How to Guarantee the Best Restaurant Experience: Tips From a Former Server
Where to go, what to order, and why to look out for the “decoy effect”
With more and more restaurants opening back up, I’m sure you desperate for a glorious night out. Whenever you head out, there are a few things you can do to guarantee the best dining experience.
My insights come from nearly 15 years of serving food and drinks in Canada, the US, and the UK. I’ve worked in bars, pubs, gastro-pubs, Italian restaurants, Asian restaurants, “Asian-fusion” restaurants, pizza places, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. You name it, I’ve served food and drinks at it.
I’ve worked with some of the best chefs you’ll find, and ones that shouldn’t be allowed to toast a Pop-Tart. I’ve seen some of the most elite servers in the business and have also worked at places where servers spit in the food (I subsequently left those establishments quickly.)
The point is, I’ve seen some stuff. And over my time, I’ve learned how great restaurants work, and how an exceptional experience can be had. Let me show you how to make the most of your next restaurant experience.
And that starts with researching a restaurant online:
Take Yelp & Online Reviews With a Grain of Salt
Somewhere along the way, everyone decided that they were a food critic. Most of these people do not understand how to cook or how food is prepared and base their knowledge on watching Top Chef.
The problem with restaurant reviews is that people love to jump online and complain to strangers. A restaurant may have a ton of happy diners, but that’s not reflected in the rating. Happy diners are more likely to tell their friends and family about a place as opposed to going online to tell a bunch of people they don’t know.
It’s not to say the critical reviews aren’t justified, but when people complain, they do it online now. Because of this, you’re not seeing the entire story of a restaurant. People will also always exaggerate their displeasure as the problems are usually insignificant — and as people, we tend to over-exaggerate.
People’s complaints will always be exaggerated; waiting for 10 minutes becomes “a 25-minute wait.” “Staff was rude” is as much the customer was a pain in the ass and the server was actually quite patient. I’ve seen people come in and complain that they had to wait “a long time,” and when you go check the video; it’s always at least half of what they say.
Yelp reviews can still be helpful, but nothing still beats word of mouth for real promotion.
So you’ve decided on the place you want to go, how do you make sure you’re going into a relaxing and comfortable situation?
If You Want a Quiet Meal for Two, Book a Table For Three
This is a tip to be seated in the best location and not stuck near a kitchen or busy area. When you book for a table of three, it will be in a more relaxed area where you’ll have more room and be more comfortable.
Tables of two are jammed together and often spread to undesirable areas of the restaurant. When you book a table for three, you will get a larger amount of room in a more private area.
So, now you’re in the restaurant, what are a few things to look for — before you’ve tasted the food — to know if you’re in a decent place or not?
Two Signs That Reveal the Quality of a Restaurant
In my time working in England, the company I worked for made great use of mystery diner companies. These are invaluable services that reveal the strengths and weaknesses of your establishment. After a while, it gets easy to spot the mystery diners, and many consultations with them revealed some key things they look for as a quick sign of a restaurant's quality.
1. The Cleanliness of the Bathrooms
This seems obvious, but it’s still neglected by many restaurants. They should check the bathrooms at an excellent restaurant every 15 minutes. The reason that this is important is that it gives you some insights to the pride and care taken with the rest of the restaurant. If the bathrooms are dirty, I can guarantee you the kitchen is dirty too. This always seems to go hand in hand — and a dirty kitchen produces dirty food.
2. The Bread and Butter Served at the Table
This is an instant indicator of what you can expect for the rest of the meal. A quality restaurant should put out some form of bread and butter when you sit down. If they don’t, it doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it shows they’re not interested in creating a full experience.
If you get served a rock hard bun and butter in a package that is frozen, you may want to leave as the rest of the meal is probably nothing to write home about.
Quality restaurants will put out soft bread (ideally warm) along with soft butter (that you can actually spread) or various types of olive oils. Bonus points if you get multiple types of oil and butter or things like whole-grain mustard butter.
This is a great indicator of the pride they take in their food, and you can be certain the rest of the meal will be tremendous.
Let’s look at some other ways to ensure a great dining experience:
Avoid Going at Peak Times
This may go without saying, but if you are someone who doesn’t like to wait for food, you’ll want to avoid between 6 and 8 pm. Ideally, you’re eating somewhere that prepares food as fresh as possible and that will mean some wait time.
Appetizers on a good day should take around 14–18 minutes to reach you and entrees anywhere from 22 to 28. This isn’t the case across the board — but is a realistic expectation based on places I’ve worked. When things are going full-on in the kitchen, you can look at 45 to 60 minutes to get your main meal out to you.
Don’t Arrive too Hungry
I know everyone wants to “save their appetite” for the big dining experience, but if you go in at 7:30, you will be waiting. If your last meal was around 2 pm, it could be 6+ hours until you’re well underway eating.
This means lowered blood sugar and the hunger and irritability that goes with it. You’ve now got a building with plummeting blood sugar and the impatience and anger that goes along with that.
For those who work in the service industry, it’s right up there with airports and retail where you see the worst of people while trying to make a living. I would have a little something to eat an hour or so beforehand so you’re not that customer that wants to dropkick the busboy.
But before you order your food, it’s time to get some drinks. If you’re looking for wine, here are a few things to follow:
Watch Out for the “Decoy Effect”
This is a retail pricing technique, but in our case, concerns wine selection. They set wine prices to make you think you’re getting a good deal, but you’re probably overpaying and spending MORE than you planned to.
It goes like this: If there are two wines on a menu for $9 and $16; which one would you pick? If you’re cheap like me, you may go for the $9 one, but there’s not much of a scale of reference. If this list now has a $47 wine on it, most of the time people will go for the $16 one. The perceived value has changed, and something you may not have bought — because the price was too high — now suddenly appears of value and less expensive.
