Thursday, December 17, 2009

Maximize Dining Out Experiences


As with any tip in Elegant Simplicity theory, I always look at things we use or do often, and evaluate the way to get the VERY BEST EXPERIENCE from these action or possession choices.


In this case, let's evaluate dining out. When we dine out, we often wonder what to eat. We're presented a menu we hope is attractive to our palate. If we're restaurant shopping, we might even look at their menu BEFORE sitting down to eat. That is usually not the best way to pick a restaurant. Not only that, but once we're inside, how can we know our choice is the BEST choice on the menu?

Answer: poll people who eat there!

There are three ways you can poll the people who've dined at a restaurant.

1. Stop someone coming out of the restaurant you're intending to dine at and confirm they enjoyed their meal. You can ask a simple question "Excuse me - we're trying to choose a good place to eat for dinner and evaluating this restaurant. How was your dining experience, was it enjoyable for you?" and then decide after you hear their on-the-spot review.

2. Read a review. I love reading reviews about a restaurant. You can usually find reviews on the Internet, in food journals, in the newspaper, in special print newspapers, in books, and in travel coupon books. The reviewer will often describe their full meal experience, from service, to food quality, and anything special. If you're looking for something unique, a review will often give you insight into new ideas of where you might go to find a fun and enjoyable meal.

3. Ask friends. Your friends, if they have similarly good taste, we can hope will recommend good restaurants to you. I like to ask people "what are your favorite three restaurants you like to visit" and then ask them to take me there. Sometimes, people will have established relationships with the ownership and staff at their favorite restaurants. And, these relationships often end up in getting something extra - extra portions of wine, food, perhaps an item left off the bill - you just never know. So, take advantage (with dignity, of course) of opportunities when friends invite you out to their favorite haunts.

Okay, so these are all good ways to choose your restaurant.

But what about increasing the experience of pleasure while you're there?

1. Picking optimum time to dine. I like to be either slightly ahead of the rush hour, or slightly behind it, so as to ensure the wait staff will have the time to serve me. When placing a reservation with a maître d', ask them when is a good time to receive optimum service. First, this places in the maître d' mind that service is important to you. Second, they'll recommend times AROUND when that big corporate party is there, or times when they know their staff can best serve you. Too many people make the mistake of setting a reservation around THEIR needs, and forget that the establishment serving you has their own schedule they're trying to manage, too. Ideally, work around the host establishment's schedule and you'll optimize your experience. If a maître d' offered you especially good service, or routinely gives you an optimum seating table, consider slipping them a $5 or $10 spot through a handshake and say "thank you" on the way out the door. (Don't tip them before you get seated, as that may be looked at as a bribe and is a bit tacky.)

2. Knowing the menu. If, at all possible, you can preview the menu BEFORE you visit the restaurant, you will have an advanced idea what you might order. This is good, because you really don't want to spend much time ordering your food. Save the chit-chat for the back half of the meal so that your food is ordered as quickly as possible when you first arrive. Otherwise, you run the risk of hitting their rush hour traffic, or their "dead time" when they just want to go home. By knowing the menu, you also make it easy to order first.

3. Order first. This might sound odd, but people will generally choose what sounds best FIRST if they're given the opportunity to order first. However, when they order second, they are more likely to order something DIFFERENT just to prove they are "unique" in their choices. In his book, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely mentions that the person who orders first is usually satisfied with his choice, while the person who orders second or third, sequentially, might be dissatisfied with their order and experience regret. The other way to handle this problem of expectation is to allow everyone to order with a piece of paper without telling everyone else what they are eating. Maybe that is going too far. So, my rule of thumb is to look at a menu immediately, choose what I most want, and decide that is what I am ordering.

4. Go with your first choice. Typically, you'll be happier with your first choice than any choice that might follow.

5. Read the reviews. Usually, in a restaurant review, the person reviewing the restaurant will recommend a meal, too. Keep in mind that the meal they recommend was also often recommended by the OWNER of the restaurant. The owner knows what they cook the best (usually). So, reviews are highly useful. I like to read three or four reviews before visiting a new restaurant to give me a well-rounded look at possible dining experiences.

