Hospitality @ Home: Basic Wine Knowledge

Forget all the frippery associated with the pairing of wine; I am going to let you in on a little secret.

The best wine to have with any meal is the one you most enjoy.

Most of us do not have such refined palates that we notice the unique interplay of the flavor compounds in wine with those in the food alongside. Most of us operate on the mode of: food is good, wine is good, food and wine are good together.

Some folks enjoy steeping themselves in the vast ocean of wine possibilities. If you are one of those people, great! But for everyone else, here are a few wine guidelines that will rarely lead you astray:

1. Pair like with like. White meat-white wine, red meat- red wine, sweets – sweet wine.

2. Look at the body. Rich dishes, sauces- full bodied wine, light fare- light bodied wine. A handy list:

Common Red wine varietals from lightest to fullest bodied:

European Pinot Noir- Chianti- US & Australian Pinot Noir- Malbec- Merlot – Syrah- Zinfandel- Cabernet Sauvignon

Common White wine varietals from lightest to fullest bodied:

Pinot Grigio- Chenin Blanc- European Sauvignon Blanc- US & Australian Sauvignon Blanc- European Chardonnay- California Chardonnay

3. When in doubt, order champagne. Sparkling wine compliments nearly everything. (One of my favorite combinations in the world is french fries and champagne).

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 fields 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 keep it 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, Los 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. This is a recipe for confusion, as most all servers will apply the total cash you hand them to the balance of the bill and authorize the credit card for the remaining balance. If you want to ensure that the staff is tipped, it is best to 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.