Answers to 10 restaurant-related questions you may be too embarrassed to ask. By Kyle Spencer
Problem: The restaurant is fully booked.
Solution: Put yourself on a waiting list. "People are often reluctant to do that, but it's the first place we look," says Tobie Cancino, maître d' at Café Gray, a popular French restaurant in New York City. Don't be afraid to emphasize how much you want that table, as your eagerness may help persuade the staff to fit you in, even when they're booked. "We will go out of our way for a diner who shows a real interest in our food," says Sandy Hanson, a manager at the New Orleans Creole restaurant Brigtsen's.
You can also get lucky by checking the restaurant for cancellations around the time the staff may be calling to confirm parties for the evening (often before or after lunch), suggests Tom Sietsema, a food critic for the Washington Post. Surprisingly, weekends can be the best time to land these last-minute tables, notes Michael Kaplan in his book The Best Time to Do Everything, as the reservation lines are not tied up by office assistants phoning in requests for their bosses. If you still can't snag a coveted Saturday-night table, consider making a reservation on a Wednesday or Thursday, when you're nearing the weekend "but you're not going to get crushed by the weekend crowd," says Craig LaBan, the restaurant critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Problem: You are running late and don't want to lose your reservation.
Solution: Be sure to call if you're more than 15 minutes behind schedule. Be specific about what is delaying you: the babysitter, traffic, or a work meeting. And be clear on when you expect to arrive. If you are so late that your table has been given away, apologize and ask, "Is there anything you can do for us?" says Gordon Hamersley of the Boston bistro Hamersley's. Most restaurants get far more last-minute cancellations than they'd like to admit, so the chances are slim that there will be nothing available for you all night. "Up to 20 percent of our reservations turn out to be no-shows on weekends at prime-time hours," says Godfrey Polistina, owner of the New York City restaurants Ouest and 'Cesca. Many restaurants also have at least one reserve table that they reluctantly bring out for unexpected situations, says Hamersley, but these often go to regular customers.
If the restaurant truly cannot offer you a table, try eating at the bar, Sietsema suggests: "You'll get a sense of the restaurant's items and the chef's style, and the food might even be cheaper." As a bonus, you can forge a relationship with the staff, increasing your likelihood of getting―and keeping―future reservations.
Problem: You don't want to check your coat but feel pressured to do so.
Solution: In general, the better the establishment, the more eager the host or hostess will be for you to check your coat. Keep in mind that the decor of a fine restaurant in New York City can cost in the neighborhood of $2 million to $5 million. So your parka hanging off a $1,000 chair is not appreciated, says Pascale Le Draoulec, author of American Pie ($14, amazon.com). If you really want to keep your coat, be polite but firm. "If someone is wavering, I usually try to take the coat," says Katy Burstein, the manager at Le Français, in suburban Chicago. "So if you know you want to keep it, be very matter-of-fact." Saying "I tend to get cold; I'm going to keep this" or "No, thanks―I'm in a hurry" is a good way to go.
Problem: You hate your table.
Solution: Speak up quickly. Most hostesses say they prefer to know before a diner has been seated. Of course, you yourself may have no way of knowing if you're happy until the hostess walks away. In that case, "don't waste your time complaining to the waiter," says Steven Shaw, author of Turning the Tables―Restaurants From the Inside Out ($25, amazon.com). They don't decide where you sit. "Instead, find the hostess or the manager," says Shaw. "If you don't, you have the waiter acting as a go-between, which is inefficient and annoying to the staff." Next, express your specific issue with the table―too loud, too small, too central, too close to the bathroom―and request a spot that better meets your needs. Restaurant aficionados avoid this altogether by always letting the reservationists know where they prefer to sit when they book: a romantic corner for a special anniversary, or in the thick of things, for that out-of-town guest eager to take in the local color.
Problem: The air-conditioning is blasting; you're freezing.
Solution: "We know that all seats aren't created equal when it comes to A/C," says Hanson. "So if you're not comfortable, let us know." Don't be disparaging; just explain that you're shivering. The restaurant should quickly figure out a way to warm you up without overheating the other diners. At Le Français, this may mean changing your table. Or if you're female, it may mean bringing you a shawl to drape around your shoulders. But few restaurants will lower the thermostat for one diner and risk making the others hot. And you shouldn't expect them to.
Problem: So many menu options, so little time. Where should you begin?
Solution: First, know the following: The top and bottom items on menus are usually things restaurants want to sell a lot of (they're getting a good cost-to-price ratio on them, says LaBan); the specials often include savory items the chef has plucked at the farmers' market or fish store and is eager to cook with; signature dishes are what the chef is known for (they are usually marked as such on the menu); and tasting menus (which generally consist of six to seven mini dishes and matching wines) are the best way to enjoy the full range of a chef's work. That said, if you're still clueless, ask for the waiter's recommendation, but avoid questions like "Is the trout good?" says Philippa Rizopoulos, who waited tables at New York's beloved French oasis Tartine for four years. Instead, give the waiter a framework: "I'm in the mood for fish. Any suggestions?" or "The pasta looks amazing. Can you recommend two or three?"