how to be a better diner; what the chefs want us to know

Forgive me chefs for I have sinned. I did something that I knowingly knew was tacky, yet I did it anyway. Last December, my family – 17 of us, went to see the play, A Christmas Story. My mom waited till the week of to make a dinner reservation (I was on her case to do this the day after Thanksgiving, but no one listens to me…). Of course she couldn’t get us in anywhere due to the timing and size of the party. So she was going to take us to a chain. My family had a rough year and I really wanted us to have a great meal and overall dining experience. So I called Brandon over at L’Albatros (even though I knew they were already booked) and asked if he could squeeze us in if we came super early. He did and we had a memorable holiday outing. It was the only time I’ve ever requested a favor of this kind and felt so funny in doing so. It’s incredibly tacky, among other things – even if the result of not doing so means dining ala chain. I was so appreciative he got us in, but vowed never to do it again.

A recent conversation with one of our chefs sparked an idea for this post. While in the scheme of things, me calling Brandon really wasn’t that horrible – we all rely on relationships we have with people from time to time (and it’s not like I used my blog to score a table, I relied on the fact that I have built a relationship with him – if he would have said no, that would have been the end of it). But for as great as social media is, it can also be used for evil. It’s amazing what a little anonymity can do and what comes out of people’s mouths when they hide behind the safety of a keyboard. People think nothing of it to bash and trash others; it drives me up a wall. I love the customer service aspect social media provides and overall experience it can enhance – when used properly. It is not an open invitation to make threats if something doesn’t go your way. I hear about this all the time – and have overheard people make this threat in restaurants. Someone will say something like: “oh, if you don’t accommodate me and take that off my bill, I’m going to tell everyone on Twitter and Facebook just how bad your restaurant is.” Really? Seems to say a lot about that person if you ask me.

Chefs have to hear and read all the time what we think of them and their food, why not give them a voice so we can hear what they think of us – not as a way to insult, but as a way to learn. Because in the end, we want a positive dining experience out and that’s exactly what they want for us, too. So how can we be better diners? How can we enhance our visit at one of the many restaurants?

There’s some good stuff here. And out of respect for everyone’s privacy, all chefs and restaurants have been omitted.

Dear customers: I will start by saying I love you all, and I appreciate all the love you have showed me in this great dining city that we live in.  Anything you do to me or my restaurant will never stop making me love you all just the same. But, could you please show up on time for your reservation? Maybe even call if you decide to go somewhere else for the evening.  Could you not get up to go smoke as your entrees are presented and then just flick your cig onto the ground?  Could you not say you know the chef, when he or she is not there, but really just saw him on local TV and assumed that we were life-long friends?  Could you be kind to my service staff, and relish in the fact that they work tremendously hard, long hours for you.  Could you muster up the strength to maybe point out the reasons you were dissatisfied that evening as opposed to running home to blast it on the Cleveland.com food forum.  And with regards to the food forum, please be considerate. If you had a bad experience, label all the bad, but don’t be so cynical. We all want to know what went wrong in our establishments. And finally, don’t label yourself as “do you know who I am or I have got a lot of money.” I don’t care about your money, As far as I am concerned you are a person that wants a great dining experience, and I am a chef trying to deliver.

I am allergic” to something when it really is “I really don’t like it, please don’t use that ingredient.” The “food allergy” issue is being used as an excuse. I understand that many people do suffer from them, but you can tell when they are making it up. It seems that more and more people feel that they can design their own dish and completely disregard the concept that we design the meals with a certain strategic balance. Then they have the balls to complain that “their version” was not that great!

So Friday night this table of four on the patio decides to call their friends to join them. Not a big deal except there are no more tables or chairs and we’re on a two hour wait. This woman begins to take chairs from tables that either have gotten up to use the bathroom or from tables we’re setting for the next group of customers. She’s a little tipsy and so I spoke with her and it goes terribly wrong. “I will never be back” is her first comment; “watch what you say to me because I’m a food critic and I can ruin you” was next. Now at this point I just want her to sit down and stop harassing the staff. Finally after I said I didn’t care who she was because of her actions and the fact she had too much to drink she came back with the granddaddy of them all – “I’m friends with Mike Symon!” Guess what people, so am I but that doesn’t give you the right to be an ass. So I’m looking forward to being bashed again on all the internet sites…

My biggest gripe is that customers come in to eat and they are in a mad rush and don’t realize that we cook our food to order – without microwaves and with the best technique we can. Sometimes they think we slow it up to spite them when we really just want to put out the best product we can. I wish customers had a bit more patience and understanding and realized that we are here to give them an exceptional food experience.”

Why does everyone think they’ve got to eat at the same time! Everyone comes in at the same time and very often, leaves at the same time as everyone else. It’s kind of weird.

I wonder why a guest would get the chef’s tasting menu, and then ask for dishes to be changed or altered. If you’re going to order that, be willing to try what the chef has created.

When you order something well done, do you really have room to complain that it’s dry and tough?

