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.

Restaurant Etiquette: Reservations

Reservations are more than a guarantee of a table during a busy Saturday night, there’s a lot to know to make the reservation system work for you.

1.Call. I’m taking a firm stance on this one, because it is something I truly believe; it is always best to call rather than book online.  Calling enables you to begin establishing a rapport with the restaurant, and if there is any additional information that needs to be delivered, the staff can alert you now. Perhaps that 8:00 reservation available online is actually a table outdoors, or perhaps there is a large party arriving at the same time as your preferred reservation time, (if you arrive before they do, your service will certainly go faster). None of these nuggets of information will be listed on Opentable or Yelp. Plus, calling gives you the chance to test drive the place ahead of your meal. If the person on the other end of the line is surly or unhelpful, it might be a message from the ghosts of Dinner Future… advising you to avoid this place.

2.Special circumstances. On the phone call when you book your reservation, advise the restaurant of any special circumstances. Birthdays, anniversaries, food allergies, wheelchair or other accessibility needs, if you have plans after dinner and need to leave at a particular time. Even dropping a comment that “this is a meal with friends that haven’t seen one another in ten years!” Is helpful. Such a party will have a lot of catching up to do, and I wouldn’t book another party on that table for at least three hours.

3.Don’t reserve if your plans are not solid. And if your plans fall through, please call ahead to cancel. It might free up a table in time for guests that would otherwise be turned away, and it is always appreciated by the restaurant.

4. Remember; the computer is watching. If you have a pattern of failing to respect your reservations (i.e. “No Showing”) most reservation systems track this. No one is going to hold a good table on a busy Friday dinner for a guest who has No-showed for several reservations. If you have a habit of no-showing, don’t be surprised if you see a related trend of tables near kitchens and bathrooms, (or, in the worst cases, consistent rebuffs that the restaurant is already fully booked at every time you request).

5. Sometimes, there is still a wait. Anticipating the time it will take a party to enjoy their meal and close their check is not a science. From time to time  guests linger, or the kitchen gets backed up, or a busser had to leave suddenly because his wife went into labor. No one enjoys making guests wait for their table. And while every effort is made to have your table ready precisely at 7:30, circumstances might be such that it is not available until 7:53. When faced with this frustrating scenario, a person might feel compelled to huff “Guess I didn’t need that reservation.” But you did! You did! Because without a reservation, you would have been turned away at the door! There would be no table for you, not even in twenty-three minutes! And while certainly the restaurant ought to acknowledge your patience in graciously waiting until your table is ready by offering a complimentary appetizer or a glass of wine, no one is lying when they say that sometimes waits were simply unavoidable.

6. The Large Party Reservation— Many restaurants have begun requiring a credit card to secure a reservation for parties larger than 6 (or 8, or 12). This policy may be a total bummer for you. But these policies have been established for a reason (see: No-Showing). Yes, just like when we were in elementary school, a few jerks misbehaving can change the rules for everyone. There is no use wheedling the host when she delivers this information on the phone. There is no use escalating the conversation into a conflict by insisting on speaking to the manager. If such a policy truly bothers you, book a reservation elsewhere. Or, if you are granted an exception, don’t abuse it. It is typically the guests that exceptions are made for that tend to reinforce why the policy was made in the first place. Don’t be that guy.

7. Another guy not to be. Don’t be the guy who, upon arriving in an empty or sparsely filled restaurant at the beginning of the evening say “We have a reservation, but looks like we didn’t need one!” More than likely the tables are empty precisely because they are being held for reservations that are arriving within the next 45 minutes. More than likely the tables are empty because the restaurant just opened.

8. It is cool to have a reservation. On a related note, it is cool to have a reservation. You have a reservation! Your arrival is anticipated! Everyone is excited to see you! And everyone is grateful that you made a reservation, because reservations are about so much more than merely assuring that there is a seat for your derrière. Reservations enable the chef to know how many steaks to stock in the walk-in for the weekend. They help the dining room manager schedule enough bartenders so you don’t wait thirty minutes for a cocktail.

Restaurant 101: Turns

The word Turn in a restaurant is more than a verb, it is noun. In restaurant speak, a Turn is the liminal space between one party completing their meal and leaving the table and the next party arriving to take residence at the same table for their meal.

