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

Restaurant Etiquette: Making Modifications

1. Keep in mind that some restaurants don’t allow modifications. If that bothers you, keep in mind that there are plenty of restaurants that do allow them, and you will probably be happier patronizing those establishments rather than stewing in a restaurant that you feel is not accommodating you.

2. And some dishes cannot be modified in the way you want them; if the steak has been marinated in an oil that contains garlic, it is impossible to alter that dish to accommodate a garlic allergy.

3. Speaking of allergies– don’t characterize an aversion to something as allergic to it. Calling something an Allergy sets off an array of protocols that stop the kitchen in their tracks. Grills and tongs may need to be washed in the moment, gloves donned, fresh plates brought from another part of the restaurant to prevent cross contamination. This delays service for every party in the restaurant, including yours. If you have set off all these protocols to accommodate your “gluten allergy” that is truly only a desire to avoid eating carbohydrates, don’t be surprised if every staff member in the dining room stares daggers in your direction when you order the banana cream pie for dessert with the excuse that “a little gluten is ok, I’m not that allergic.”

4. Be polite. Politeness goes a long way. Not that you won’t be helped if you are not polite, but it can make a difference in how hard the server negotiates on your behalf with the chef. In the heat of a service, a server may know that she only has three serious favors a shift to ask of the kitchen. She’s not going to go toe to toe with the sous-chef for a guest that was rude; she’ll take his initial ‘no’ and be happy for it.

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.

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.

Restaurant 101: 86

If you’ve seen any film or television show set a restaurant, you have heard the number ’86’ thrown around like a verb by restaurant staff.

It has two meanings.

The first one is “We’re out of” as in “86 the meatloaf” means “We are out of the meatloaf.”

The second meaning is little more ephemeral. As in “That guy at table 12 is 86.” This means two things in itself– one, “that guy” is going to be ushered from the premises pronto, and the manager or owner wants the staff to get a good look at him, because an 86’d guest is usually not to be served in the future.

Restaurants are loathe to lose a customer, so generally the 86’d person would need to behave absolutely heinously to be 86’d.

There are several theories as to where the slang usage originated, but the one that makes the most sense to me is as a synonym for… dead. As the parameters for a grave are eight feet long and six feet deep. So the meatloaf is dead; it is 86. And when a customer behaves foully, they can become dead to the restaurant; just as if they were eight feet across and six feet deep.