Wine lists will always have a few very expensive wines. These are the decoys to make others appear cheaper (which might not have looked as cheap if the expensive ones weren’t on the list). Your best bet is to have some favorites that you scan the list for instead of looking at the price so you don’t get sucked into this.
Don’t go for the Second Cheapest Wine
I relate this to the decoy effect, but based on individual glasses. If there is a $6, an $8, and a $10 glass of wine, most people don’t want to look like a cheapskate and they go for the second cheapest.
In a lot of places, this is the goal, as that second cheapest is usually the lowest value. It may even be a lower-end wine with a huge markup. Retail and restaurants bank on your pridefulness in making these decisions. You would probably better off — value-wise — going for the cheapest one, as it probably wasn’t marked up as much.
Haggle With the Sommelier
Sommelier’s or “soms” are geniuses. The amount of knowledge these people have is extraordinary, and they love to share it — so make sure you ask lots of questions. Don’t be afraid if you have little wine knowledge as they love to teach and inform.
If you want to get better value on wine, ask them for the “bin-end” list. These are the bottles with blemishes or ripped labels, unpopular brands, and past-their-prime vintages. You can ask the som to come up with a superb wine and give a price you’re willing to pay — just keep it under $30.
This way you can get at least double the value for a wine. They are also happy to move them as they are just sitting there taking up cellar space.
Avoid Ice in Your Drinks
If you’re getting a mixed drink or soft drink, this is a good tip to follow — and it’s a two-parter. The first is obvious in that you get more product this way — but the second is more health-based.
Ice machines can have a lot of bacteria in them as they are not regularly cleaned. It’s a massive pain — trust me — and the same thing goes for soft drink machines. That build-up of sugar can lead to mold growth and bacteria. Again, another pain to clean so it’s not always done.
Six out of ten restaurants have more bacteria in the ice than in the toilets. This was primarily observed in fast-food restaurants as they spend more time cleaning the bathrooms than the ice machines, but from what I’ve seen this is probably across the board.
Don’t Get Fruit in Your Drink
I know we all love some lemon and lime in our drink, but you may want to avoid them. Most fruit in a restaurant is not washed and just cut up by the bartender and placed in storage containers.
The other problem is, as clean as a bartender may be, they can’t be constantly washing their hands. The fruit is handled by dirty hands and dropped right into the drink you’ll be sipping.
It’s easy for disease and germs to spread. Dirty glasses are brought back to the bar to wash and they usually are picked up where people have put their lips. The bartender then makes your drinks and grabs the fruit, putting it in contact with what he’s just touched.
In the Journal of Environmental Health, they took samples from the rind and flesh of lemon slices and found 70% of samples — from 21 different restaurants — to contain 25 different microbial contents.
I mentioned that I’ve been a bartender for years. I’m very clean and sanitary, but trust me, there’s no way you can stay on top of it — and fruit gets exposed to too much. This is in extremely clean restaurants, so you can imagine the situation in other places.
OK, so that’s drinks it of the way, now what is the best way to navigate the menu?
The Real Way to Find the Best Items on the Menu
I worked at one restaurant where a local business owner would always bring in groups of out-of-town clients. He wouldn’t ask for menus but asked me to order the dishes I thought were best and to keep them coming.
If you want to find out what is really best on the menu, ask the staff not only what they would choose, but what they eat when they eat there. The tip here is if the staff eats it, it’s probably great.
The “Specials” Aren’t Always so Special
Specials are pushed big time by the servers, but often are just a way to clear out items and hopefully still make money on them. Specials can be dishes that have ingredients that don’t cost the restaurant much but can make decent money.
There is also often a bonus for the server who sells the most specials, so they are more likely to push it on you. The server might say there are only ten left to create scarcity, but that’s not usually the case. It’s not that the special is a terrible choice — it’s not always the best value.
So you’ve decided on what you want to eat; here are some ways to get it served as efficiently as possible.
Getting Your Order in Quicker
If your server is not getting back to you to check your order — and the place is rammed — stack your closed menus together and place them at the edge of the table.
When the servers are busy, they will not keep checking if you’re ready to order. The closed and stacked menu gesture makes it more likely that they will come and get your order in quicker compared to the people just blankly staring at their menus who may be ready to order.
Getting your order in just a few minutes quicker can make the difference in getting your food anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes quicker than the other diners.
If You’re Hungry, Ask for Everything at Once
If the appetizer station in the kitchen is backed up, it means your main dishes will take even longer so they can keep the right order. If you don’t mind things coming in a different order, ask for everything all at once and you’re more likely to get food quicker than other tables.
Stack Your Dishes for Quicker Service
I know you're going out to eat to avoid stuff like this, but if the restaurant is slammed, this can get you your food quicker. A server or busboy taking a while to clear your table throws things behind. If you have your plates and cutlery stacked and ready to go, it gets your next course put through quicker than the other tables. And we want to beat those suckers!
Become a Regular & Get More Free Stuff
Last, but not least, when you become a familiar face you become the ideal valued customer. This can mean free drinks and appetizers coming your sweet, sweet way.
When I was a bartender at restaurants where people could eat at the bar, I had regular customers. I would have no problem passing on free drinks, extra bread, upsized items, etc because they would treat me well ($$) — so I wanted to take care of them.
There is so much competition for your dollar that having someone consistently coming back definitely gets recognized and rewarded.
Bonus tip: Bringing new people each time you come often accelerates this feature.
Hopefully, when you next go out, you can use some of these tips to get the best experience possible.