I enjoy free food every single time I dine out, and while there’s technically no hypnotism or occult practices involved, there are several subtle techniques that add up to smaller numbers on the check and comped items. Also, every meal I have is a David Lynchian experience, and I will reveal how to prove that for yourself.
Why not start with the Lynchian aspect before the money-grubbing? For the last two years, I’ve dined at the same restaurant every single day for lunch, and I’ve ordered exactly the same thing. What’s mysterious and incredible is that it’s actually not boring at all — far from it! But it’s Lynchian, to be sure. Perhaps the best way to explain it is through Lynch’s concept of a “Ricky Board” art piece. He makes his with — pardon the unappetizing detail — houseflies. (Pictured, the Lynch original “Ricky Fly Board” from my private collection.) Each unit of the presentation is called a “ricky.” As Lynch instructs, each ricky is, as nearly as possible, exactly the same as every other ricky. They’re aligned in rows, into a grid. But they change and come alive with personalities when you give each ricky a different name. It’s a little bit of self-working magic in the form of an artwork. You can prove this for yourself, with houseflies or any other collected objects that are seemingly indistinguishable. And that’s the case with garlic cream fettuccini. It seems as though every dish would be the same. But of course no two are actually identical. There are different chefs preparing them, a slightly different balance of ingredients tossed into the skillet, relative cooking times that make the sauce thinner or thicker, and — it sounds mystical but it’s undeniably true — the mood and intentionality of the chef “goes into” the food as it’s prepared. Indeed, no two garlic cream fettuccinis are exactly the same, and only through a process of comparing one to the next can a diner truly appreciate the limitless variety.
Even better than eating a Lynchian meal is for it to cost nothing. To get free food, first of all, arrive at the restaurant looking like you’re somebody or something — but just who or what exactly, nobody knows. Maybe you’re a mystery shopper there to rate the restaurant. Maybe you’re from the regional manager’s office. Maybe you’re a celebrity. Dress slightly better than the usual clientele would. I choose all-black: a long sleeve black button shirt, black jeans, a fedora (which I wear indoors, against certain schools of etiquette), and a very mysterious brass belt buckle featuring an occult-looking eye. The all-black attire is an additional subtlety: the servers at my favorite restaurant have an all-black uniform, and I’m subtly putting myself on their wavelength — not one of the difficult customers, the “others,” but rather “one of them.” Also, dressing up a bit shows respect for the establishment and for the service, and that makes a huge difference in how you’ll be treated. Having come in respectfully, you’ll be respected in turn. I’ve had managers visit my table and comp my entire meal, not sure who I was but hedging their bets that I’m “somebody.”
Second, when you place your order, phrase each of your statements in the form of a question. Don’t say, “I’m having the spaghetti” but rather, “May I have the spaghetti?” Not, “I’ll take a Coke,” but rather, “Could I have a Coke?” This technique works genuine magic. Servers are accustomed to rude, bossy customers, and something as simple as asking instead of telling will utterly transform the atmosphere and relationship. Let’s face it — the server is your intermediary, standing between you and the chef. You aren’t getting anything you want unless the server makes it happen. Asking instead of telling is not only common courtesy, it’s the smartest approach toward your satisfaction. This technique alone has garnered me free beverages and free deserts on too many occasions to count.
Third, never complain about a single thing and never — ever — send food back. If you’re disappointed about any aspect of your meal, remind yourself that you’ll order more carefully next time.
Fourth, stack your dishes into a neat unit when you’ve finished eating, and fold your napkin. This subtle show of respect for your server or busser makes an enormous impact. Unlike the slobs who leave their tables looking like the aftermath of a tornado, you present yourself as tidy and civilized. You will literally be loved for not being a problematic mess and for making other people’s jobs less stressful.
Fifth, tip respectfully, and the next time you come back you’ll be treated very well indeed. Servers will “forget” to include various items on your bill and will give you the add-on ingredients you ordered for free. That’s really their only way to pay courtesy back to you. It technically costs them nothing to comp an item for you, but they’ll never do it unless they feel appreciated and respected. The servers at my favorite restaurant know that I like lemon in my iced tea or water, and they’ve volunteered in excess of three entire lemons’-worth of slices in one sitting. That’s a lot of lemons, and my tooth enamel is likely endangered, but it’s a love offering, and you can bet I squeeze every last one. They also know that I like fresh grated parmesan cheese, and they’ll give me three and even four blocks of it for my pasta — a single block of parmesan goes for over $10 at a cheese shop, so they give me, for free, $40 worth of cheese, every time. I always ask for asparagus and mushrooms to be added into my fettuccini, and I don’t get charged for those premium ingredients. I find that tipping at least 30% works wonders — I still get way more food than I’ve paid for. Also, if your bill happens to be modest, tip the same amount you would have for a larger meal. Consider setting a minimum tip for any service. From my own experience, it’s best not to ever go below $12 to $15, no matter how little you ordered. I’ve often tipped $12 on a $12 ticket, and you can bet it makes a memorable impression when a server makes a 100% tip.
Sixth, be a regular. Regular customers are treated like royalty, and the reason is so simple: if you like them, they’ll like you. I’ve had a manager take me aside to say, “You know, don’t you, that you can have anything you want. I’ve informed my entire staff.” What did I do to deserve that? Nothing except display some loyalty and express some appreciation. Complimenting a manager on the staff he or she has hired is a very good practice.
Seventh, join the restaurant’s frequent diner’s rewards program. When my favorite restaurant offered holiday gift cards with promotional bonuses (a $100 gift card purchased in December included a $30 bonus redeemable in the new year), I couldn’t resist that sort of discount. Every single day in January and February, I ate completely for free, every meal paid for by the bonus gift cards. Also, see if your restaurant offers free appetizers or desserts for completing a survey online. I enjoy a complimentary flatbread with every meal for doing that.
Life is only as Lynchian and as free as we make it. The “work” I’ve put into stacking my own dishes like a person of refinement and being an easygoing customer has paid off tremendously. Every time I’m handed a receipt with a zero total, I know I’m doing something right.
Craig Conley is actually related to a playing card, as his second cousin is Elizabeth of York, immortalized as the Queen of Hearts. Conley is author of Magic Words: A Dictionary (Weiser Books) and dozens of other works on magical, mysterious topics. His website is MysteryArts.com.