Entering a restaurant really is an art form in itself. The confidence, the charm, the way new arrivals move across the space — there’s a real elegance to someone who knows how to do it. – Edward Chisholm, “A Waiter in Paris”
Taking your table at a restaurant is probably something you take for granted. But by treating your entrance as just another trudge, you are losing a golden opportunity to advertise yourself as a customer who’s not to be trifled with. And in this era of non-stop narcissism, it is a way to show off in a manner that actually matters — the matter at hand being: your enjoyment of your meal.
Think of a restaurant like a woman. Sometimes all you want is some conversation. Sometimes, you seek the Full Monty. Either way, your approach makes all the difference in the world. Is this your first flirtation? Love at first sight? Or a one-night stand? Are you diffident? Confident? Cocky to a fault? Defensive? Insecure? Project any of these in the wrong way and disaster awaits. Knowing what moves to make is half the battle. And we’re here to help. (With restaurants, not with women — I gave up trying to understand them decades ago.)
My rules will be outlined at the end, but first, let’s get to some preliminaries. Attitude is everything, whether you’re sliding into a seat at a diner or strutting into a temple of haute cuisine.
Inviolable Eating Out Axiom #1: You are on display, whether you like it or not, so you might as well make the most of it.
Restaurant people are savants when it comes to sizing up customers. When your job depends on serving people, and spending anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours with them (and trying to make it a pleasant experience for all concerned), you have to be. The ideal is to treat everyone the same, but human nature dictates otherwise. How you present will determine how you are treated, and nowhere is this more important than in those first few minutes (literally) when you walk in and ask for a table. (For purpose of this discussion, I am assuming a table has already been booked, or they are available for walk-ins. The dynamics of impromptu negotiating for a seat in a packed house we will leave for another time.)
Dressing your best, or at least a highly presentable version of yourself helps too. You’ll be judged by your clothes (and footwear) far more in an expensive restaurant than a cheap one, but even in franchise-land, the person who greets and seats you will notice whether you respect yourself and your surroundings. And it…
….that if you dress worse than the staff, your service will suffer.
The sociologist in me (yes, I majored in it) could easily go off on a dissection of the socioeconomic relationships between waitstaff and customers, but we’ll leave Marxist theory out of it for now. Suffice it to say some restaurants cater to a clientele barely above the social station of those working there, while at the higher end of the spectrum, some customers could probably buy the joint. And if you find yourself in a restaurant where the servers seem substantially better off than the diners, you’re probably in a soup kitchen, or an Asian buffet.
These days (especially in Vegas), they’ll seat you at a top-drawer emporium even if your backwards cap and cargo shorts are screaming “Rube from Paducah”– but dress like a slob and everyone from the hostesses to the busboy will notice, and be on-guard for the faux pas to come.
They may never come, of course — you may sit down looking like a refugee from a bowling league, and then surprise everyone by getting into a serious discussion with the waiter about malolactic fermentation. But experience has taught them that stereotypes save a lot of time, and people generally live down to the cliches they embody, so they will treat you accordingly until you prove yourself. So do yourself (and the restaurant) a favor and dress like you belong there. (Sexist aside: these days, women are invariably better dressed in restaurants than men.)
Inviolable Eating Out Axiom #2: Read the room!
As the saying goes: You only have one chance to make a first impression so make the most of it.
And the way to make the best impression is in your initial ambulation past the front door. “Walk in like you own the place,” is how my father put it. Easier said than done for most. Most of us sense instinctively that we are out of our element and playing by other’s rules the second we cross the threshold. But there’s a way to exude confidence even in the face of this loss of sovereignty. All you have to do is look the part of someone who knows their forks.
Have a serious look on your face, but not too grim. Your look should say, “I take my meals seriously,” not “I’m here to give you my cash in order to eat and you better be worthy of it.” The first advertises maturity and experience; the second, a chip on your shoulder. The first look is sober, but always about to break into a smile; the second tells the staff you’re going to be a pain in the ass.
Inviolable Eating Out Axiom #3: Don’t be a pain in the ass, even if the hostess stand has a higher IQ than the hostess.
Gird your loins, paisan, because your biggest challenge is now before you: navigating the hostess stand. Take heart, I say! For stouter men than you have been brought low by vapid machinations taking place behind these innocent-looking podiums, and everyone from captains of industry to A-list celebrities are no match for glazed stares and alphabet-challenged babes manning these stations. But there you are, hungry and anxious, out of your element, with your fate being determined by someone whose only qualifications are are a smile and looking good in a tight dress. If you’re lucky (and you will be about half the time) a manager will be within earshot, eager to please, and with a stronger grasp of spelling, hospitality and arithmetic.
As you approach the young foundling, you should attempt to make eye contact with one of the hostesses (although being removed from their natural habitat, i.e., staring at screen or smartphone) they will feel a small sense of panic in having to engage, face-to-face with a fellow human. This is the tensest of all situations, akin to confronting a startled animal in the wild. Both of you recognizing instantly the other might have them at a disadvantage. Neither wanting to make a false move. But like all big game hunters it is incumbent upon you to impose your will on the native fauna, and reassert the dominance of your species.
