Restaurant Etiquette: Mothers’ Day Brunch

Things to keep in mind when brunching out on Mothers’ Day.

1. It is Mothers’ Day for everyone. Your party is not the only party who loves their mother (or mothers). Chances are there will be many, many special requests for particular tables, quiet tables, tables that are not near the kitchen or the bathroom or a draft. You can increase your chances of getting all of your requests met by booking your reservation well in advance and booking for an early seating before the restaurant fills up.

2. Prepare for a pre-fixe. And if you know that members of your party have dietary restrictions or allergies, ask to have this noted on your reservation.

3. Be mindful of modifications. As with most services when a restaurant is busy, you and your guests will likely be more satisfied with a dish that meets your needs without requiring modifications. On rare occasions at some restaurants, modifying a dish on a busy service may result in your table’s order being cooked after a run of orders that did ordered everything as-is*. (*Most every restauranteur will deny this happens. “No one does that!” They will cry. All I am saying is that after 14 years in the industry, I have absolutely seen this happen. So do with that advice you will.)

4. Prepare for the children. For the children in your own party, prepare age appropriate entertainments (coloring books, a surprise treat, an ipad with games), but be careful about toys and games that make noise (as your neighbors at the next table may not enjoy their eggs benedict punctuated by sproings and rat-a-tats). Most restaurants will have some diversion for little ones (crayons and coloring sheets), but some won’t. Do not rely on the service staff to watch your children, as well. If your toddler is restless and wants to look at the fish tank, by all means let them look at the fish tank, but go with them. The service staff is doing their best to keep an eye (as they know to expect many children on Mothers’ day as well), but they are carrying heavy trays of hot food and beverages. No one wants to drop a cup of coffee on a curious primary-schooler.

Hospitality @ Home: Tea Service

Ah, tea. More than mere coffee’s aromatic cousin, tea is an event in itself.

And if you are a coffee purist who asserts that decaf shall never cross your lips, herbal teas are a great hot beverage for when your caffeinated heart gets close to bedtime.

From Japan to Ethiopia, Russia to Great Britain, tea is an important part of many culinary traditions. Tea services can be elaborate and intimidating, but the best equipment for a simple tea is what you have on hand.

The most important aspect of tea service to keep in mind is this; Tea is about gathering.

Like the fire was to our ancient ancestors, so the piping hot tea pot at the center of the table is a place for us to arrange ourselves around something warm.

All that is required is hot water, tea leaves, and vessels to sip from. But if you have some sweeteners, cream and some odds and ends of savories and sweets to serve alongside, all the better. You will hardly ever go wrong pairing mild buttery, fruit, or nut flavors with tea. Scones with cranberries or currants are classic with an afternoon tea for good reason.

Tea as an event is a great idea if you are cash strapped and still hoping to entertain; because tea is generally in the afternoon, or presented as bit of a diversion between or after meals. To host a tea, you need not prepare an elaborate affair. With a quick tart or clafoutis on the table and a simple tea service, you will be the consummate host for any guest who pops by.

Generally, I fill a glass teapot (because that is what I have) with boiling water, and prepare a tray with an assortment of bagged tea, lemon wedges, cream, and sugar (or other sweeteners) so my guests can choose which tea suits them best. I am persnickety, so I arrange my teas from highest caffeine level to the lowest so it is easy to find when pulling a packet for a guest!

A simple tea service is an excellent alternative to a glass of wine for those teetotaling times.

I hope you gather around a cuppa today!

Restaurant Etiquette: Non-Verbal Communication.

It is said that 90% of communication is non-verbal. In a restaurant dining room, the rules are no different. Although if you are hoping to avoid interruptions to the ambiance at your table, you can communicate to dining room staff almost exclusively in non-verbal cues.

Sometimes you are deep in conversation, having a great time, and it seems like every five minutes a waitperson is interrupting to see if you need more wine, or bread, or if you are still enjoying that lasagna.

Here are few non-verbal things that can easily be performed in a restaurant setting (and make you look like a dining Jedi to your guests!):

1 If you don’t want more wine/coffee/water/etc, simply hold your hand above your glass when the server circles the table with a bottle or a pitcher (Coffee or teacups in a saucer can be turned upside down in their saucer if you do not wish to have them refilled).

2 When you have finished with your plate, place the cutlery side by side, face down on the plate, diagonally, like the hands of a clock with the tips in the center and the handles pointing to 5:00.

3 If you are merely taking a break from dining, place your cutlery on the top edges the plate, fork on the left and knife on the right (or on whichever side you use them). Alternately, when you see a staff member approaching to clear the table, simply pick your fork up again, or cut a fresh bite of your meal.

4 When a server approaches to check that all is well at the table, simply meet her gaze, make eye contact, and give a reassuring nod.

5 If you are ready for a glass to be cleared or refilled, move it to the edge of the table so if can be easily reached.

6 If you are ready for the check place your credit card on the edge of the table where the server is likely to see it.

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.

Hospitality @ Home: Table Settings

It begins with a plate. One plate per person, set directly in front of her chair, about an inch away from the edge of the table.

Next, the entree fork and knife join the party. Fork on the left, knife on the right, with the blade opening toward the plate. The Gent was once a protocol officer in the Air Force, and he told me a story he learned at protocol school about knife blades. According to service mythology, there once lived a King who loved to feast. He loved to drink and tell stories almost as much as he loved feasting, and as a drunken storyteller is wont to do in the middle of a feast, the king flung his hand wildly as he regaled his guests with a tale of recent adventure. His hand brushed the the blade of his knife, which was pointing away from his plate, and the king sliced his hand open.

I have no idea if that story is true, but it is a good way to remember which way to set knives on a dinner table.

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Restaurant 101: Amuse Bouche

Amuse Bouche– [ah-myooz boosh] — is a word you may have heard bandied about in restaurants. As it is French in origin, it can sound like a bit of secret code when it falls from the lips of a discreet maitre d’ or a waistcoated server , especially when re-purposed as a verb as in “Has table twenty-two been amused?”

While it is possible these theoretical staff are wondering how the maitre d’s starchy humor landed on a group of diners, it is more likely they are discussing a bit of service business.

An amuse bouche is simply a bite-size dish from the chef meant to stimulate your palate. An amuse bouche typically appears at the beginning of a progressive tasting menu with several courses.

A great amuse is true to the origin of the french word– to cause a person to muse, to ponder. Perhaps to ponder what is in store in the meal to come, or perhaps to be amused by a particularly stunning flavor combination that they would never have imagined enjoying.

An amuse need not be overly complicated. It can be more like Ikea furniture; well designed and easy to assemble. So easy, fact, that you can easily arrange some at home.

If, for instance, you are throwing a dinner party, you can elevate your game by arranging slivers of several elements from the meal in a stack, on a spoon, or threaded on skewer.

Think tiny, and think piquant flavors that will make an impression. Continue reading