When service is running smoothly, turns are seamless. A party that arrived at 6:00pm is sipping the dregs of their coffee cups and signing the credit card slip by 7:45pm. They clear off moments later under a chorus of warm goodbye and thank you‘s from the assembled dining room staff. The table is clear of everything other than a few stray demitasse spoons and water glasses, so a single busser can carry all the dishes away in one trip to the scullery, and the table is re-set before an 8:00pm reservation arrives to take residency for another two hours.

Turns are necessary to most restaurant’s survival. In order to keep the lights on and the water running, establishments must be able to turn tables. On popular nights (Valentine’s Day, New Years Eve, Saturday night), the turns enable more guests to enjoy the space on a holiday or special occasion. Attempting to accommodate turns is why, when you call at noon on Saturday the only tables available for dinner that night are 5:00 and 9:00. The restaurant may be empty at 5:00, but the staff knows that all of their tables are booked for 6:30pm, so they may not be able to seat those tables at 5:15, or may only be able to seat them with the condition that they party clears the table by 7:00.

Restaurant Etiquette: Pre Fixe Menus

On special occasions such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Eve–and *ahem* Valentine’s Day–restaurants tend to rely on pre fixe menu.

This can be irritating. You have chosen a restaurant that you love based on the food you typically enjoy there! Why are they changing it up? Do they really expect you to order a $75 four course meal for your three-year old?

The main reason restaurants offer a pre-fixe menu on a holidays and special occasions is the same reason that they frequently require parties larger than twelve to select a set menu; it makes the service faster and more efficient so you and all the other guests filling the dining room can get their food in a reasonable amount of time.

Typically, the menu will include mouthwatering dishes from succulent pastas, unctuous roasts, cracklingly grilled steaks and seared fish…. It is in the chef’s interest to make everything tempting because she knows that if she doesn’t, forty-seven people are going to order the grilled ribeye simultaneously and her grill cook is going to get overloaded while the pasta cook’s lovingly handmade noodles disintegrate in a pool of congealing cream sauce waiting for the steaks that are on the same ticket.

If you have Pre Fixe Menu Anxiety (PFMA), here are some things to consider : Continue reading

Restaurant 101: The Kitchen opens @ 5….

All those salad fixin’s and garnishes don’t chop themselves, alas….

Ever walked into a restaurant in the afternoon, the doors are open, there’s a bartender, a host. As you mosey toward the bar for a coffee the host advises you “the bar is open, but the kitchen doesn’t open until 5 o’clock.”

That’s half an hour away, surely you could get a salad or something, right?

Not always. Here’s why: Sidework.

In order to prepare for service, the stations in the kitchen have to be set up. Between lunch and dinner service the guard is changing in the kitchen, everything is being deep cleaned by the lunch cooks, and the dinner cooks have to set everything up from scratch.  And that entails quite a bit of work behind the scenes. The salad station actually requires some of the greatest attention, as uncooked vegetables are the items most prone to food-borne illness.Ice for Salad Station

Every item must be prepared, checked for temperature, and an ice bath set up in order to maintain all items at temperatures below 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

That means that while you are sipping your cafe au lait at the bar, wondering

how hard it is to put together a salad, there are line cooks in the kitchen carting fifty pound bins of ice, calibrating thermometers, chilling salad plates, warming plates for entrees, and making sure they have all their garnishes and fussy things prepared.  Once dinner service starts, they’re not going to have much downtime, if any, to catch up.

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Restaurant 101: The Host, Your Best (Worst?) Friend

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the host in her natural habitat is accompanied by a phone and several menus….

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.

The Basics

The restaurant host, 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 by someone else.  The host makes reservations, cancellations, fields questions about the menu, directions, parking information, and screens calls for the managers/ owners.  Simultaneously, she greets guests as they arrive, seats them in a friendly and efficient manner, slips a note to the chef/manager/server about any food allergies or special requests from each table. In some restaurants she hands the server a note for each table so he can greet the table with a “Good evening, Ms. Jones and Mr. Smith…”

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, and she checks bags and coats.

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Restaurant 101: What’s a busboy do?

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tell tale signs of a bus boy– water pitcher and dirty plates.

A dining room runs like a football team, every staff member has a position and plays a very specific role.  It is only by having several positions with different areas of focus that you can ensure service is smooth.

For the first installment– let’s start with the foundation of the front of house staff: the bussing crew.

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