Experiencing fine versus fine dining

By Paula Johnson

Photo: To become a Most Favored Patron at fine dining establishments, pay in cash when possible and be empathetic with the staff

Recently, I had an experience dining at a highly regarded New York restaurant, a place the Zagat describes as serving “flawless French fare that’s impeccably served by a professional staff in a charming setting.” This establishment garnered three stars in The New York Times as well as a star in the Michelin Guide, so I expected it to be good. And I expected it to be good because I had dined there a few years ago. But this time, I had a distinctly different experience, recalling that of noted critic and author Ruth Reichl’s dining at New York’s famed Le Cirque. Coincidentally, the chef whose restaurant I was dining at had cooked at Le Cirque before opening his own string of restaurants, so it did seem a bit ironic that my experiences seemed so evocative of Ruth Reichl’s.

Ruth/Molly

Ruth Reichl served as the Times’ critic from 1993-1999, a time when restaurants would offer a bounty of $500 to anyone who spotted The New York Times critic, so Reichl wanted to dine anonymously. She enlisted the aid of an acting coach friend to transform her, using wigs, makeup, wardrobe, and a backstory, into someone who was most definitely not a notable personage—a Midwestern woman whom she named Molly. “Molly” was dissed time and again by the staff of LeCirque, starting with the snooty “Do you have a reservation?” Though she did, she was still ordered to wait for a half hour at the bar before being led to a table in the smoking section, where she had requested not to be seated. (Yes, it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when fine dining and smoking coexisted). The wine list was ripped from her hands by a waiter saying he needed it for another table, specials were never announced, and the indignities went on and on. Ruth/Molly left feeling distinctly like she didn’t belong—the staff, at best, ignored her and at worst, treated her with ill-disguised contempt. Reichl then went back as herself, describing that evening in her review as “Dinner as a Most Favored Patron,” in sharp contrast to poor Molly’s experience. As herself, she was greeted by Le Cirque’s host saying, “The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready.” Even if you haven’t read the review, you can guess how the rest of the dinner went. Reichl published her dual experiences under one review, probably one of the most read restaurant reviews ever.

Ruth/Molly/Paula

My first dining experience at this particular restaurant was flawless, probably because I was dining with someone who had a certain reputation and connections in the industry. And I had made the effort to look the part, leaving flip-flops behind in favor of Louboutins. However, with my second experience, things went awry upon arrival. Harried and arriving directly from the airport, I was unable to change into an evening outfit. Though I was not dressed badly by any means, I was certainly on the casual side. And, I arrived with a dining companion dressed like the college kid she was, distinctly less formally than most other diners. Strike one.

As we were reviewed and judged by the pair of hosts, I saw the looks exchanged and noted the tone in which the direction, “Table 44” was delivered, and I knew we were headed to Siberia. Siberia is that table next to the restrooms and service area where the wait staff dumps menus and dishes and congregates to chat. We passed through the quiet, warmly lit elegance of well-appointed booths and tables to the one all the way in the back in a noisy corner, tucked away, though distinctly NOT in a cozy place. We were treated perfunctorily by the wait staff that, despite buzzing around us, constantly managed to ignore us. The servers seemed to bounce off our table like tuxedoed super balls. We were rushed to order, and upon reflection, we decided we would like additional appetizers but could never attract the attention of a server. We were served the wrong dessert because the waiter practically ran from the table as we ordered and misunderstood what we said (and made no apology for doing so). “I feel like he thinks I made it up to get another dessert,” my companion commented. I left, thinking of Ruth and Molly, and wishing we had gone somewhere else.

Rock Star Dining in Dayton

Could I have avoided that experience? Maybe not in New York at that particular fine dining establishment. But the rules of the dining game here are thankfully relaxed. Dayton is way more casual than Manhattan, and there are things you can do to get rock star treatment right here in our fair city. So, how do you avoid being sent to Siberia and score that perfect spot on the patio? How do you get to be one of those tables that gets that something extra sent out by the kitchen that the chef thought you’d like to try? How do you become a Most Favored Patron?

The first is obvious: Get known! Cultivate relationships at your favorite places by dining there frequently. Sit at the bar and engage with the bartenders.  Eat at the bar—you might be the bartender’s only “table,” and it’s a great opportunity to learn about the place and the food. Ask questions and introduce yourself to the manager, as well. Get to know the servers and their names, and if you’ve got a favorite, request that person. Always make reservations, if possible, and ask for that table and that server you like when you do. This clues the restaurant in that you’ve been there and are familiar with what they do. Some places keep databases with client information and will know your preferences when you reserve. Don’t order a dish and then ask for three of the four ingredients to be left out. Chefs work hard to come up with ingredients that play off and combine with other ingredients, so if you don’t like capers, pick something else. Let the kitchen know how you feel if there’s a dish you loved by being specific. “My compliments to the chef” doesn’t mean a lot, but if you compliment specifically what you appreciated about a dish, you’ll get noticed. Always tip well, at least 20 percent—and in cash. (Also pay in cash if possible—restaurants pay thousands of dollars every month in credit card fees, which can make or break a small, individually owned place). Use social media—tweet a shout out to a place. Restaurants appreciate that and take notice.

And finally, be nice and empathetic with your server—this shouldn’t need to be said, but it does. Things don’t always run smoothly, and letting your server know you understand if there’s a bit of a wait makes that server want to go the extra mile to be sure you are treated well. Be on their team, and they’ll be on yours. This advice should put you on the path to Most Favored Patron status in no time. Bon Appetite!

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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