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The New Rules of Dining Out

- Jonathan Carlson
Jonathan Carlson

We partnered with Culinary Agents, a professional network for the hospitality industry, to poll their more than 400,000 members, and 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.

1. MAKE A CONNECTION. Back in the day, when you wanted a reservation, you called the restaurant and spoke to a human—a connection was made. With the rise of online reservation services like OpenTable and Resy, that connection is gone. So, as Brian Canlis suggests, use the “notes” section (most services have one) to re-establish it. “Communicate with us,” says Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, “and we can make anything happen.” Is it a special occasion? Got a favorite table? It’s always better to let the restaurant know in advance. “Say you’re a vegetarian,” says Katy Kindred of Kindred restaurant in Davidson, North Carolina. “It’s fine if you tell us when you arrive, but if you tell us earlier, our chefs might make something special.” Bottom line: Give restaurants as much info as possible as early as possible so they can exceed your expectations.

2. MAKE A COMMITMENT. The anonymity of the web has made it easier than ever to bail on a table. “We get that planes are delayed, kids get sick. Just let us know,” says Brioza. “But no-shows keep someone else from having that table.” When you do show up, arrive on time. If you’re running late, call to let the restaurant know. And make sure your party of four is just that: four. (You wouldn’t arrive at a dinner party with three extra people in tow—right?) Sure, a restaurant can make it work (probably), but your actions may throw a wrench in the night’s service, including yours. Squirrelly or downright bad behavior doesn’t just affect others—it can also come back to haunt you. Some reservation services allow restaurants to rate guests, à la Lyft. Two-star guests do not get that extra wine-glass top off. OpenTable will even suspend a diner from its service if they’re a no-show four times in a year.

3. GO WITH THE FLOW. If the staff is really into something, try it. “Leave yourself in the hands of the team,” says Katie Button, executive chef and co-owner of Cúrate and Nightbell in Asheville, North Carolina. “That will allow you to experience a place the way it was designed to be enjoyed.” Short version: This is the staff’s job. Trust them. The heart of what restaurants do is creating an enjoyable experience. Go along for the ride, and odds are you’ll have a better one. “I never want to make anyone feel dumb,” says Andrew Tarlow, owner of Reynard in Brooklyn. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try and get you excited about some crazy new cheese we’re into that you’ve never heard of.” Seriously: Get the cheese. You’ll eat happier.

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4. DIVE INTO THE WINE. When you’re faced with wine lists full of umlauts and varietals you’ve never heard of, look at it as a chance for a relationship-building trust fall: “The first thing I ask is, ‘What do you normally drink?’ Then I give a few suggestions and ask them to trust me,” says Melissa Davis, beverage director of Staplehouse in Atlanta. “Guests already make the most difficult decisions—what to order, who to invite, whether to Uber—so let us take some of that stress away.”

5. TELL US HOW SPECIAL YOU ARE. Like many places, Nashville’s Rolf and Daughters spends a lot of time making sure dishes can accommodate dietary restrictions. “We try to create a quiver of ways to satisfy any issue,” says chef Philip Krajeck. “We have cashew cheese for dishes, and we make our own gluten-free pasta in-house.” That said, the sooner you let a restaurant know any special requests, the more you set the kitchen—and your night—up for success. Are there allergies? Aversions? Overshare! Start when you make your reservation (see: Rule No. 1), and keep it going the moment you and your server first lock eyes. But please, says Krajeck, “Don’t make things up.” When you raise the possibility of a medical issue, kitchens go into DEFCON 1, taking extra care to prevent cross-contamination. So if you just don’t like peanuts, be clear that’s what you mean.

6. COMPLAIN! Things go wrong. It happens. What transpires next can derail the night or pull it out of the ditch. “We love our guests to provide feedback in real time,” says Danny Meyer, the man who literally wrote the book on hospitality, Setting the Table. “Constructive feedback is one of our greatest learning tools. It never feels good to learn we’ve let somebody down, but it’s a gift to be able to acknowledge a mistake and fix it.” If you’re unhappy, let someone know ASAP. (Wondering how to send a dish back with grace? See here.) If you aren’t comfortable talking with your server, ask for a manager, and then explain the situation. Says Meyer, “The biggest cause of misunderstandings is lack of communication. We appreciate hearing when the meal is going well, but even more so when it’s not.” The worst-case scenario for restaurants is a guest saying, “Tonight just wasn’t good,” when it’s too late to do anything about it. Even worse: hearing about it weeks later on Yelp. “Disappointing a guest is a chef’s nightmare. If it happens, we want to know right away,” says Andrea Reusing, chef-owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “When someone complains online, the only person it serves is the one writing the review.”

7. HANDS OFF. It’s sad this needs to be mentioned, but here goes: Do not flirt, hit on, or touch anyone working at a restaurant. Period.

8. PARTY IN BOUNDS. If someone at your table has overindulged, do everyone a favor and step in. “Dude, I think you’re good,” goes down a lot better from friends or family. The ruckus isn’t the only problem. “If you have too much to drink, we are legally obligated to stop serving you,” says Kindred. “If it comes down to us cutting you off or us getting fined—or worse—we’ll choose the former every time.”

9. THINK OF THE CHILDREN! “I have no qualifications when it comes to bringing kids into my restaurants. I love it,” says Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. “But make sure you find somewhere that feels the same way. Go to a place where kids are welcome, not merely tolerated.” A couple of tip-offs? The chef-owner actually has kids. “Notions of ‘kid-friendly’ change once you have your own,” says Gjerde, from experience. Look online. A thoughtful kids menu—meaning, not the usual fried suspects—is a good sign. Know that if you come in at 8 p.m. on a Saturday, the restaurant will be far more bustling than it will be at, say, 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. And don’t let your kid run around the place. That’s not just a courtesy to other diners—with servers carrying hot food through a crowded space, it’s a safety issue.

10. KNOW THE LIMITS OF BYO. If you plan on bringing that magnum of Champagne from a recent trip to France, read up on a place’s corkage policy (better yet, call; in some states BYOB is illegal, so the restaurant may not have a say in the matter). Note that rolling in with a $15 bottle from the shop up the block does not count as opening a “special” bottle—and by trying to game the system, you’re missing out. Thoughtful restaurants curate drink lists to elevate the food. Trust them (see: Rule No. 3). Intimidated by the wine list? See Rule No. 4. Here’s another tip: “Stick to by-the-glass,” says Justin Chearno, wine director of The Four Horsemen in Brooklyn. “It’s a great way to experience the breadth of a wine program and learn in the process.” Cin cin! Win-win!

11. ASK FOR OVERTIME. “If you’ve paid the bill but decide to sit for another hour hanging out, that’s very hard for a restaurant,” Canlis says. “Tell us: ‘We’re having a blast—is it OK if we hang out, or do you need the table?’ Even if we do, we’ll find somewhere so you can keep having a good time. Just ask.”

12. END ON A HIGH NOTE. “If I see a diner walk to the front door and no one says goodbye, that drives me crazy,” says Reusing. “I love it when a guest says, ‘Thank you so much.’ Feelings of gratitude are mutual.” Once you’ve paid (tipping 20 percent—you do know that tips are how servers make money, right?), make eye contact with the staff on your way out. “Use those names! Say goodbye! Shake our hands!” adds Canlis. “The date is coming to an end, and we’ve both invested a lot into the night. Let’s acknowledge that.”

For more insight on how chefs and restaurateurs really feel about their guests' behavior, read the results of our survey with Culinary Agents.

Correction: A previous version of this post implied that basil can never cause an allergic reaction, when in fact, in rare cases, basil and other herbs can cause mild allergic reactions.

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