The Secret Language of Restaurants

There's much to learn about the way we dine from a piece in today's New York Times by Susanne Craig. It follows an awesome linguistic restaurant chart from Ben Schott that appeared in the paper in early August listing a variety of the terms and acronyms assorted restaurant waitstaff use to describe guests.

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Recently we learned that our restaurant waitstaffs knew pretty much exactly what we were up to, even if we thought we were being quite stealthy with our dates and table and drink requests and such. But there's more, much more, to learn about the way we dine from a piece in today's New York Times by Susanne Craig. Part of the Fall Restaurant Preview, it follows an awesome linguistic restaurant chart from Ben Schott that appeared in the paper in early August listing a variety of the terms and acronyms assorted restaurant waitstaff use to describe guests. For example, from that piece, f.t.d. = first time diner; L.T.T. = likes to Tweet; H.D. = heavy drinker; two-hour-wait face = the downcast expression diners get when told how long they're going to have to wait.

These are things you may not want to know, depending on the type of diner you are, but you will surely find them fascinating in any case. After all, they involve human psychology, and you, and judgments about you and other restaurant-goers. In the vein of that upstairs/downstairs hierarchy that's captivated us in British dramas like Gosford Park and Downton Abbey—employers and staff, clients and those who serve them—it's a kind of thrill to know what the other side is talking about, and how they're keeping tabs on you. What kind of restaurant diner are you? V.E.G. or V.D.G.*?

In the old days, perhaps, like your medical chart, all this information might have been maintained in writing in a big book kept at the front of house, or passed down like spoken folklore, but nowadays, computers make keeping track of customers' likes and dislikes and habits incredibly easy, even automated! As Craig writes, "When Tim Zagat dines out in New York, many of the restaurants he goes to know that he prefers his soup served in a cup and enjoys iced tea with cranberry juice in a large glass over lots of ice. Jay-Z’s fondness for white Burgundy is also no secret among the city’s headwaiters." But it's not just famous people, or insider (F.O. = friend of) types. This goes for your average regular as well, like "Arnie Tannen, a health care consultant in Brooklyn," who always gets a black napkin, "wants only the ends of a loaf in his breadbasket," and loves French fries. Service has gone next-level, at the high-end places, at least, like Gramercy Tavern, where Tannen's desires are noted and the hospitality is personalized to an extreme. But this is true at other places, too, for good or for bad. Craig writes ominously, "what most customers don’t know is that hundreds of restaurants are now carefully tracking their individual tastes, tics, habits and even foibles"—whether it's your first time at the place or you go there all the time, whether you're famous or infamous or just a person eating in a restaurant. They know it all! What seats you want, what temperature you like your butter, the type of water (Brooklyn tap, please!) you always ask for, your tipping prowess, allergies, preferences, how you behaved last time, how much you'll spend on wine, and if you stayed too long... Ed Schoenfeld of West Village restaurant RedFarm tells Craig, "We take note of the people who sat for six and a half hours last time, so next time we are sure to give them an uncomfortable seat.” Oops.

This is in an effort to pamper, ostensibly, to know you and serve you better. But a look at Schott's list and some of the acronyms and diner descriptors reveals that this linguistic diligence can also serve the establishment's best interests as well. B.G.E. may stand for best guest ever, but there's a way to say worst, too. For instance, sepultura ("not-so-nice person"); oy vey (to indicate troublemakers), or with a story ("an order with a lot of guest modifications"). There's HWC, or "handle with care" for customers who tend to be difficult, and 86 for, well, you're probably not going to be eating there.

But before you think you've figured it all out, know that acronyms get phased out, as with VIP, writes Craig: "The restaurant may have given you the freebie because you are a FOM (friend of the manager) or a PX, a person extraordinaire. PX used to be V.I.P., but most restaurants stopped using that label years ago because it was so widely recognized and offended non-V.I.P. customers who heard it being used. Some PX’s are also flagged NR, for never refuse." 

And acronyms mean different things to different places, and so in some cases, LOL means "Lots of Love," and is not about your height, age, and gender (aka, Little Old Lady) at all. Fortunately there are computers, and computer and reservations systems, to help restaurateurs keep track of all this data. The key, like any "upstairs/downstairs" situation, is keeping the information invisible, and serving seamlessly with that secret knowledge. Otherwise, as Wolf told Craig, it can get weird: “If you say, ‘I know you like a white Burgundy from the 1970s,’ that is creepy,” he said. “Instead, you ask them what they like and point them in the direction of that white Burgundy.” In other cases, the data itself becomes a detriment, for instance, when the waitstaff knows the name of a customer's wife, and address the women he's with as that, but it's someone else entirely. At Sammy's Roumanian Steak House, they solve this problem by referring to "An old Jewish man with his girlfriend" as "Mr. Schwartz and his niece." Though not to his face, surely. Data is data, but, it appears, we need people to know what to do, or what not to do, with it. 

And on that note, a final word of advice for the upstairs side, writes Craig: "The No. 1 tip for getting great service: butter up your server." So, be nice, or a Very Easy Guest, not a Very Difficult* one.

Image via Shutterstock by Discpicture.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.