Restaurant 101: Carrying Plates

November 6th

Here’s another tip from serving school: how to carry multiple plates. This is just the basic 2-3-4 plate carries. I am deeply in awe of diner servers in fast-paced joints that can stack seven chicken-fried steak dinners, but I know that skill can only come from years of experience with the weight and balance of a particular set of dishes, acclimation to their temperatures, and the sure-footedness that comes from knowing a restaurant dining room as well as one’s own home.

The multiple plate carry is useful for dinner parties, or for your first job in a restaurant. The four plate carry is also ideal for transporting plates of birthday cake from a conference room to your office mates, should the occassion arise 😉

Restaurant 101: Maitre’ d

Maitre d’

(May-truh dee)

From the French maitre d’ hotel, which means, essentially, ‘Master of the House.’ Typically this title is unisex, applying to men or women in the position, as the feminized “Mistress of the house” has, *ahem*, un-egalitarian connotations.

In the restaurant, the ‘House’ has two sides; the Front of House and the Back of House. The Front of House encompasses the areas that customers interact with, the dining room, the hallways, washrooms, etc. It also contains the liminal spaces of the phone lines and reservation system. The Front of House can extend to Valet service, coatcheck in a complex fine dining establishment.

The Maitre D is the Master of the Front of House. This seemingly simple definition can be applied in multiple ways in various dining rooms. In some restaurants the Maitre D is the de facto manager. She may be responsible for overseeing staff assignments, monitoring service, coordinating arrangements with the kitchen, bar, as well as handling any employee issues that arise in the course of a service. The de facto manager style Maitre D will also be responsible for closing out the days’ cash/ credit card transactions, locking up the restaurant, etc.

Some people with the title Maitre D further act as the sommelier if the restaurant does not have one on staff.

In a fine dining operation with the full coterie of roles from Bread Server to Service Captain, however, the Maitre D may act more as the head waiter and lead host, greeting guests at the door, remembering repeat customers, making everyone feel welcome, and waiting on certain VIP tables himself.

Wherever you find one, however, the Maitre D is a good friend to have in the dining room. He is the best person to make special requests from (flowers to arrive at your table, a bottle of champagne waiting for you, a certain table for an important meal, or menus without prices listed on them when you are treating guests and want them to feel welcome to order anything). It is not out of place to offer a gratuity to a Headwaiter style Maitre D who has taken special care of you. But as some Maitre D’s are actually salaried managers and precluded from accepting tips, do not be surprised if a tip is rebuffed with a polite “Thank you, but a tip is not necessary.” If a Maitre D turns down a gratuity, it would be rude to continue to offer one.

Restaurant Etiquette: Sending Back a Dish

To err is human, and when you are dealing with hundreds of plates in the course of an evening, there is always a chance that a mistake will be made, or a dish will fall short.

If there is something wrong with your meal, do not hesitate to politely send it back. Restaurants want their guests to be happy, and every proprietor I know would prefer the opportunity to correct an error in the moment, rather than have a guest leave their dining room dissatisfied.

I know, however, that there are horrible urban legends about servers spitting in plates of unsuspecting diners that send things back to the kitchen. All I can say to allay that fear is that in my thirteen years working in hospitality, I have never seen anyone do this, and remind you, dear reader, that even in the myth, the server-saliva garnish tends to only be applied to customers who are rude and uncouth (Though if you do have any suspicion that a hospitality worker has interfered with your food or beverage in any way, I would encourage you to patronize an alternate establishment).

Should you find yourself in the position of needing to send a dish back to the kitchen, here are some quick tips to smooth what can be an awkward situation:

1 Be polite. Please and thank you go a long way.

2 Be clear in your desire about what would be a satisfying solution. Would you like the steak to simply be cooked a bit longer? Or is the salmon over cooked to the point of inedibility and a fresh filet is the only thing that will correct the error? Being clear from the beginning will help the staff correct the error most efficiently. If the dish is, according to the staff, actually prepared correctly and you simply do not care for it, do yourself a favor and order a different dish to replace it. There is no way to correct a braise once it is out of the oven, or take the minced onions out of the meatloaf.

3 Alert a server or staff member as soon as possible so the error can be corrected quickly.

4 If the dish takes a while to cook, a seasoned manager or server will ask if you would like to enjoy the side items while the protein is cooking, or they may bring you a complimentary sip of soup or a side salad. If these things are not automatically offered, it is certainly reasonable to request something of the sort, as having something in front of you will help any guests you are dining with feel less self-conscious about enjoying their meals while you wait.

Restaurant 101: Marking

Mark– verb. The act of setting a table with the appropriate utensils for the next course.

“Desserts are up for table four, have they been marked?”

“Yes, everyone has coffee spoons and dessert forks”

Usually marking is performed by the server, though in some establishments the duty is shared equally by servers and backwaiters.

