Observations on Restaurants, Tips, and Bread Baskets

21 million Americans eat at a full service restaurant every day, so I suspect some of these observations on the dining out experience will resonate:

# After I gave my order to my waiter, he said, "Good choice, you're going to love it." Ill-advised, right? Satisfaction with an experience depends significantly on our expectations going into it, and by telling me I'm going to love the food before I've tried it, I have very high expectations. However, with food I believe there's more of a self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic, and our enjoyment of food isn't even mostly dependent on the quality of the food itself. For this reason I think the waiter's statement works.

# Restaurant etiquette dictates that you are not supposed to use your hands to break off a piece of bread and put the other half back in the basket. Also, no one wants to be seen as selfish by taking the last piece of bread or the last appetizer. My advice: take the initiative. Break the bread in half (even with your hands) and offer it to the other person. Offer the last bit of appetizer to your partner, and if he declines, eat it. Many a good piece of bread and appetizer have been left in the center of the table due to excessive deference or fear of perceived selfishness. (For better or worse I'm not blessed with such selflessness — I crush bread baskets, especially if there's olive oil nearby.)Breadbasket

# Why do waiters ask if you want to see the desert menu? This requires two "Yes" affirmations from the patron to place an order. Just give the desert menu and make the person say "No" to desert after seeing the description of chocolate cake.

# I have laughter control issues when eating at a high end restaurant where the waiter offers a range of meaningless adjectives to describe the food. The cheese is subtly fruity. The fish is prepared with a punchy tang to give it just a bit of Alaskan kick.

# The next time you eat at a restaurant with a friend who's been there before and chose the place, ask him, "What do you recommend?" I guarantee you the response will be, "Oh, everything's good here." Really? Have you tried everything on the menu?!

# If I were a restaurant manager I would spend 30 minutes with each of my waiters explaining the research around how to maximize tips from patrons. For example, leaving a mint with the bill or drawing a smiley face on the bill have been shown to increase tip. Research also suggests that the tip amount is only marginally connected with the actual quality of wait service. Bottom line is that many waiters miss out on easy psychological hacks that would increase their tips.

# Does disclosing your newness to a job help or hurt you? "It's my first day." Is this is a smart thing to say? Declared preemptively, no. If the waiter happens to mess up the order, then it might be a good explanatory device to win sympathy. But before anything happens, it's irrelevant and might even offend (I've been assigned the new waiter — I must not look like a high roller). Elsewhere in the world of sales, regardless of whether an error is committed, be wary of disclosing your newness. I was recently helping a salesperson on his pitch and in response to a question for which he didn't know the answer he said, "Sorry, it's my first week, I'll get back to you." Again — the prospect feels like he's been assigned the junior rep.

Since we're on the topic, here are Tyler Cowen's tips for ordering in a restaurant:

  • At fancy and expensive restaurants, order the item that sounds least appetizing and the dish you're least likely to want to order. An item won't be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good. Most popular-sounding items can be just slightly below the menu's average quality. Beware roast chicken. Too many people like roast chicken, so it will be on the menu, but it doesn't hit the highest peaks of taste. The flip side: when cooking at home, be wary of trying something new.
  • When at a restaurant, ask a waiter, "What is best?" Don't ask, "What should I get?"
  • Tips for ethnic restaurants: appetizers are often better than main courses; avoid desserts at ethnic restaurants in America.
  • Eat unhealthy food outside the home. Restaurants know how to make good unhealthy food. At home, eat healthy. And don't take recipes too seriously.

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