6. Ask other patrons. Asking patrons is useful if you're already sitting, and you look over and SEE their food, and it looks particularly scrumptious. In that instance, asking them "Hey, that looks great, I'd love to know what it is to help me decide ordering, what is it you're eating there?" may not be rude, depending upon whether you're in a five-star french restaurant or some place a bit more casual. If you're dining formally, refrain from asking. I've made new friends simply by asking someone if they enjoyed their particular order. My guess is the introverts will probably pass on this one.

7. Ask the staff. I like to ask the staff what their favorite dish on the menu might be. Then I ask them if they're a vegetarian or some other question to determine if we have similar dining taste. If they don't have the same taste as me, I'll order something different. Otherwise, I follow their recommendation. Be careful asking the staff, though, because they're paid to serve you, and also guided not to play favorites, in many instances. If they say "everything is good here" which obviously doesn't help decide, follow up with the question "What would you order for your best friend if they were here?" This will give you a more accurate insight into their favorite dish.

8. Outside in. When dining at fancy dinners such as corporate meals or wedding dinners, I used to struggle with which utensil to use for which dish. Can you relate? There's a rule about how they set your table for you, and as long as you know that rule, you'll never grab the wrong fork again. Top utensils are used for the soup and desert. Left utensils are used for the spoon and fork, right utensils are used for cutting and spreading, such as knives. Always work OUTSIDE IN. As long as you grab a utensil on the outside first, you'll be doing fine. Soups are usually before the salad, so that's what that big spoon is doing there. The desert will usually be the small fork or spoon on above your plate.

9. If you a coupon to present, ALWAYS tell the waiter about your coupon up front before they bring your bill - otherwise, they might have to re-ring this and that is extra work for them. Don't be rude to your server! In addition, make sure you have the coupon with you. A friend of mine became upset at the restaurant for not honoring a coupon that she FORGOT to bring! I told her she was silly to get upset as it was her fault in forgetting it. You'd be surprised the number of times that restaurants print fine details of their coupon offer on the back - such as hours, restrictions, and such. Read them BEFORE going to the restaurant to eliminate arguments with their staff. There is no reason to create a bad experience by demanding something that is not reasonable to the ownership.

10. Events and meals. If you're attending an event after your meal, ALWAYS tell the waiter (the person who takes your order, not the bartender or table server who brings water) about your event, so they can help keep an eye and not serve you slowly. Also, if your event is cutting it close, you might ask to order your meal to go, right from the get-go, so that you can eat it later if the meal is served too close to the time of your event. Don't make the restaurant responsible for your schedule. They might try their best and still cut it too close for you to make it on time.

11. Order water. You will eat less if you drink a glass of water prior to your main meal. Try not to fill up on bread and butter, or on chips and salsa, as these food choices are higher in carbohydrates and more likely to make you gain weight from dining out. Order wine if you truly want wine, but do not feel compelled simply because they ask you if you'd like a drink. Keep in mind that the prices on wine are marked up between 2.5 to 5 times the cost of the product. The restaurant's best margins are on the bar tab. Any time you can minimize your bar tab, you're likely to get a better value for your meal.

11. If you do order wine, and like "good" wine but not "excessively expensive" wine, I've usually found that the second wine up on the list (by the glass) is the best value for the money. If you're unsure which wine to choose, because you're unfamiliar with the winery, for example, then just choose the second from the cheapest. You'll pay between $8 and $10 a glass, which isn't too costly, and it will probably taste pretty good.

12. Doggie bag or "to-go" boxes. It used to be considered "tacky" to ask for a doggie bag. Not any more. Today, you can simply request "I'd like the rest of this to go, please" and any decent restaurant ought to help accommodate your request. If they bring you the box, you dish it up yourself. If they take it and do this for you, express a "thank you" for their effort. I often take half of a meal with me to eat later. There is no reason to overeat just because the food is served right then.

What are your ideas on maximizing dining out? Share them and help us all improve our dining experiences!


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