As I was firing up the computer this morning, I received a frantic text from a friend. She has a first date coming up that she has been pretty nervous about. He finally picked the restaurant and from what she could tell, it did not seem like a place to order a beer. She decided liquor was not good for a first date, but she is also not a wine drinker. I took a quick look over their wine list online, found a good Riesling, and taught her how to pronounce it. Crisis averted.
Whether it is because of my time in the business, or because I constantly mention this blog, I field questions of this sort all the time. The first thing I always say is that the person across the table is probably faking it too. If we were honest, I think we would all admit to faking it from time to time. There are only about 2% of people who would feel completely comfortable in any style of restaurant. These are usually the same people who give their surgeon advice on how to best perform the procedure once the anesthesia starts kicking in.
For the rest of us, restaurants can be intimidating. I am not an expert on restaurant etiquette, but I have seen enough people pretend to be experts to know the giveaways. I have chuckled under my breath as a table discusses all their trips to Napa while sniffing the cork. I have watched tables recite epic stories of the creation of the Caesar salad in Roman times. Listened to guests tell tales of catching wild salmon on their last trip to Florida. I have seen the mistakes, which allows me a little leeway in telling you how to avoid them.
Here are a few tips broken down into some easy categories:
Wine: If you are new to wine, stay light. Most people do not learn about beer by starting with Guinness. The secret here is that wine lists are usually listed from lightest to heaviest. Don’t pick the first one. In whites it is usually the White Zinfandel. This is acceptable if you have no desire to impress anyone, but if you are trying to fake it go with a Riesling or Piesporter. With reds, I always recommend Chianti. It generally avoids the tart flavors of a Pinot Noir and lingers on the tongue less than the bigger reds.
If you decide to get a bottle, let them\ other person be the taster. Tasting wine is actually a very simple process. The server will show you the label to confirm it is what you ordered. Nod to let them know it is. They should pour a little taste. Twirl it around in your glass for a couple seconds. Sniff the glass to make sure it does not smell like vinegar. Take a small taste and let it coat your tongue. If you have not spit it out by this point, tell them it is fine and have them pour. You will know if the wine is bad by the smell. All you are really doing is making sure it has not turned to vinegar. The rest is for show.
The one step that is not on this list is smelling the cork. Years ago some Hollywood director decided it looked cool to have someone smell the cork on screen. Anything you can smell on the cork will be far more noticeable by smelling the wine. This is also a sure fire giveaway that you are faking it. Don’t be caught making this mistake.
Food: There are often three or four different languages on a restaurant menu. No one really expects you to be fluent in all of them. Don’t try to pronounce words you are unfamiliar with. Instead point to the item on the menu and say the words you do know. Wait for the server to repeat the order back and think to yourself, “Could that be how you say that?” If it sounds reasonably close, you are all set. You also just learned a new vocabulary word.
Remember the server is your friend. They are not out to get you. Keep them as your friend. Do not order the least expensive thing on the menu because it is the least expensive thing. If you are really undecided, select a few items that look good and ask the server for their pick. Servers like that. No matter how much of an expert your fellow diners think they are, the server is there forty hours a week and gets far more feedback on what is good. Trust them and order envy will spread to others at the table.
Be prepared with a salad or soup selection in case someone else orders it. No one likes eating alone or having someone watch them eat. Even if you are not particularly hungry, order it out of politeness. Do not ask for bread until you have an item in front of you that bread would compliment. This means soup or salad generally. A sandwich or fried appetizer is not complimented by bread.
Misc: Silverware should be used from the outside in. At any restaurant worth being nervous about, they will bring you clean silverware when you need it. Do not worry about saving your silverware. The knife is your friend. It points to your wine and water glass.
When finished with a course, place your silverware on the plate. Do not stack plates or move your plate to the end of the table. I know you think it is nice and polite. It actually makes stacking far more difficult for the server. Managers view this as a sign that your server is ignoring you. Unless the server is ignoring you, there is no need to give a manager this impression.
There are a million finer points to dining beyond these. For those more detailed questions I would send you to Dining 101 with Mr Wolfe. These ideas are simply to prevent you from making some of the more avoidable gaffes. Remember that you are the customer. While it can be intimidating, it should not be designed to be. Hospitality at it’s core is about making people more comfortable. These tips will help you be more confident in your dining adventures.