Getting Good Service: Insiders Spill

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Scene from our Café des Artistes, a few years ago: a group of people was being led to a table on the mezzanine, when, all of a sudden, one of the women gets a tight grip on the handrail leading up the stairs and bellows, "You are NOT taking me to the back of the restaurant while all of the important people sit in the front!" Everybody who was in the restaurant at the time will remember that moment.

Whatever happened to the days when everybody knew his or her part in the restaurant dance? You went to a nice restaurant—there weren't that many to choose from—and you showed up on time, you were seated as soon as you got there, the captain greeted you and took your order, the waiter served you, the sommelier poured your wine, you drank coffee and brandy and tipped the maitre d'hotel on your way out. Everybody knew what to say and do. Café des Artistes, which my husband, George Lang, and I revived, ran together, and sadly closed last fall, was just such a place.

It helps to be very, very charming. ("Nice them into submission," Clark Wolf, the restaurant consultant, says.)

Then along came Union Square Café , which started the trend of what I call "not my father's restaurant" places. The food was great, the service attentive without being intimidating, and the customer could do no wrong. Customers were seduced by the lack of formality, and started to feel entitled. Chris Cannon, who owns Marea , the hotspot of the moment in New York, calls this the "Danny Meyer effect". It made diners presumptuous and aggressive. The waiters got cranky. Service started to suffer. What do we in the service business do now?

I've got a professional eye. The minute I walk into a restaurant I can assess the situation quickly. Are we going to get served well or badly? Where are the potholes in the road toward our successful meal? I know how to navigate around the potholes. One mistake I know not to make is an easy one, for instance: my dad's innocent but to me really annoying habit of always quizzing the waiter about his order. "Which would you choose? The duck or the fish?" It makes me crazy. I know too much to do something like that. The waiter will recommend whatever makes his job easier—the dish that comes out of the kitchen fastest, for example, or whatever the chef wants to get rid of that night ("push the snapper").

I'm being unfair. He's an amateur! I have a lot of restaurateur and restaurant-writer friends who can also deal with difficult situations, so I called them for their tips, too, and to share war stories. We're a cynical bunch—we've seen too much, but we're also diners, people who want good service.

For example, if I go into any restaurant, high-end or coffee shop, and see that a large group of people has just been seated, I know to get our order into the kitchen very fast. The cooks will be slammed trying to get the big order out, and we'll have no luck catching the waiter once he's started to serve the crowd.

Similarly, going to a popular restaurant at the height of the dinner rush and expecting perfect service is folly. Drew Nieporent, the owner of Corton and many other restaurants around the world, says succinctly, "You would try to avoid a highway at rush hour, so why would you go into a restaurant in the middle of a busy dinner and demand special service?" He adds: "You want good service? Come early and be prompt to order. Be clear in how you order, and be polite."

Just being nice goes a long way. It helps to be very, very charming. ("Nice them into submission," Clark Wolf , the restaurant consultant, says.) Everything else will backfire. Trying the "Do you know who I am?" tactic is obnoxious, and it doesn't work—it just makes the staff do an imitation of you over beers after the shift is over. And don't think restaurateurs aren't on to the tactic of reserving in the name of a celebrity (Brad Pitt, party of two) and then showing up as your own self. If you're nasty on the phone, a reservationist might make a notation next to your name in the computer: "thinks he's a big shot" or "real jerk" for all the staff to see at service time. (Another little-known fact: restaurant staff will Google a customer, if they're curious, or annoyed enough, or impressed.)

Lately, there's been a new twist: when told that the only tables available for their party are at 6:00 pm or 9:30 pm, customers have been known to book a table at 6:00, send in a "place holder" at that time and the rest of the party drifts in closer to 7:00 o'clock. Blame those people for the fact that many restaurants won't seat you until your entire party is present.

William Grimes , the New York Times writer and the paper's former restaurant critic, points out that there are times when we've all found ourselves in a restaurant that is just incapable of providing good service—either they're inept, in which case the restaurant is truly bad and the staff is used to abuse because of it, or they're too hip to bother with you. In either case you're sunk, unless you can get the waiter on your side. Try something like, "They have you stretched pretty thin, don't they?" Show him you're on his side; it's you and him in the inner circle. The minute you start bitching, he'll hide from you for the rest of the evening—not the way to guarantee a decent dinner.

Sometimes there's nothing you can do to ameliorate a bad experience. Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin , recounts a dinner he had years ago in a bistro on Madison Avenue. He was eating an artichoke, leaf by leaf, and discovered that it was filled with worms. He called over the waiter and asked, quietly, if he could have another please. The waiter started screaming at him in French ("you know how the French are," Eric told me) accusing him of wanting a freebie. He walked out. My favorite part of the story is that he actually asked for another artichoke.

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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 naïve, 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.

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Jenifer Lang has been a food journalist for magazines and newspapers, author of several books, and was managing director of the Cafe des Artistes in New York until 2009. More

Jenifer Lang was managing director of the Cafe des Artistes in New York until 2009. Before taking over the legendary restaurant, she was a food journalist for magazines and newspapers and authored several books, including Jenifer Lang Cooks For Kids: 153 Recipes and Ideas for Good Food That Kids Love to Eat, as well as serving as the editor of the English edition of Larousse Gastronomique.

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