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.

Restaurant 101: Bussers and Backwaiters

Bussers and backwaiters are both dining room– “front of house”– staff in a restaurant. They perform service that does not include taking orders, pouring wine, or delivering drinks from the bar. They clear tables, refill water, perform bread service, and reset tables between guests. Sometimes they will ‘mark’ tables, i.e. reset them with clean silver, between courses (though some establishments reserve that task for servers.

Some more modern establishments will alternately use the term “Server Assistant” or “SA” in place of the older “busser” or backwaiter.

The terms are pretty much interchangeable and vary mostly depending on the style of restaurant; busser is more common in casual spots, backwaiter in fine dining, SA in corporate locations. In a way bussers and backwaiters are “assistants” in that much of their work enables servers to perform their tasks more efficiently. But I prefer the term backwaiter, because I think it is more indicative of their role as integral to the service. They may not be required to memorize the wine list and know all the allergens in the tortellini en brodo, but their work is no less important than that of the sommelier or the head waiter.

In most restaurants in the US you can ask any front of house staff member for help if you need a fresh glass of wine, or don’t care for your entree. But generally you will get these things faster if you request them from your server rather than the backwaiter. By all means catch the backwaiter’s eye if you have spilled something and need assistance, if you need more water or coffee, or if your table leg is wobbling. They are the head of the brigade and best equipped to meet those needs. But if you need to know if the cannelloni is gluten free, wait for the server.