-coursed affairs not to gouge you, but to ensure that there is food on the table while the entrees are being cooked. Before you set a menu, ask your guests if they have any dietary restrictions or food allergies that need to be accomodated to ensure that there is an option for them on the menu. Though, generally, it is a good idea to have at least one option that is vegan and/or gluten-free on your menu in order to be safe.

3. Pick a beverage package. Beverage packages are designed to prevent sticker shock at the end of your party by enabling you to plan in advance for how much your party will cost. They are not designed to gouge you. If you don’t want to spring for a full blown bar package, most restaurants are happy to run a tab on-consumption and cut it off when a certain pre-determined limit is met– i.e. “Guests can order whatever they want, but can you let me know when it hits $500 so I can cut it off then?” It behooves you, also, to specify if you would prefer tap or bottled water for the party at this time, as well. As if you prefer bottled, you’ll want to ensure that the restaurant has plenty on hand.

4. Ask about restrictions on decorations, times, etc. Restaurants love to celebrate your milestones with you; it is big part of our business! But if you plan to decorate the private room for your party, check with the venue to ensure there are not restrictions. This is not a scenario where it is better to ask forgiveness than permission, as there may be restrictions due the historic nature of some buildings. It is not sexy to talk about, but there are also places where decor cannot be placed because it would impede people escaping the building if there is an emergency like a fire or an earthquake. If you intend to decorate, find out how soon before your party you can arrive to decorate, and also find out if there is a certain time that your party is required to clear the space. Especially during the busy holiday and wedding seasons, there may be other events in the wings waiting for their party in the same space.

5. Don’t move the furniture, or the lights, or adjust the sound system, or the thermostat yourself; ask a staff member. The staff of the restaurant is there to assist you. That is a large part of their job. But they are also responsible for navigating several overlapping systems that operate within the restaurant space. The thermostat you see on the wall may actually be tied to the vents in the kitchen and by adjusting it you could very well be roasting the chefs. What looks like one light switch could actually be daisy-chained to lights in other parts of the restaurant that you cannot see. Furniture placed by the staff is placed in accordance with fire exits and egress for service, and if anything needs to be moved, the staff is more familiar with the weight and dimensions of each piece of furniture and less likely to be injured in it’s moving.

6. Manage your guests. Usually, no food will come from the kitchen until the chef has the whole order from the party in her hand. So if you have hungry guests, encourage everyone to sit down and let the servers know their selections. If you need help communicating to your guests, you can always request that the service staff help you usher guests to their seats with a gentle The host has requested that everyone be seated to place their orders.

7. Set it and forget it. Order all courses at the same time. The staff will organize the timing of the courses based on the pace of your party.

8. If you plan to give toasts or speeches, let the staff know ahead of time, so they can time the courses accordingly. Try to time your toasts or speeches between the courses. Generally, between entrees and desserts are a good time, as you can be secure in the knowledge that your guests won’t be slowly starving while Uncle Owen expounds on his blessings for the guest of honor.

Recipe: Dutch Apple Pie

Crust:

1 stick (1/2 cup or 115g)unsalted butter

3/4 cup (115 g) flour

1.5 tsp sugar

1/2 tsp fine salt

1/4 cup ice cold water

Filling:

3 lbs apples, (2lbs granny smith or other tart, firm apple, and 1lb sweet medium firm like fuji)

1/4 cup flour

1 tbs cinnamon

1/3 cup brown sugar

2/3 cup white sugar

3 tbs cold unsalted butter cut in 1/4 dice

Pinch of salt

Topping:

1/2 cup Unsalted butter

1 cup Flour

2/3 cup Brown sugar

1 tbs granulated sugar

Egg wash:

1 beaten egg

1 tbs water or milk

Make the crust. Cube the butter into 1/4 inch cubes and chill. Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a medium bowl. Toss butter cubes to coat. Smash each butter cube between your thumb and index finger to flatten. When all butter cubes have been flattened, stir in ice cold water and mix until dough pulls away from the side of the bowl. On a floured surface roll out dough into a 1/4 inch thick rectangle. Fold into thirds, then wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes. (Can be made in advance and refrigerated for 1 day or frozen for 1 month)

Make filling.

Peel and core the apples, and slice into 1/4 inch thick slices. Place apple slices in a large bowl. In a small bowl, combine flour, sugars, cinnamon, and salt. Toss the apples with the flour mixture, cover loosely with plastic or a tea towel and set aside to macerate for 20-30 minutes. (Can be made up to 1 day in advance. If making in advance, toss apple slices with 1 tbs lemon juice, and add an extra tsp of flour to the flour mixture. Keep refrigerated until ready to use).