Inviolable Eating Out Axiom #4: Always be firm but polite.
You: “Hello, I’m John Smith and I believe I have a reservation for 4 at 6:30 tonight?’
Her (after a furtive glance your way followed by a furrowed brow searching the print in front of her like a Talmudic scholar parsing the Dead Sea Scrolls): “Smith? Could you spell that please?”
Her: “Here it is….For how many, and did you you say 6:00?”
If you’re lucky, a management-level person will be on hand to speed up the process. With them the stakes are higher but also the rewards. Generally they will be more accustomed to encounters with the herds of wildebeests descending upon their territory, and have a vested interest in managing the wildlife with the deft touch of a sympathetic game warden. They also go a long way in signaling to the waitstaff whether you are someone to be taken seriously. Thus, getting them on your side is imperative. (The only time waiters take hostesses seriously is when they’re trying to have sex with them.)
If the manager offers his/her hand, shake it gently but firmly. Thank them, get their name, and let them know you are there to enjoy yourself and expect them to do their part. This can be done with a nod, a smile, or even a “Boy, am I hungry!” If it’s my first time in a place, I let whoever is seating me know that I have been looking forward to eating there. If it’s my tenth time, I still let my optimism be known. Depending on the culture, you can bow, nod, or express your gratitude any number of ways to the person seating you. All of this takes place within 15-30 seconds at that podium and is way more important than you can imagine.
Inviolable Eating Out Axiom #5: Graciousness goes a long way.
But there is one more gauntlet to be run — the act of actually walking to your table — and this is what separates the punters from the pretenders. Obviously, you will be following someone into the room and to your table, but the last thing you should be doing is looking like you’re a follower…of anyone. Stand erect. Look casual but also like someone who’s been there before and is expecting to have a good time. Serious ebullience is what I call it. Look around. Not too fast. You belong there, remember. Survey the room with confidence. You are checking the layout, the customers, the lighting. You are willing to accept a good table, even a mediocre one, but not a bad one. If you have projected the right kind of self-assured bonhomie at the entrance, a manager wouldn’t think of sitting you next to the kitchen. (Counterintuitive insight: most restaurant pros and food writers don’t mind kitchen proximity. You get a better view of the food and service that way.)
Smile at some of the other diners if they look your way. Walk slowly, slower than the person seating you. They are working but you are not. Glance at the other tables. Are they enjoying themselves? Is the staff operating harmoniously or more frenzied than all-you-can-eat rib night at the Elk’s Lodge? Check out the food hitting the tables with a quick glance. Notice the bus boys — do they move with alacrity or like they have lead weights in their shoes? Is the management actually managing or simply looking good in a $1,000 suit?
Some of this is hard to catch in a 20 second walk, but with practice, you get good at it.
The table (even a bar stool at a New Jersey diner) is the location from which yourself, and the act of taking one’s seat should be approached with the same, good-natured authority one would assume at taking the helm of a racing yacht.
Inviolable Eating Out Axiom #6: Exude confidence by relinquishing control.
Think of it this way: Dining out is all about control and losing it. We sacrifice a good deal of control when we place ourselves in someone else’s hands and ask them to feed us. But we are paying them a fair amount to do so and the contract (both social and economic) is significant to both parties. The restaurant may reign over the food, but you have jurisdiction over your own happiness. Self-assurance signals the restaurant you are no piker; letting them do their jobs conveys respect that allows both of you to enjoy yourselves.
My best guess is I’ve sauntered into at least 15,000 establishments (400/yr for over 40 years – do the math). I stroll in not like I own them, but keenly aware that I own my own space within theirs. And since I was a kid, I always go in expecting a good time.
One can’t be a restaurant obsessive like I am with approaching every doorway, every table and every menu with a childlike eagerness to see what wonders the kitchen will perform. Perhaps this came from my mother not being much of a cook, or maybe it stemmed from my father’s love of the theater of restaurants in all their syncopated, savory and sweet glory. He wasn’t much of a gourmand, but he knew how to get both attention and the best service a joint had to offer.
I want my next meal, no matter where it comes from, to be the best of its kind I’ve ever had, and I carry that unbridled enthusiasm with me into every threshold I’ve ever crossed. It helps to be in love with your subject, but even if you aren’t (and only eat out occasionally) you can ensure your own enjoyment by setting the stage from your first step. If I learned another thing from my dad it was that respect must be earned, but when it comes to restaurants it is something you can command.
MAKING AN ENTRANCE
1. Dress for success
2. Walk and talk slowly. Spine erect. Shoulders back. Head held high.
3.. Survey the landscape.
4. Smile. A lot.
5. Say please and thank you. A lot.
6. Eye contact is key.
7. Act like you’ve been there before.
8. Acknowledge the bus boys, bar backs, and servers.
9. Act like you own the joint…at least when you’re walking in and to your table. Then act like you’re there to have a good time.
10. Two words: Ebullient solemnity.