Paul Guzzardo advises staying away from the specials if you already have the opinion the restaurant isn't up to par, and try not to alter the dish you've ordered; chances are the server is already at his threshold in multitasking. Eric Ripert has a good idea about how to figure out what's good—he asks the waiter if he would eat the dish himself; if the guy or woman says no (and dares admit it), you've got your answer.
Does money help? Well, it depends. Grimes says, "I have never tried outright bribery—rustling a crisp hundred-dollar bill and then itemizing my requirements. That might work wonders." In my opinion, though, it's best to give money at the end, to avoid the impression of "buying" a table. Having said that, I am not naÃ¯ve, and I have seen a hundred dollar bill proffered before dinner do the trick. Tipping is always expeditious and effective, especially if you plan on returning to the restaurant. (Never tip the owner, though; that is not cool.) As my husband says, echoing a saying long attributed to James Beard, "The best restaurant in the world is the one where they know you the best." He could have added, "and where you have tipped generously."
There are other opinions, though. Marco Fazzina, general manager of the New York incarnation of London's hyper-chic Le Caprice, prefers a long, slow, gentlemanly cultivation of a restaurant rather than money dropping and fingers snapping. He says you'll get good service either way, but your treatment will be "more proper" if the staff genuinely likes you.
You can win favor with a restaurant you expect to frequent. Start by sending a thank-you note. You'd be surprised how far this will go. Be specific, so they know what you particularly liked. You'd also be surprised at how many people send Christmas gifts to restaurant employees they especially like (this is in addition to the big bucks that cross palms at that time of year).
You can also try to mitigate the damage: if you're having an important meal in a restaurant you know is iffy, don't hesitate to visit beforehand. Make a connection with one person—manager, hostess, owner, chef—and let him or her know that the occasion is significant. I have used this myself and seen it work wonders. I have also seen it fall on deaf ears, in a truly irretrievable place.
Frank Bruni , until recently the New York Times restaurant critic, told me a story from his reviewing days that illustrates the efficacy of making a personal connection in a restaurant, in order to get better service. Remember 71 Clinton Fresh Food, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan? (It was Wylie Dufresne 's restaurant before he moved to WD-50, and it was in the "too hip to bother with you" mode.) As Bruni sat down he saw his server bopping along to a song on the restaurant playlist by Badly Drawn Boy . "I remember thinking 'I want to have a conversation with her about this song because I am a big fan of Badly Drawn Boy' and, just like at a cocktail party, the ice was broken by something we had in common. She was at our table often that night, and the mood permeated the whole meal."
If you want a simpler technique (and you don't know who Badly Drawn Boy is—I didn't) Eric Ripert says you should try to get the waiter to laugh. If he's got a sense of humor and responds to yours, you've got a chance that he will go out of his way to deliver the most he can.
The goal, as Bruni says, is that you need to distinguish yourself from every other "hungry lump at a table." If the waiter thinks you're fun to interact with, he'll pay more attention to you.
Mary Sue Milliken , the Los Angeles restaurateur, disclosed a great tactic to ensure smooth service: whenever she goes to dinner with friends, she surveys her table and pre-takes everyone's order. That way, when the waiter comes she can deliver the order for the entire table in an expeditious manner. I've never thought of it, but I think I'm going to copy her from now on. [Curator's note: I'm delighted other people do this! Less chance it'll mark me as a critic when I do it at review meals.] Waiters have limited time to provide good service to many tables, and if they can take your order quickly they can pay more and better attention to all of their customers. Sorry, Dad.
When all else fails, try drinking. Paul Guzzardo told me, "Wine is the easiest first marker that you deserve more attention. Servers are adept at calculating potential tips against opportunity cost in time. If you are splitting dishes, only drinking tap water, most likely you will end up with the minimal amount of face-time with the waiter. He has two to three hours to make his money and needs to maximize a potential tip with each table visit."
Or, as Clark Wolf says, "If you like wine, order a good bottle, because that's the reason wine was created: to make a bad meal better." He also said to make sure you're dining with someone with a sense of humor. Good idea: that way you can be tipsy and laugh at the whole experience. THAT'S the way to survive a bad restaurant, or a good one, for that matter.