We might think we're looking for good food when we eat out, but, nationwide, diner surveys show it's really service that makes or breaks a restaurant experience. We go back to the places that treat us right.
Ever felt you were intruding when you walked into a restaurant - a cool glance, a hurried response, no warmth from those at the front desk? I want to feel as if I'm the most important person coming through that door. Even if the night is rushed and the managers harried, that first connection - a sincere hello and a smile - is crucial. If I'm a regular, "Welcome back" is great, too, although the new style of computer-tracking diners' preferences - "Hello, Mrs. Smith. And will you be having the chardonnay tonight?" - gets creepily intrusive.
I want to be ushered to my table as though it were the best seat in the house and quickly greeted by the server. Many diners fret about how soon the water glasses are filled, but the important element is to be acknowledged. (That said, I don't need the waiter's inner life revealed. I don't want to know you plan to open a restaurant, have just broken up with your boyfriend, or are having a good or a bad day.)
The timetable is mine, not the restaurant's. Only someone who's been living in his or her kitchen for the past 20 years doesn't understand that restaurants today are invested in turning tables over as fast as they can. That's their problem, not mine. It's a delicate dance: I'll do my part not to hog the table if you do yours and pretend that the clock isn't ticking.
Waiters who interrupt conversations to demand that we order can spoil the evening's mood. Ditto for waiters who fade away at the first sign of hesitation and return only after what seems like hours. The waiter has shown who's boss: You'll order when he or she wants you to, or pay the price. But as a guest, I'm infuriated. When the waiter arrives, he should be familiar with the menu - not just pushing the expensive lobster - and at least conversant with the wine list. And tell us the prices for those specials.
When the food arrives, I want the waiter and the food runner to have coordinated, so that each dish goes to the right person without the "Who had the fish? Who had the beef?" comedy routine. And I've been known to throw a fit if the servers don't clear those appetizer plates before the entrees arrive. It's not my job to stack plates or function as the servers' memory.
I want the courses to segue smoothly or the server to have a good explanation as to why we're waiting 20 minutes between courses. And the waiter should be attentive enough to notice if we need something (I promise not to snap my fingers); however, I don't want a fifth wheel joining the conversation. I've given up presuming wine will be poured for me - you can never tell except in the best places whether a server will pour all the wine and immediately ask if you want another bottle, or whether he will skirt the wine cooler as though it might explode.
Though I might like to linger, I'd like the check. Years ago, a businessman in my party invaded the kitchen after we'd been waiting interminably. "The first rule of business," he fumed, "is closing the deal." It doesn't have to be coffee-shop quick, but give us the bill before we've forgotten that we've eaten at all.
And then - I know, I'm sooo demanding - I'd like a goodbye. "Thank you. So glad you came; please come back." You don't have to drive me home, but if you want me to return, why don't you just say so?