There is a myth that restaurateurs in New York like to perpetuate: they are striving to reach some European ideal of service. Anyone who’s ever eaten in a real Parisian bistro will tell you that the food is buttery and delicious, the pastries are to die for, and the service is surly, seemingly based on the assumption that the customer has no place to be for the next eight hours or so. The fact is New York City has become the restaurant capital of the world, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Nowhere else can you get food so good, served so efficiently, and in portions geared towards the American appetite.
There are innumerable online forums where you can read reviews of every restaurant in every neighborhood. Of course, the only credentials required to write these reviews is the ability to hold a fork, and presumably, type. With no shortage of online opinion you don’t need more advice on where to eat. Instead, here are some ideas for when and how to eat that will put you in the best scenario to have a positive dining experience:
1. Don’t go to a restaurant that doesn’t want you. If they are closing soon, and you are trying to slip in for a “quick steak,” you are going to get subpar food and depressing service. If for any reason you don’t feel welcome the moment you walk in the door, go someplace else.
2. If you get a bad feeling, ditch. If you walk into or past a restaurant and you get a sense that they’re struggling to serve people, go someplace else. A good way to judge if a bistro is too swamped to take you is the door staff. If management looks stressed you’re better off at the tapas place down the block. If a host hands you a dirty menu, ditch.
3. Order the house specialty. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but be aware of what your chosen eatery specializes in. If it’s a steakhouse, Clams Casino is not the way to go.
4. Sit at the bar. Okay, if you’re on a first date and you’re looking for the perfect romantic dinner perhaps you should get a table. (You may be afraid to suggest, “We could sit at the bar,” as it may reveal the dark truth about your alcoholism.) In any other situation, seriously consider it. Restaurant bartenders in New York get about the same level of training as a neurosurgeon. No single person is better placed to show you a good time. They are generally the most knowledgeable and experienced employees. They also control the flow of booze you yearn for with every fiber of your being. When you sit at the bar you’re not subject to the interminable wait for drinks. You are at the source. Perhaps most importantly, if you are well behaved, you’ll get a free round.
5. Help them help you. Servers exist in a no-man’s land between the kitchen, the guest, and the management. They are there to help you, but that’s not always so simple. Help them help you, work together with your waiter for the best dining experience. If you have a problem, politely ask to speak to the manager and they will deal with it, it’s what they do. Never antagonize the people who control your food!
6. Make a reservation. Besides the obvious reasons to reserve a table at a busy restaurant there are other incentives behind getting your name on that list. Restaurants are often highly computerized these days. That little desktop at the host stand is part of a shockingly intricate system that knows when and what you like to eat. If you have been to a place you like ten times – assuming you made a reservation – the computer will pass that info to the staff. Even if you don’t worry about getting a table make a reservation. The staff will be grateful, and if it’s a place you go all the time you will quickly reach the coveted VIP status.
7. Tipping 20%. Sorry. It’s 20%, start there and go up or down based on service. Consider the stuff you weren’t charged for and how long you held your table – if you are sitting in one spot for 4 hours you’re costing someone money.
8. Restaurants in NYC are heavily clustered . When the question is “Where should we eat?” the answer doesn’t have to be a specific place, just pick one of those neighborhoods with two restaurants on every corner and roll the dice.
9. Avoid the dinner hour. Sounds crazy, but if you can sit down before 7 or after 9 you are really increasing your chances of a good experience. Think of the line cook with thirty orders in front of him, do you want to be the first one or the twenty first.
10. Don’t over-order. Most New York dishes are cooked in so much butter you’ll find yourself full pretty quickly, plus you’ll save money and feel better about yourself if you order light. Never forget, there is always dessert.
The food service industry is massive. (We’re not just talking restaurants here, we’re talking Chilean farmers, French wineries, food critics and starving artists.) Remember, the critics exist to perpetuate the business, so you can’t really trust them. In this city, you can get the best food in the world, but it may be served on an immaculate tablecloth or a wax paper wrapper. The only way to know is to try it. Understanding these rules about when to eat and how to act will empower you to pick the right place at the right time and, hopefully, have a delicious meal.