DINING SURVEY Tips for Dining Out

Tips on Dining Out

Diners are always asking us whether the meals they will be served at a restaurant are going to be as good as the meals we are served or meals that they read about elsewhere. It’s a fair question, and to be honest, as much as everyone would like to think otherwise, not all diners are treated equally. This might come as a shock to you, but restaurants make an extra effort to make their regular customers happy, and they simply do not have the manpower or resources to offer the same treatment to every customer.
This up-tick in quality manifests itself in a number of ways: the kitchen may source special ingredients for regular customers, or it might hold back the best-quality ingredients in order to make sure they go to a regular rather than to someone visiting for the first time. For a favored customer, the chef might prepare a dish or a series of dishes that are not on the menu, or the sommelier might even propose wines that are not on the printed list. If we had to put a number on it, “special” customers eat around 20 percent better than everyone else, which can be a huge increment at this level of quality.

Let the chef do the choosing

Here’s a little secret that is guaranteed to improve your dining experience in most restaurants. When you go to a restaurant where you are unknown to the house, say these nine simple words to your captain or waiter, “We would like the kitchen to cook for us.” That is the secret handshake used in the dining community to communicate to a chef or kitchen that you are serious about dining out and that you want to be accorded whatever special treatment the restaurant holds in reserve for regulars and other serious diners. Of course, you will be consulted on things like the number of courses in the meal, and you will be able to tell the kitchen to avoid specific ingredients you might dislike or are allergic to, but otherwise you just sit back and watch the chef perform his or her magic for you.
I know it sounds counterintuitive—ceding control of the meal to the kitchen and letting them choose your dinner—but if you think about it for a second, it makes perfect sense. Let’s say on the morning of your visit, the restaurant received shipments of pork and beef and the pork looked especially spectacular. Well, would you know that from reading the printed menu? Of course not. But by telling the kitchen that you would like to be considered a more serious diner than the average Joe, you increase the odds that the best the house can offer will come your way. Of course, there is a price for this style of dining, as the cost of the meal will reflect the unique treatment, but in our experience, it’s a price that is well worth paying for those who are serious about dining.

Trust the sommelier

What’s true for the meal is also true for the wine. If you are a novice or inexperienced about wines, your best chance of drinking well is to put yourself in the hands of the sommelier or beverage director. Sure, we occasionally run into one of those old-fashioned sommeliers who snarl at you when you don’t know your way around the carte (this occurs mostly at old-line restaurants in France), but the new generation of sommeliers is user-friendly and trained to make you feel comfortable in a situation many people often find uncomfortable.
When it comes to budgeting for wine at a restaurant, there is no set rule about how much to spend. In general, if you are willing to pay between 50 to 100 percent of the cost of the food, the quality of the wines will usually match the quality of the food. We would also like to dissuade you from ordering elaborate wine pairings, in which the sommelier matches different wines to each course. In our experience, the quality you get when you allocate funds to a single bottle is significantly higher than the quality of wine you usually find in the pairings.

Bring your own wine

One of the easiest ways to improve your restaurant meal is by bringing your own wine. Many restaurants allow you to do so, but charge a corkage fee for the privilege of opening your bottle and providing you with stemware and the services of the sommelier, who will handle your bottle with the same care and professionalism you would get if you had purchased a bottle off the restaurant’s list. Unless it is against the law in a state, we try to avoid dining at restaurants that don’t allow customers to BYO, preferring to give our business to restaurants that see the practice as a service issue. Corkage fees can range anywhere from nothing at all to as much as $85 per bottle in very top restaurants.
Which restaurants allow you to BYO and which do not varies by state. In some states, like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, it is strictly verboten, unless the restaurant does not have a liquor license. In other states, it’s up to the restaurant whether or not to permit the practice. The list of states where it's legal to BYO is quite long: we have done it, for example, in New York, South Carolina, Florida, Illinois, California, Nevada and Washington State. In Europe, we have brought our own bottles to restaurants in the United Kingdom, Belgium and Holland. Restaurants in France almost never allow it. But to their credit, wines in France are often priced more fairly than they are in other countries and that balances things out. Our advice to you is to try to bring your own bottle as often as you can and don’t be afraid to ask the reservationist if the restaurant has a friendly corkage policy (and what the fee is) when you book your table.