Much has been written about how we now live in a post-fact world. To make matters worse, it sometimes seems, in this age of ranting tweets, that we may also be nose-diving into a post-hospitality world.
A few disturbing trends we've been seeing in and around restaurant dining rooms would seem to indicate such a hospitality implosion. Fortunately, as rampant as the following annoying behaviors are, the fixes are pretty easy – for any restaurateur who cares to go all squishy and cultivate return customers, that is.
The valet wants your phone number
We used to get annoyed that we were forced to use a valet. Now that we've absorbed that intrusion, here's a worse one: The valet wants your phone number. That's right: Despite the fact that experts warn that giving up your cell number is becoming as dangerous to your financial security and privacy as giving up your Social Security number, it is now becoming routine for valets to ask for it. That's the case if you want the valet to park your car when you dine at Tei-An, Proof + Pantry or Del Frisco's Double-Eagle Steakhouse.
The fix: When a valet at Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe at Hall Arts asked for my cell number, I said, "I'm not comfortable giving you that. It's private." Without a word, he handed me a plastic card I could use to request my car instead. Great! Language like, "Would you like this card, or would you prefer to give us your cell number?" would be welcome.
The cocktail-list squeeze
A server approaches the table with a single list of the restaurant's specialty cocktails, handing it to the host. Often the list is four or five pages long, sometimes even longer. Before the host is halfway through the gin drinks chapter, the server reappears, ready to take everyone's order. Never mind that it has only been three minutes and three of you have not yet seen the list. Ask for more lists so everyone can look, and often as not you'll get a punishment along with the lists. You weren't ready when the server was? Now you'll have to wait.
The fix: Four diners? Four cocktail lists.
Have you dined with us before?
Whether or not we've dined with you before, the question that has become nearly inevitable when we're greeted has become really grating. Even if it's our first time dining with you, we know how to read a menu, that appetizers are on the left and main courses on the right. We do not need the "concept" explained, unless you're a restaurant in a treehouse and we're required to place our order before climbing up the ladder.
"Have you dined with us before?" can be even more annoying when the answer is "yes." Thoughtful front-of-the-house staff should be on the lookout for repeat diners. If we have dined with you before, the question is an in-your-face reminder of how very unmemorable we are, and how very little our patronage was appreciated. Not that that restaurants should be expected to remember everyone, but then why rub it in that they don't remember us? That's not good for anyone. Meanwhile, if we used Open Table to make the reservation, the restaurant has an easy way of knowing we've dined there previously.
The fix: If you recognize a diner, instead of asking the absurd question, say something like "So nice to see you again" or "Welcome back – thank you for joining us again." If you don't recognize a diner, or aren't sure, say something like, "Thank you for joining us this evening. If you have any questions about the menu, I'm happy to answer them." Easy-peasy: You haven't insulted a repeat patron nor bored anyone to tears.
The appetizer mind-game
Here's one for the folks who write the menus: All too often, it's impossible to tell whether a restaurant's starters are meant to share, or meant to be ordered individually. Frequently the answer is some of both, and they're all mixed together in one list without any indication. I've even seen it happen on menus that with separate "to share" lists of starters. The danger is one person winds up facing a giant plate of fried food that's clearly meant for three or four. Or four people try to share an appetizer that stars three oysters.
The fix: Make it clear on the menu. If it's not clear on the menu, have the server tell guests which are meant to share and which are meant for one person.
Ready for another cocktail?
You're halfway done with your cocktail, and here comes your server, asking, "Ready for another cocktail, sir?" This baffling behavior has been happening with increasing frequency in the past few months. Pressure to sell more drinks? Uncanny inability to read guests' signals? Whatever it is, it's ridiculous.
The fix: Watch the table. Mind your guests. Anticipate needs, but don't be pushy. Also, when you do ask, it's more customary to say something like, "May I get you something else to drink?" as generally speaking diners are more likely to move on to wine or beer than have a second cocktail.
Tiny plate syndrome
OK, so you've ordered two or three starters and you're going to share them among the four of you. You're expected to do that using the teeny-weeny plate that's just been placed before you? Dudes! That plate barely accommodates a deviled egg! Where are we supposed to fit the fried calamari and the slice of flatbread? Is someone watching us on a video screen in the kitchen and cracking up?
The fix: Adult-size plates.
You're just getting to the punchline, or leaning close to your date about to reveal your soul, and BOOM! the server interrupts with, "Are we enjoying our dinner?" Well, we were, until you interrupted.
The fix: If you're just checking on a table, wait until an opportune moment and no one's mid-sentence. If your question is "Anything I can get you?" learn to read body language. If a diner needs something, chances are she'll be looking up trying to make eye contact with a server. If she doesn't, and you haven't forgotten to bring anything, you don't need to intrude.
Aggressive wine pour
A server comes around making sure wine glasses are filled. But instead of stopping when each glass is filled appropriately – which means three or four ounces – she overfills the glasses, then holds up the empty bottle triumphantly. "Would you like another bottle?" Awkward! We have full glasses! Looking to pad the check?
Variation: A server comes around to fill wine glasses, entirely filling the host's glass, but leaving someone else's empty. Then he holds up the bottle cunningly, staring at the host: "Another bottle, sir?" He is daring you to be a cheapskate. Would you deny your friends another glass while yours is full?
The fix: Try to refill glasses evenly – and no monkey business.
The deep freeze
Yep, nice and chilly in the dining room. That's fine and dandy if you're a server running around busting your bones all evening. Unfortunately for diners, it's about as pleasant as eating al fresco in Northern Finland in February.
The fix: It's not about you. It's about the guest. Just sayin'.