Thursday, February 25, 2010

one man's brief guide to restaurant etiquette

i'm not one to hold up to commitments all the time, so i hope everyone took my post with a grain of salt when i announced that i'd be doing a restaurant etiquette post a few months ago. sorry about that. welcome to my life. i got a few people who thought that'd be a good idea, though, because there are enough people who don't know some things that i, having worked in a restaurant for a couple years now, thought was common knowledge about how to act, how to tip, what to order, etc. well, sorry about the wait, but finally here are some of my thoughts. i'm no expert, i'm just sharing what i've learned from my first two years of experience, having very little idea of what the business was like before i started (like many of you, i'm sure).

first, a preface. i started reading "kitchen confidential: adventures in the culinary underbelly" by anthony bourdain (host of no reservations on the travel channel). it's a great read and i think everyone should pick it up and read through it if you plan on eating out a good bit. you'll get an idea of the types of people who work in a restaurant, the tiresome grind that we (especially the behind-the-scenes cooks and prep people) go through to fill your bellies. so for more about the food side of the equation, read it.

1. respecting your seaters

you walk into your favorite spot on a friday night. there's a wait. you're surprised. i have to wait 20 minutes to be sat? but i'm hungry! i don't have the patience for this! guess what, my friend, it's a friday night. or even a wednesday night. depending on the place, time of day, and time of year, you're going to wait. don't take it out on the host staff. they want you up there bitching and moaning to them about as much as you want to be up there bitching and moaning. it's one of the most mindless, yet thankless jobs in the front of the house. "why don't you just push a couple tables together for our party of 8?" sir, you're brilliant! my life is changed and has been made simpler thanks to the most basic suggestion of how to seat your oversized party in the restaurant i spend more time in than i'd like to count. you're a life saver!

the host staff knows what they're doing. if they don't seat you in an empty section, it's probably because there is no server there. go ahead and sit wherever you want, they can't guarantee that you'll be served there if they don't put you there themselves.

2. respect your wait staff

i'll be flogged for saying that the host staff is the most underappreciated group in the front of the house, but servers have an argument. we run, we smile, we try not to roll our eyes, and we get your food to you as fast as the kitchen gets it to us. and all for what, 15% of your bill? 20% if you're a good tipper. we'll get to tips in a minute. respect your wait staff, they're handling your food for pete's sake. watch "waiting". it doesn't happen everywhere, but just know that those people you might disrespect are in charge of what does or does not enter your body for the next hour.

be aware of how busy your server is. if they're running around refilling bread and drinks for 3 other tables, chances are they won't get to your water in the next 10 seconds. ask for things in bunches so they're not running back and forth for one thing at a time.

and for goodness sake, try not to be picky. allergies, take em into account, we won't be bothered by that. those tomatoes you could live without? pick them out yourself, or suck em down cause they're good for you. i can't speak for the culinary crew, but i'm guessing they're not big fans of picky eaters. even at a chain like olive garden, recipes have been prepared and used by chefs because that's how they're supposed to be prepared. yea, you can change the sauce or garnish, but you're running the risk of being insulting in saying that your way is better than the chef's. being picky complicates things and, depending on how much your server cares or may be absent-minded (me), you may not even get that parsley left off of your fett alfredo, anyways.

3. respect the money

i didn't realize that not everyone in the united states knew that servers, generally, make $2.83 an hour and that courtesy is to tip at least 15% of your bill. well, now you know. it's not true everywhere in the country, as i've been informed that CA pays their servers more, but in general we are living off those tips. know that anything less than 15% is an insult if our service was on par. a 10% tip is an insult. anything less and i'd rather just get stiffed, but make sure to watch your back on your way out. if we do everything, get everything you want, and make your experience enjoyable, then take that into account.

i tip 20%. that's me, though. tip what you think is appropriate. if you go to eat n park for a cup of coffee and a cookie, keep an eye on how many times your coffee is refilled. sure, your bill is $4, but their service deserves more than a dollar. if you get a three course meal, think before you leave $4.

finally, think about how long you're there. you have dinner with an old friend, coffee and dessert, then sit and chat for another hour. sure, your server isn't necessarily getting you anything aside from an occasional decaff refill, but you're keeping them from using that table for another set of paying customers. if you're going to sit twice as long, consider tipping twice as much. this is how people are making a living, so if you're keeping them from having another table, then have the courtesy to make up for it.

