This guest post is brought to you by Elaine Cicora, former food critic for Scene and current director of communications at the delicious Crop Bistro.
Ten years is a long time to be a professional stomach – hitting the region’s troughs, treasure troves, and taverns three to four times per week, 48 weeks per year, for nearly a decade. Not that I’m complaining. It was a great gig — even if my own kitchen and I were barely on speaking terms during the course of my tenure.
Happily, my stove and I have been getting reacquainted since this past July, when I left Scene just prior to its sale to accept the position of “official storyteller” — aka Director of Communications — at Crop Bistro in the Warehouse District. Sure, Crop’s chef-owner Steve Schimoler feeds me well. Still, it has been good to get back in my own kitchen, and bang around some pots.
Yet even as I roast a chicken or bake a pie, I wonder at how much I learned about dining during my days as a critic — knowledge that developed into a sort of personal coda. While some of the tenets are admittedly more applicable to toney spots, and others are helpful mainly at casual joints, most of them apply to all kinds of eateries. Let me share some of them with you, in the hopes that they’ll be useful in your own dining adventures.
1. Keep an open mind. When you prepare to check out a new dining spot, don’t be unduly influenced by what others have said. Everyone — including the pros — has his or her prejudices. The only opinion that really matters in the long run is going to be your own.
2. Very few things in life suck as much as showing up hungry and excited at a chosen dining room, just to discover it is all booked up, closed for a private party, or — worst of all — out of business. So call ahead. If the spot takes reservations, make them. If not, at least you can confirm the restaurant will be open the night you intend to visit.
3. Be nice to your server. Even if service ultimately proves lacking, your waiter or waitress is not your personal punching bag. Should they forget to bring bread, disappear in the middle of your meal, or even cut themselves on the corkscrew and then bleed all over your table (yep, that really happened…), remember: Service is only as good as management insists that it be. In fact, shoddy service is probably best considered a reflection of poor management, rather than as a mark against a single individual. Still need to complain about the service? Take it up with the boss, don’t bitch at the waitress.
4. Want to really test a chef’s mettle? Ask the server about the chef’s signature dish. Especially at higher-end joints, asking, “Is there something the chef is particularly proud of, or considers her specialty?” can be the key to getting inside the chef’s head. Plus, it provides a valid platform for criticism. After all, if the kitchen screws up the house specialty, what hope is there?
5. In most places, avoid buying wine by the glass. Not only is it more expensive, but open bottles can quickly lose their luster; and — especially at restaurants that do low volume — there’s no way of telling how long that bottle has been open. Better to buy a half bottle, or even a whole bottle and take home the remainder. (Ohio law allows this, as long as the bottle has been resealed; as an additional precaution, we always carry resealed bottles in the trunk.) Of course, if you politely express your concerns about ordering that glass of $12 Pinot, you just might find a bartender who will open a new bottle just for you. (If you do encounter such a gem, tip her well!)
6. Don’t be afraid to share dishes. A shared app or salad, two entrees, and a shared dessert are generally plenty of food for one couple, and contrary to a common fear, sharing dishes doesn’t make you look nerdy or cheap. In fact, most servers couldn’t possibly care less about how much food you order. So speak up, state your intentions, and ask for extra plates. Indeed, the best spots will split shared dishes for you right in the kitchen, complete with tiny garnishes. Give them a star!
7. Have faith in the chef. If he thinks the salmon is best served medium rare, go for it. If she thinks squash is the perfect side dish, don’t ask for broccoli instead. Like visual artists, good chefs choose each element of a dish for a reason. If you want to understand their vision, let them prepare the dish the way that they perceive it.
8. Take the time to really appreciate your surroundings. Restaurants don’t just charge for the food, you know: The décor, the appointments, and the ambiance are a big part of what you pay for, so take the time to take them in. Consciously notice the flowers, the view, and the lighting. What kind of music is playing in the background? Are the plates pretty and the flatware handsome? Are the chairs comfy, and the napkins soft? Sure, the food is important; but the amenities are what really set a place apart.
9. Tip fairly, 15 to 20 percent of the bill. (Remember the valet, too, even if the valet parking is free.) This is not negotiable.
10. Have fun. Playing armchair critic can be amusing, in moderation; but getting too serious about analyzing your grub is a recipe for disappointment. Horrible or heavenly — at the end of the evening, it’s only a meal. Relax, enjoy your dining pals, and have a good time.