Make topping. Cube butter. In a medium bowl combine flour and sugars. Toss butter wth flour mixture and rub together until the mixture is the texture of sand. (Can be made 1-3 days in advance and kept refrigerated)

Assemble and bake:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line glass pie plate with pie crust and crimp edge. Layer apple mixture in crust, sprinkling with finely cubed butter bits as you go. Pour in any juices that have collected at the bottom of the apple bowl. Brush a bit of egg wash on the exposed edges of the pie crust. Top the pie with the streusel topping. Bake until bubbling and apples are soft, but not dissolved, about 35-45 minutes. Cover the crust edged with a strip of foil if they begin to brown too quickly.

Cool for at least 2 hours before serving. All components can be made a day in advance. Assemble the pie just before baking.

Restaurant 101: Server

Servers. Waiters. So ubiquitous that it seems silly to “define” what a server is, but here we go.

A server is a lot of things, a factotum with an incredible memory, an entertainer, a clairvoyant, an efficiency expert, a marathon walker, a dextrous tray carrier.

But more than anything, a server is a diplomat. She arrives at your table with menus and wine lists- the restaurant’s first offer. Your party tells her what sort of experience you are looking for at this table tonight. She creates a plan to make that happen seamlessly and negotiates with the chef or bartender on your behalf (if necessary). She bears rudeness with grace, and navigates wayward toddlers as she picks the smoothest paths between kitchen, bar, service station, and your table.

Servers are responsible for extensive knowledge of the menu components so they can advise which dishes will accommodate dietary restrictions or allergies. They must know how long dishes take to cook and arrange the orders into courses that make logistical sense. Servers must know how to perform basic wine service and how to carry trays of beverages. They must be able to lift everything from porcelain and glass vessels as delicate as flower petals to magnums of wine. They must anticipate your needs before you do.

Hospitality @ Home: Polishing

August 21

Polishing is one of the most common sidework tasks in a restaurant. Every glass and piece of silverware must be buffed free of water spots before it goes into the dining room. Polishing can be a tricky business, but it is worth doing and home, and worth doing well.

First and foremost, it is easiest to get a good polish on silver and glassware if you buff them when they are freshly washed, mostly dry, and STILL WARM from the washing water.

Secondly, the best cloth for polishing is one that will not leave lint on the glasses. Micro fiber is good here, but I prefer an old fashioned cotton or linen flour sack. Your polishing cloth should also be large enough that you can cover both of your hands and the item you are polishing can move freely within in it. If your cloth is puny, that is ok, just grab a second one. The important thing is that your pesky fingertips are covered, and that the polishee can move freely between your clothed hands.

Now, we begin.

Swath your hands with the polishing cloth (or cloths), and hold the item in your non-dominant hand– i.e. if you are right handed, hold the item in your left hand. Create a “lobster claw” around the item to be polished by placing it between yout thumb and four fingers. Buff in firm circular strokes until spots are removed.

If some spots are stubborn, you can soften them by holding the spotted bit over a glass of steaming hot water and allowing the steam to cloud the glass or silver for a moment. Polish that section quickly; the spots should lift easily.

When polishing the bowl of stemmed glasses, be careful to hold the glass hear the base of thebowl, NOT the foot of the stem. that is a surefire way to break the stem off a glass.

If you get in the habit of polishing your glasses and silver as soon they are washed, you’ll always have a sparkling glass for your sparkling wine 😉

Restaurant 101: What’s in a Name?

Names of restaurants are more than merely assemblies of culinary words cleverly tossed together. The name of a restaurant can tell you everything from the hours of operation, the size of the staff, and how the wine will be presented.

I say CAN because– as with most things co-opted by American culture– sometimes the original intentions are lost. Like the word restaurant itself.

Initially, the name restaurant came from the name of a restorative broth that was served in 17th century Paris. In those days just before the French Revolution, many city-dwelling people took their meals at their neighborhood cook caterer’s dining room. Meals there were served family style at set times and every customer paid the same rate, whether or not there was still meat on the table by the time they sat at one of the communal tables. A salon de restaurant– salon of restoration– styled itself to capture the more discerning city-dweller, a rising middle class figure with a delicate constitution. There were many things that could lead to a delicate constitution– the fatiguing work of deep thought, the travails of living in close proximity to so many strangers, the damaging impacts of industrial fumes, the daily inhalation of foul vapors from a city that was till developing a sewage system– Parisians in such dire circumstances could restore themselves by supping on healthful consommes from the privacy of their own table, and pay only for what they consumed, a la carte. As the human constitution could find itself in need of restoration at any moment, restaurants themselves were often allowed to operate outside of the prescribed mealtimes that catering halls, by law, adhered to. What Parisian would deny Rousseau a cup of broth at 9pm when he had been so wrapped in thought about revolutionary ideas that he missed dinner?