Do you really expect to order all these extra things for your dish/meal, and think that they will be free? It didn’t come in the back door for free, so we’ve got to charge you for those extras.”

Guests changing their mind on what dish they want, after it has been cooked and is being plated. Really?

Saying they know the owner, just to get special privileges.

Treat the hostess with kindness, especially if you don’t have a reservation. She/he is going to be the one to get you a table so treating them like they are beneath you is not the best route.

Don’t assume that because you are in Cleveland, Saturday nights are not busy.  Make reservations for the weekend.

Posting anonymously on a review site or food forum makes your words less credible.

If you have an issue with a restaurant, don’t immediately put a bad review up on yelp.  Write to the management.

Put faces behind the food you eat.  When you write untruths on the Internet you are directly affecting our lives, our families and our futures.

Treat people who work at restaurants with respect.  We are there to serve you and make your experience pleasurable; however we are not your servant.  Treat us kind.

I don’t go online and bash your job performance. How would you like it if you had a bad day at work and then had to read everyone insulting you online, people you don’t even know. You wouldn’t. And neither would your family. I get we are in a different business and thrive on word of mouth and media and blogger reviews. And I am all for food bloggers and respect most of them and people in general sharing their thoughts. Even if it’s bad, I will learn from it, no one is perfect all the time. But be fair in your review and honest. It’s okay of you don’t like something, I can take it and we all have strong opinions about food. But if it’s personal and not about the food, then you have bigger issues and are taking a forum that could be positive and turning it ugly. Oh, and call if you are going to miss your reservation. Don’t be lazy, make the call. You wouldn’t like it if I decided at the last minute not to come over your house for dinner and didn’t bother to tell you.

13 Comments

  1. Posted June 2, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I think the whole idea of chains has programmed us to need to have our meals within 15 minutes. As a former server of one of those, the chefs needed to deliver an entree within 20 minutes or it was considered “late.” Really? I don’t think that qualifies as late at all. I might have barely finished my salad or glass of wine in that time frame.

    However, people freaked out if it was running 25 minutes.

  2. Posted June 2, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this Michelle! I often wonder what I should do when my meal is not right or my experience off at a restaurant that I frequently visit. While I won’t blog about it — unless the service is downright despicable — I usually feel guilty bringing it up to management or the manager, especially if a one-time thing.

    From this, I gather that I should just say something to prevent from happening to someone else who very well might be at a restaurant on his or her first visit.

  3. Nancy Foreman
    Posted June 2, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Food, like art, is a subjective thing. What appeals to one, may not appeal to another. However, if people go out to eat in a non-chain restaurantg they should be open to trying new things and allowing time to savor the whole dining experience. Enjoy the atmosphere, the fellowship of your dining companion(s), the creativity of the chef, and the hard work of the service staff. Treat people the way you would like to be treated in your home for a dinner party. If something is not necessarily prepared or flavored the way you would like, or you don’t care for an item (for me it is mushrooms!)simply leave the item on your plate without comment. If the server or other staff member asks if your meal was okay, quietly tell them what you would have preferred, if necessary. Be sure to tip the server adequately, unless the service itself was abominable. The server does not determine the menu items, does not do the cooking, and can’t hurry up a process he/she cannot control. Cleveland is blessed with many fine restaurants. If you think you have had a bad experience at one, try another — this time with an open mind and a sensitivity to what the staff is going through to present you with an optimal dining experience. If you have a good experience, by all means tell others. If not, either forget it or drop a note to the management privately. Bon Appetite!

  4. Alan
    Posted June 2, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    GREAT stuff, Michelle, and I really appreciate your posting this. I’ve seen some of this behavior in person and it’s disgusting.

    Let’s be frank, civility as a concept has left–or trying to escape, anyway–the building, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the building is often a restaurant. Regardless, we shouldn’t put up with it either, although I understand the sensitive position of trying to criticize or correct the people who pay your bills. Tough job.

    Thanks, again, Michelle. Maybe you could do Part II someday.

  5. Ryan
    Posted June 2, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    As a foodie, I really sympathize with what some of these people must deal with. Customers also need to remember that the people around them are trying have a nice experience too. When they are miserable and take it out on the staff, it can ruin the atmosphere for the tables around them.
    Also, I don’t care if we’re outside… If I’m trying to enjoy a meal on the patio, don’t blow smoke in my face.

  6. Carrie
    Posted June 2, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I do agree that customers *should* complain to the staff/management – out of courtesy and respect. However, this can be difficult to do. It’s much easier to talk behind someone’s back than to his or her face. With the internet, it’s even easier to complain about a restaurant than to the restaurant.

    As a former server/bartender/hostess/cocktail waitress/wine rep, I do know what it’s like to be in the service industry. I know what it’s like to work in well run establishments and not so well run ones. My standards are a bit high when I go out to eat. I don’t feel comfortable complaining UNLESS the staff shows some interest in my opinion. I’m not one to make an extra effort to help out a restaurant with my insight, if I was treated poorly or shown very little interest. It’s a tough business. But the customer is why the business is there…

    I think chefs and restaurant owners should show interest in customers’ opinions and experiences so they will share them. There will always be rude and inappropriate customers and it’s not possible to please everyone. I know if the staff showed a sincere interest in my experience, I’d be more inclined to share my honest feedback and I believe others would do the same.

