Food & Wine: The New Rules of Dining Out – A Review

by artfuldiner on May 7, 2018

in Artful Diner Review, Breaking News, Opinion, Wining and Dining

Food & Wine Restaurants of the Year5 2018I recently received my May installment of Food & Wine magazine… “The 2018 Restaurants of the Year” issue. According to the byline, Restaurant Editor Jordana Rothman logged 37,000 miles in six months in search of 2018’s 10 most intriguing places to throw on the feedbag.

My condolences… and apologies, as all of Jordana’s hard work proved to be of only minor interest to me. On the other hand, it was Scott DeSimon’s prolegomena to Ms. Rothman’s lead article that succeeded in raising a red flag.

It began with At Your Service, informing readers of the partnership with Culinary Agents, a marketplace for talent in the hospitality business “… We asked the chefs and restaurateurs at the top of their game what restaurant guests can do to help make their nights out the best they can be – for everyone involved.” This was followed by On a Perfect Night at Canlis – a famous Seattle restaurant – by co-owner Brian Canlis: “We’re professionals trained to deliver an individually tailored experience. Be kind and empathetic, and we will fight to make sure you leave a raving fan.” Finally… The New Rules of Dining Out, 12 to be exact, replete with a pie chart of restaurants’ biggest pet peeves about diners and illustrations reminiscent of a third-rate ‘50s rag mag.

As a professional food & wine writer and restaurant critic, I find it difficult to believe that the vast majority of readers of Food & Wine, and magazines of similar ilk, would not be completely familiar with proper comportment in a fine dining establishment… So, why is Mr. DeSimon “preaching to the choir,” so to speak…? Perhaps, as the publication date drew near, the editors found themselves a few pages short and needed a quick fill-in? Perhaps… But The New Rules of Dining Out strikes me as nothing more than a propaganda piece specifically designed to extol the virtues of the restaurant industry while, at the same time, place the onus of the success or failure of a restaurant visit squarely on the shoulders of the diner. “If you have a bad restaurant experience, it’s your own damn fault” seems to be the not so subtle innuendo.

There is absolutely no question that dealing with the public – especially within a restaurant context – can be a difficult experience. And problems like parents who allow children to run amuck, reservation no-shows, patrons who overindulge in alcohol, and just plain “squirrelly” behavior are points well taken. But Mr. DeSimon tells only one side of the story… Just as there are good and bad patrons, so, as every knowledgeable and conscientious diner knows, there are also good and bad restaurants. And in my travels as a restaurant reviewer, I’ve seen more than my share of less than stellar happenings at less than stellar eateries.

Food & Wine - ServiceLike a host/hostess who is downright rude from the moment you walk through the door… or your server, who cops an attitude, letting you know he/she has more important engagements elsewhere… But let’s be more specific. Rule number 3: “Go with the Flow.” In other words, trust members of the restaurant staff to recommend your menu selections. “Leave yourself in the hands of the team,” notes one executive chef/co-owner… In many restaurants, however, servers are explicitly instructed to attempt to upsell diners. Not too long ago at a popular steakhouse, my dining partner and I had settled on our entrées… and our server immediately tried to point us toward two similar selections… each of which just happened to be $15.00 more expensive than our original choices. And the same goes for the wine list… In a number of upscale restaurants, the wine team actually has annual and monthly sales goals. And, if members of the staff happen to work on a tip pool, the higher the check, the higher the tip… and that means more money for everyone. So, it’s always in the restaurant’s best interest to upsell the customer.

Then there’s Rule Number 7: “Hands Off.” To quote the rule in full: “It’s sad this needs to be mentioned, but here goes: Do not flirt, hit on, or touch anyone working at a restaurant. Period.” On the other hand, the reverse is also true… in spades. Several years ago, when my wife and I were dining in a restaurant I intended to review, our male server, an older gentleman, put his hand on me on two separate occasions. While explaining the daily specials, he placed his hand on my back and actually began a gentle massage. Sometime later, when he returned to ask how we were enjoying our appetizers, he placed his hand on my arm and let it remain there for the entirety of the conversation. I said nothing at the time, but I damn well mentioned it in the review, quoting at length Jeff Weinstein, former restaurant critic of The Village Voice: “I knew when I set out to talk about this that I would risk sounding like a snob, that I would, in fact, have to convince you that being touched by a waiter was indeed a crime. Take my word for it: it is. Your mother or father may kiss your brow when serving giblets at Thanksgiving, your lover may nuzzle the back of your neck as he or she takes away your plate, but a waiter cannot even so much as place a finger on your person while you are at the restaurant’s table.” The moral of the story, I noted at the conclusion of the review: “Never fondle a food critic.”