I think of this foundation often when tasked to find a way to accommodate particularly daunting dietary restrictions and allergies in the dining room. It is, after all, the design of the institution itself to offer such patrons the restoration they seek.

But in general, here is a quick list of what you should expect from certain words and phrases in restaurant names:

What to expect from a–

Cafe: a casual venue with casual service, frequently a place with a menu heavy on the breakfast foods and coffee drinks. The same menu is typically served throughout the day, with business hours extending from early morning to late afternoon or early evening. Most cafes are not late night spots, and many rely on a counter service model where guests order and pay at a counter and food and drinks are delivered at the counter, or guests are given a number to take with them that ties them to their order.

Bistro: a casual restaurant with quick table service, usually specializing in french classic fare like Steak Frites and Moules Mariniere. A bistro (or bistrot) is boisterous, tables may be rather close together, and service will be casual. If you order a bottle of wine, it will be opened at your table and left there; don’t expect the server come by constantly to refill your glasses.

Brasserie: a slightly more upscale establishment originating in the Alsace region of France. Initially the Brasserie was intended to showcase the beer and wine of Alsace as well as the rich fare that compliments them. While the alcoholic distinction may have vanished slightly– most bistros and cafes have bars nowadays– many Brasseries do brew some of their own beer.

Chez X: roughly translated, chez means “In the home of” so Chez Fernand is to be “In the home of Fernand” where, presumably, things are done Fernand’s way. Fernand’s house, Fernand’s rules, oiui? A Chez restaurant can vary in service style, though most tend toward higher end service. There will be more service staff on hand, generally the dining room trinity of server-backwaiter-runner rather than more casual spots where the servers do most things with the support of a single busser.

Nouns: A restaurant that is merely a noun can be anything. As in The French Laundry is about is high end as it gets. But The Olive Garden is a casual family spot. There’s no real guidance here. Only a suggestion that you avail yourself of the google machine or the good old telephone to uncover things like menu style and dress code policies.

In higher end service, wine will be presented tableside, though likely opened at a side station and tasted by the sommelier or server to ensure it is ‘correct’ before it is poured for you, the wine will then be left at the side station and the staff will retrieve it to refill your glasses for you.

Other culinary traditions have their hierarchies as well. A sampling of a few, listed from most to least casual:

Japanese: Izakaya-Shokudo-Taishokuya-Kaiseki

Italian: pizzeria-Trattoria- ristorante- osteria

Recipe: Pescado Los Feliciano

AUGUST 7TH

It is not all pies and Mac n’ cheese molded into giant mozzarella sticks around the Sidework househould. Most of the time I try to eat healthfully.

This dish evolved out of a Pescado Veracruzano that was on the menu at a restaurant I managed several years ago. The restaurant dish featured a feared fish filet atop a bed of rice surrounded by a rich broth packed with lime, onion, olives, oregano and tomatoes. It was delicious.

So I took that idea and amped up the nutritional density by switching out the rice for quinoa and adding the ubiquitous southern california hippie brassica du jour, kale. Thus the name, Pescado Los Feliciano, after the arty-crunchy LA neighborhood where I live.

The result is a forgiving dish that is sustaining yet light, comforting yet healthful. It comes together easily for a weeknight dinner but is impressive enough to serve for company. If you are overcoming a cold, dial up the lemon and garlic and let the steamy broth carry it into your bones. This truly is a go to dish for me.

For a vegetarian version, I double the quinoa and turn it into fritters. Then serve an island of fritters in a rich vegetable stock. Continue reading

Restaurant 101: Sommelier

So Moll Yay.

So what is a so-moll-yay?

A wine expert. Some have accreditations from the Court of Master Sommeliers or the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, though some merely have battle-tested palates and an encyclopedic knowledge of oenology from the school of hard knocks.

Many sommeliers work for restaurants, actively designing a wine list that compliments the chef’s cuisine, creating accounts with wine vendors and keeping the the wine in stock. Restaurant sommeliers are active presences in the dining room during service, guiding guests through the wine list, ensuring not only that the selected wine will compliment the food that is ordered, but that it is free from flaws and served correctly (at the right temperature and in the correct stemware).

Increasingly though, sommeliers are seeking work as freelancers, creating wine lists and staff training procedures for several venues that do not employ a full time “somm.” Somms may also work for private collectors, maintaining their cellars and even sourcing wine to fill out a collection. They may also be employed at wineries or tasting rooms.

In addition to knowing an impossible amount about the daunting world of wine, somms also tend to have an expansive vocabulary that makes any bottle in their hands sound absolutely irresistible.