  7. jillc
    Posted June 2, 2010 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    You forgot to mention we wish you would TURN OFF YOUR DAMN PHONE.

    The Free Times did a customer from hell story in one of their restaurant issues and it was great.

    It is hard to take criticism either directly or indirectly and servers should be trained to reconize the difference between a problem customer and a customer with a problem. A customer with a problem should be accomodated while a problem customer should get a polite definition of acceptable boundries. It is hard to “fire” a customer but people who abuse the good intentioned hospitality of a restaurant should not get everything they want by complaining.

    One time a man complained about ants in his food. Sure enough there were the biggest ants I had ever seen on his plate. There is no way the server or the kitchen would have missed this and other customers would have had the same problem. He started asking for compensation and when he was not satisfied with my offer of a new dinner, he threatened to call the TV station. I told him to call because they probably had never done a story about people who alter food trying to get free stuff. He paid and left. No tip. No TV station either.

    Everyone who thinks they can bully the staff says they know the chef or they know someone at the TV station and everyone who works in a service industry knows it. A server can always turn it around by saying, “Next time you see him, please tell him how hard we are working to satisfy you.”

    As a customer, I don’t feel it is my responsibility to manage the restaurant so if I do have a mediocre experience, I might tell my friends or post something on line. If I do tell management about a specific problem, I hate being blow off with a “Sorry about that.” I expect a sincere apology and a quick resolution.

  8. Posted June 3, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Great post…. very sad that people feel they can act the way they do …. We were out last night… had a wonderful server…great food..and a great dining experience! I always say… “Because Nice Matters”…. in every situation!

  9. Posted June 3, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    jillc…. I am with you on the phone thing!!! :)

  10. Renee
    Posted June 3, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    What a fantastic idea for a post. I wish we had more venues for this type of open conversation between diners and chefs/restaurant staff.

    While most of the chefs were really talking about common courtesy, their words did open my eyes to the dangers of anonymous posting. People tend to believe everything they read, and that can really hurt a business. I know I’ll be more mindful of that in the future.

    I’d also like to add that I wish more people would simply be considerate of their surroundings. Don’t talk loudly on your cell phone if you’re in a cozy restaurant- please take your call outside. All too often, a romantic evening for 2 is forced to compete with a loud, boisterous table of 8. We have to learn to compromise and be more aware of how our behaviour effects others.

    I really believe that inconsiderate people destroyed the movie going experience. That’s why I own a large screen tv and a home theatre set-up. I hope I won’t have to resort to take-out in the future because the same thing happened to the restuarant scene.

  11. Posted June 3, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    We were just having the same discussion at our restaurant. We are most frustrated when customers are late on a Saturday night or make multiple reservations and don’t bother to cancel. I don’t think people realize the impact of their actions on small restaurants when they do this.
    Thanks for your post. You’ve hit many of the major points and I hope it helps customers understand the viewpoint of the restaurant.

  12. Seleta
    Posted June 4, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I LOVE this post! I am no longer in the industry, but have held every front of house job that exists and LOVE to play in the kitchen (my own of course). One of my ‘most memorable moments’ came from a customer who was insulted that we were out of the $20 bottle of wine she wanted and demanded that I substitute the $85 bottle in its stead…a ‘problem customer’ much more than a ‘customer with a problem.’

    I love Jillc’s reference and terminology!

    Maybe because of history in the industry I still have a tendency to ‘see the whole dining room’ like a floor manager (NOT the kind that hides in an office) and be sensitive to my server, etc. My FAVORITE thing to do as a diner is to request to speak to a manager so I may compliment a staff member. After reading this, I will make certain to post those compliments online as well!

  13. genna p
    Posted June 4, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    thank you so much for posting this! i am a hostess at a fabulous local restaurant and i believe that if everyone worked in a restaurant for ONE DAY the world would be a better place- folks would understand how not to act in certain situations.

    my fellow staff members and i pride ourselves on being a compliment to the great food that is served where we work. we believe in a pleasant experience and simply ask for common courtesy. please show up for your reservation- on time- and with the number of people you made the reservation for. please respect the fact that other people want to eat, too. on saturday night, please enjoy your meal, surroundings and company- but please realize that the restaurant is not your living room and that those people waiting in line and out the door are most likely there to have a great experience, too.

    please do not talk down to me or yell at me when you do not get what you want. (no- you cannot sit outside by yourself at a table that seats six people. no i do not have a table for you at 7:00 when your reservation was for 9:15). do not assume that simply because i work in the service industry that i am not educated. feel free to complain if you are unhappy with the way we treat you- for every one complaint i can show you so many satisfied customers.

    i take pride in standing at the front door of the restaurant where i work. please take pride in yourself enough to not be a total jerkface. thank you!

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