Food & Wine - New RulesThe suggestions about how to voice complaints, Rule Number 6, with quotes from Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table, are particularly interesting and, for the most part, quite helpful. The biggest cause of misunderstandings, Mr. Meyer notes, is lack of communication. He wants to address the problem while it still may be fixed; i.e., like sending an item back to the kitchen if the diner is unhappy with his/her selection.

Mr. Meyer is, of course, speaking idealistically… Problem is, in the real restaurant world, situations are not always ideal. I remember, for example, attending a restaurant dinner party in which there were approximately a dozen people present, including two other food writers. My rack of lamb came out blood rare; so, I very quietly & politely asked the woman in charge if she could have the chef cook the lamb just a bit longer. She was very accommodating, whisking my plate away and returning it several minutes later. As she placed it in front of me, she whispered: “The chef is not happy.” Huh!?

The above episode, which took place very early in my food writing career was quite instructive. A restaurant owner, of course, may be all for making things right and keeping the customer happy; while the chef, on the other hand, for various reasons, including a massive ego, may not be so kindly disposed, and may take an item returned to the kitchen as a personal affront. In my various culinary travels, I have witnessed chefs come storming out of the kitchen and proceed to verbally abuse customers in the middle of a crowded dining room. I have also witnessed several, after a heated argument, in a fit of rage, ask customers to “get the hell out” of their restaurant. Mr. Meyer may consider these events anomalies; but they do occur. And, as I noted above… the real restaurant world can be far from ideal.

No question, sending a dish back can be an uncomfortable and tricky proposition; and, of course, the article gives readers a few guidelines: “Be honest, be specific, be confident… and the same goes for wine.” All well and good… But here’s the misleading zinger: “Be mindful: If you send back more than one dish, maybe the problem is you.” Well, not necessarily. There’s an old Yiddish proverb that cautions that the cure may be worse than the disease. And that also goes for sending back items in a restaurant. For while the chef may be correcting one problem – let’s say, cooking that filet more to your liking – the other items on the plate can be languishing under a heat lamp for an inordinate period of time, leaving the dish in a far worse shape than you originally found it. And, even though you would be totally justified in sending the dish back for a second time, such a decision would undoubtedly raise the chef’s ire to a fever pitch and label you as a troublemaker.

What this article doesn’t tell you, but should, is that, from the customer’s point of view, there are occasions when sending an item back to the kitchen can be more trouble than it’s worth – and not just for the reasons noted immediately above. Recently at a restaurant, for example, I ordered grilled pork medallions, which turned out to be overcooked and on the tough side. I knew that if I sent them back, the kitchen would have to prepare two new medallions, which would take a considerable amount of time, thus causing a major inconvenience to me and my dining partner. So, I elected to eat the tenderest pork portions and the other items on the plate rather than sending the item back to the kitchen. When the server cleared the entrées, noticing that I had left a considerable amount of pork on my plate, I told him that I had thoroughly enjoyed parts of the dish, but that he might mention to the chef that the pork had been rather dry and tough. When he returned, he indicated that $20.00 would be deducted from the check. This seemed to me a fair and equitable way to deal with the situation, while causing the least amount of hassle for all concerned.

When it comes to complaints, there is one thing restaurants definitely do not want diners to do: utilize the social media. “The worst-case scenario for restaurants is a guest saying, ‘Tonight just wasn’t good,’ whenBourdain, Anthony its too late to do anything about it. Even worse: hearing about it weeks later on Yelp.” And another chef/owner chimes in: “When someone complains online, the only person it serves is the one writing the review.” Well… not quite. That may be the restaurant industry’s view; but the truth is somewhat different. Misuses and abuses notwithstanding, the social media – Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc. – provide an invaluable source of information for the conscientious, knowledgeable diner. Not too long ago, if a diner received inferior cuisine or suffered bad service, it would take quite a while for the word to get around. Now, however, if something untoward takes place at a particular restaurant on a Friday evening, half the city could be aware of the situation by Saturday morning. And that makes restaurants very, very nervous.

What bothers me most about The New Rules of Dining Out is not only its one-sided simplicity, but also the incredible disservice that Food & Wine does to its readership through its downright patronizing “Just behave like good little diners and everything will be fine” attitude. The editors should know better… but, obviously they don’t. And that provides me with yet another reason for letting my subscription lapse.

Jay Jacobs 2For a glimpse at the other side of the restaurant world, the world that the editors of Food & Wine have chosen to studiously ignore, conscientious and thoughtful diners would do well to check out (or reread) Anthony’s Bourdain’s deliciously wicked Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. And, although it was written in 1980, I would highly recommend Jay Jacob’s still relevant and hilariously informative Winning the Restaurant Game.

Bon Appétit!


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