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Maximize Your Dining Out Experience

A restaurant reviewer offers up some tips on making the most of your night out.

Over the years of dining out – both for my restaurant review columns and socially – I have come to realize that certain things greatly increased my enjoyment of the experience.  I would like to share some with you here.

I once wrote: “Dining out is theater, and you’re in the cast – whether it’s comedy, drama, or tragedy is partly up to you.”  You may not fully agree with this statement, thinking it is mainly up to the restaurant to provide good food, service and a pleasant ambiance, and thus a good dining experience which, of course, is partly true. However, there are things you can do to enhance and increase your pleasure of eating out.

Here is one very important key – be pro-active, not passive, and participate.

From the moment you open your car door and start walking toward the restaurant’s entrance, the play has begun. Once inside the entry foyer, if you have not been acknowledged within five minutes, ask the first staffer you see, stepping further into the dining room if you have to, for the host or hostess.

When no immediate seating is available, I will avoid standing or sitting passively in a cramped waiting area at all costs. If there is a bar, go there and order something, telling the hostess to find you there when you name comes up. (If there is no bar and long waits are inevitable, I will only go to that restaurant at off-peak times, e.g. on weekday nights.)

When being seated, if you do not like the first table offered, politely let your preference for a different available table be known. I will often request that the two of us be seated at an empty table for four instead of the two-top initially escorted to, when it is clear the restaurant is slow. For me, table location and size make a large difference in comfort and overall enjoyment.

I will usually scan a dining room and decide which table is the ideal one, if I could choose any, perhaps for a return visit. Many top-of-the-line establishments routinely reserve specific favorite tables for their important regular and “celebrity” customers. You don’t have to be a celebrity, though. If you have a favorite table, ask for it when making your reservation.

The message here is not to be passive. You are there to have the best time possible and you are entitled to make reasonable demands, politely but firmly, to make it happen.

During your meal speak up (but not loudly) if you don’t like your dish – it’s cold, it’s too spicy, too well done, too rare, not as described on the menu, or if it needs more gravy/sauce. And also don’t be embarrassed to ask the price of the recited day’s specials.

Ask your server’s name and be open to a little conversation. If it is your first visit, you might ask your server what are the most popular items on the menu while you’re at it.

I know some of you are thinking of that overly chatty waiter or waitress who was more of an annoyance, especially the one who kept interrupting your conversations uninvited or overstayed their welcome gabbing on interminably. I know that this can happen occasionally with inexperienced servers, but in my experience, in the overwhelming majority of cases, a moderate, active dialog with my servers was an enhancement, not a detraction. 

If possible, establish a rapport with the owner and/or manager, and perhaps even the chef. This may take more than a single visit. If you really had a very favorable time, when the crowd is starting to thin out towards the latter part of the evening, ask if you could meet the chef/owner/manager. More often than not, he or she would love to come over and meet you. Tell them how much you enjoyed your dinner, giving some specifics. If your wine bottle is not drained, offer to share a glass.

In a sushi bar, getting to know the sushi chef and letting him get to know you is essential to having a maximum experience. In fact, there have been some occasions where my Lovely Dining Companion and I have even interacted with folks near us at a sushi bar, or at the next table, without being intrusive. Be open to this happening, unless your goal was to have a very private romantic evening with your companion.

Write Mitch Davis at MdavisMainCourse@aol.com.

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