4. respecting the food

i don't have a lot to say about this, but i'll share a couple items from "kitchen confidential". first, if you eat out on a monday it might not be the best option to order fish. the fish that will be served on monday will be leftover from the weekend. it's whatever the owner doesn't want to throw out because it's still clean and safe, yet it's not fresh. tuesday's and thursday's fish are better options. second, ordering a well done steak will get you the scraps. in regard to the "tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin that's been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile", it's likely that the chef will choose to "'save for well-done' - serve it to some rube who prefers to eat his meat or fish incinerated into a flavorless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won't be able to tell if what he's eating is food or flotsam." these are from the mouth of a chef, friends. for more, read the book.

finally, in regards to food, expect what you pay for. yea, olive garden and tgi friday's are better than mcdonalds, but not much. olive garden is going to coat your food in heavy cream and butter, making it utterly unhealthy, and causing the obesity problem in america charged solely on fast food restaurants. it's true, folks, there's a reason i ate there twice during my employment. it tastes good, but you'll regret it later. if you want some high quality food made by trained professionals, you're going to have to pay for it; probably why i don't eat out much.

so that's what i've got. keep in mind, i'm no expert, i'm simply a partially jaded veteran of chain restaurant service. this isn't everything, either, but it's what you need to know at the beginning. notice the key word: respect. respect your service-providers and they'll respect you.

Friday, February 5, 2010


i rarely make posts two days in a row, but i haven't been hit with something to write about this much in a while.

sometimes i get the feeling that i'm going to be one of those people whose life gets cut short too early. i don't mean that in a pessimistic, depressing way (there IS another way, believe it!) but i mean it in a way that i'm aware of the possibility that any drive to work could be my last; my next soccer game could be my last; this blog could be my last. let's face it, life comes at us fast and sometimes it's too fast for us to survive. i don't think that i'm going to die before i'm 90, but i feel like it makes sense to live life like i could go early.

so if you died today, what would people remember about you? what would be said at your funeral? what is the legacy you'll leave behind? i'm reading donald miller's new book, a million miles in a thousand years, and it talks mainly about how our lives are stories. he is recounting his life and realizing that he's done a lot of talking, but maybe not enough living. his earlier book, through painted deserts, prompted a trip to seattle last summer (and again this summer), but this one is giving me that motivation i need to get out there and make a story of my life.

most things that happen in movies don't happen in real life, as explained by moviemakers in miller's newest work. but that doesn't mean we can't get out there and try to do things that only happen in the movies. have adventures, take chances, juggle risks. no one's ever won the lottery without playing it. jack johnson wouldn't be on our itunes if he didn't write his songs down. bill gates wouldn't be one of the richest men in america without creating something useful for the world. michael jordan wouldn't be the greatest basketball player of all time if he'd had listened to his middle school coach who cut him.

to go along with the resolution i referenced yesterday, i'd say another new resolution of how i'll live my life is to make sure that everything i'm doing is either A) the most enjoyable thing i could be doing at the time or B) helping me strive toward a greater goal in my life. approaching every minute of every day this way should help create the story i want people to reflect on.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

a better man

today was a very reflective day. i realized how absent-minded and misguided i am sometimes in remembering assignments that i had to do and prescriptions that i need filled at the last minute. some of the simplest tasks, like paying 50 cents and making a cup of coffee, became incredibly difficult for my brain to focus on. the day was a wash in terms of accomplishing what i wanted to accomplish, so here i sit at 11pm still just letting my mind wander rather than do anything productive.

today is a day where i get to the end of the day and still realize that things are very day-to-day for me. i'm in a grad program that i like, but i'm not super-stoked to get out and study and learn about higher ed management. i have a job that pays the bills, but i don't particularly care for. i have a lot more free time on my hands than my friends, but i still don't have enough to accomplish what i want to accomplish during the day. i just want to spend the day playing guitar, reading, writing, and having fun. i guess that's too much to ask after you graduate college, but is it? it depresses me to think that we can be limited in the things we really want to do by society telling us we need a job and a degree and to clean our house and mow the grass and blah blah blah. by the time we perform daily maintenance on our life, the day is over.

but maybe living life day-to-day isn't such a bad thing. why spend so much time worrying about what's going to happen in the future when you don't even know if the future will come? i guess that brings me to the point that life is just a series of events, moments in time that we have the chance to do something great; to leave a legacy. a moment comes and then it's gone, it doesn't wait for very long for you to decide the difference between right and wrong. before you know it, time has passed and you've just been sitting around thinking about it instead of living it.

i wanted to write a new years resolution blog last month, but never got to it. i don't really have any resolutions that i wouldn't want to uphold constantly, anyways. i want to be a better man than i was at the beginning of the year. in 2009 i made a lot of mistakes. i took a lot of chances. i made some important decisions. i hurt some people, but helped some others. i did a lot of selfish things, but i also did a lot of selfless things. i experienced a lot of moments, lived in them, reacted to them, and at the end of the day i'm a better man in 2010 than i was in 2009 because of it. that's really all i want, and that's really all we can strive for.