Restaurant 101: Planning a Party Out

when planning a private party at a restaurant, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Know your budget. You can have a fabulous Bridal shower or 60th Birthday celebration at any budget. Establishing your budget up front will save you a lot of time with venues, because it allows them to give you the best options within your budget. Beware of the old ‘champagne tastes on a beer budget’ trope, though. If you have a tight budget, don’t approach the most expensive restaurant in town for a Saturday night reservation and expect to talk them down. You will be wasting everyone’s time. It’s not a very enjoyable party if you have to watch the bottom line of the check the whole time to ensure you don’t go over budget. Set your budget first. Then pursue options that fit.

2. Know your guest count. Even if your guest count is only a ballpark, have a reasonably good idea of how many people you are hoping to entertain. Some restaurants have several options for parties of various sizes and if you book a room for 30, but in the end will have 45 guests, this may change things considerably.

3. Set a menu. Set menus are designed to speed the service of large parties and prevent long waits for food. Frequently they are multi-coursed affairs not to gouge you, but to ensure that there is food on the table while the entrees are being cooked. Before you set a menu, ask your guests if they have any dietary restrictions or food allergies that need to be accomodated to ensure that there is an option for them on the menu. Though, generally, it is a good idea to have at least one option that is vegan and/or gluten-free on your menu in order to be safe.

3. Pick a beverage package. Beverage packages are designed to prevent sticker shock at the end of your party by enabling you to plan in advance for how much your party will cost. They are not designed to gouge you. If you don’t want to spring for a full blown bar package, most restaurants are happy to run a tab on-consumption and cut it off when a certain pre-determined limit is met– i.e. “Guests can order whatever they want, but can you let me know when it hits $500 so I can cut it off then?” It behooves you, also, to specify if you would prefer tap or bottled water for the party at this time, as well. As if you prefer bottled, you’ll want to ensure that the restaurant has plenty on hand.

4. Ask about restrictions on decorations, times, etc. Restaurants love to celebrate your milestones with you; it is big part of our business! But if you plan to decorate the private room for your party, check with the venue to ensure there are not restrictions. This is not a scenario where it is better to ask forgiveness than permission, as there may be restrictions due the historic nature of some buildings. It is not sexy to talk about, but there are also places where decor cannot be placed because it would impede people escaping the building if there is an emergency like a fire or an earthquake. If you intend to decorate, find out how soon before your party you can arrive to decorate, and also find out if there is a certain time that your party is required to clear the space. Especially during the busy holiday and wedding seasons, there may be other events in the wings waiting for their party in the same space.

5. Don’t move the furniture, or the lights, or adjust the sound system, or the thermostat yourself; ask a staff member. The staff of the restaurant is there to assist you. That is a large part of their job. But they are also responsible for navigating several overlapping systems that operate within the restaurant space. The thermostat you see on the wall may actually be tied to the vents in the kitchen and by adjusting it you could very well be roasting the chefs. What looks like one light switch could actually be daisy-chained to lights in other parts of the restaurant that you cannot see. Furniture placed by the staff is placed in accordance with fire exits and egress for service, and if anything needs to be moved, the staff is more familiar with the weight and dimensions of each piece of furniture and less likely to be injured in it’s moving.

6. Manage your guests. Usually, no food will come from the kitchen until the chef has the whole order from the party in her hand. So if you have hungry guests, encourage everyone to sit down and let the servers know their selections. If you need help communicating to your guests, you can always request that the service staff help you usher guests to their seats with a gentle The host has requested that everyone be seated to place their orders.

7. Set it and forget it. Order all courses at the same time. The staff will organize the timing of the courses based on the pace of your party.

8. If you plan to give toasts or speeches, let the staff know ahead of time, so they can time the courses accordingly. Try to time your toasts or speeches between the courses. Generally, between entrees and desserts are a good time, as you can be secure in the knowledge that your guests won’t be slowly starving while Uncle Owen expounds on his blessings for the guest of honor.

Restaurant 101: Server

Servers. Waiters. So ubiquitous that it seems silly to “define” what a server is, but here we go.

A server is a lot of things, a factotum with an incredible memory, an entertainer, a clairvoyant, an efficiency expert, a marathon walker, a dextrous tray carrier.

But more than anything, a server is a diplomat. She arrives at your table with menus and wine lists- the restaurant’s first offer. Your party tells her what sort of experience you are looking for at this table tonight. She creates a plan to make that happen seamlessly and negotiates with the chef or bartender on your behalf (if necessary). She bears rudeness with grace, and navigates wayward toddlers as she picks the smoothest paths between kitchen, bar, service station, and your table.

Servers are responsible for extensive knowledge of the menu components so they can advise which dishes will accommodate dietary restrictions or allergies. They must know how long dishes take to cook and arrange the orders into courses that make logistical sense. Servers must know how to perform basic wine service and how to carry trays of beverages. They must be able to lift everything from porcelain and glass vessels as delicate as flower petals to magnums of wine. They must anticipate your needs before you do.