The Dos and Don’ts of Dining Out

We regularly use this space to give an expanded version of an article currently appearing in Westchester Magazine. Why? Because, like Francis Ford Coppola, we hate to see our work cut. It physically hurts us to see our precious words drift to the editing room floor, sacrificed in the interest of—oh, let’s say—the reality of selling a magazine. Consider this Directors Cut as our personal five-hour version of Apocalypse Now.

Here’s our theory about diner/waiter signals: we think everyone should learn the language of dining out. In fact, we’ll go even further. We feel that all the high school and college-aged sons and daughters of Westchester should get summer jobs in restaurants—even if they have no interest in future restaurant work, even if they don’t like to eat out. It’s just character-building. Give them an embarrassing uniform and a sweaty service-industry job, and these spoiled kids will learn valuable life lessons not available at application-padding internships it hospitals and law offices.

Think about it. Instead of spending 40 unpaid hours per week stocking or filing, your children could be gaining independence (and earning substantial gas-and-beer money) by doing backbreaking, mentally challenging work. They will learn to perform under extreme pressure—like when three tables of ten sit at once, the order system breaks down, and the chef throws things at their heads. Your heretofore monosyllabic kids will have to dig deep for the social graces that you taught them—their tips depend on it. And top lesson of it all, your lucky kids will learn how to endure the rudeness of complete idiots with a smile. This skill is invaluable, and it’s one that they’ll need for the rest of their working lives.

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(BTW—we didn’t invent this service-makes-you-strong idea. British aristocrats have been sending their Little Lord Fauntleroys to public—actually private in the UK—schools like Harrow and Eton forever. There, the puny underclassmen are forced to serve bullying, rude, demanding upperclassmen for most of their high school careers. The idea, as best as we can gather, is to build character and teach forbearance. From a practical point of view, it also saves on staff.)

All of which brings us to Dining Out Dos and Don’ts. Anyone who has ever worked in a service capacity—no matter how obnoxious in the rest of their lives—immediately becomes a pussycat when they sit down in a restaurant. Please, they purr—and thank you, and when you get a chance, and here’s a generous tip—where before, they only roared obscenities. Why the difference? We’d like to think it’s empathy with the poor beleaguered server, but, in reality, it might just be that they’re scared.

As books like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential explain, you really don’t want to annoy anyone who might be handling your food. We’ve all seen the grainy, black and white security tapes of some food handler doing something bad to someone’s food. Frankly, it’s too awful for us to even think about.

Then there’s the fear of the blogosphere. As service industry sites like Bitterwaitress, Stained Apron show, there are a lot of angry servers out there—and many are highly articulate, frustrated writers. Your passing rudeness might get crafted into a scathingly personal criticism—of you, your behavior and your general appearance—for all of your friends to see. If you happen to be famous and a poor tipper, you’ll definitely be called out on those sites, often repeatedly, and usually using both your stage name and your name as it appears on your credit card.

Then there’s the shame factor. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant for a single summer has seen a few shocking boors—the kind of people who bark at waiters, say rude things, are demanding, unreasonable, nasty. These people—who are often drunk—embarrass their tablemates, humiliate their servers and degrade themselves. After being forced to serve one or two of these horrors, even the shortest-tempered diner minds his Ps and Qs. Basically, no one wants to be the mythically obnoxious diner of his summer job memory.

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Finally, besides avoiding fear or shame, minding your manners at restaurants has an added bonus: it’s efficient. If everyone obeys the coded behavior of restaurants—things like signaling that you’re finished eating by your knife and fork placement—service is accomplished thoroughly, quickly and with the minimum of confusion. And isn’t that what you’re looking for in your diner/waiter relationship, anyway?

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