When I review restaurants, I try to set aside bitty annoyances to focus on the big picture. Then, whether a meal was memorable or mediocre, I work backward to consider why.
Recently, I was in the middle of doing just that — mulling over notes, thumb-scrolling through photos on my phone, and recalling certain plates and tastes and smells and sounds and people. Then, I did the dumbest thing. I opened email and got distracted by a press release that announced some company’s survey of diner pet peeves.
A study by food safety consulting firm Steritech queried some 500 people about what attracts them to restaurants and what ticks them off when they eat out.
Before I tell you the No. 1 diner pet peeve, according to Steritech, pause for a minute to think about what most sets you off when you eat at a restaurant.
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It turns out that sticky or dirty tables and chairs topped the list. Does that make your top 10? I’ve experienced my fair share of sticky tables and chairs, but now that my Chuck E. Cheese’s days are over, that one doesn’t register among my greatest gripes. Neither do unruly kids or slow service, as annoying as these might be. A restaurant is a bit of a theater every night, and some things just can’t be predicted. For some folks, policies like no food substitutions or not getting seated until the entire party has arrived are ripe for Yelping. You won’t get that from me.
Here’s what does get my goat these days:
Unattended restrooms. No, I’m not saying every restaurant needs a lady attendant in the women’s bathroom like at Midtown Latin dance spot Loca Luna. But, bathrooms do need tending to. Restrooms are first on my list, because when the john makes me grimace, I wonder about the state of the kitchen. My laundry list of bathroom grievances includes broken locks on stalls and unisex doors, no toilet paper, depleted hand towels, dirty toilets and grimy sinks.
A few years ago, I started taking photos of impeccable bathrooms, just to remind myself that some places do strive for excellence in the powder room category. Check out the potty at Umi sometime. The Japanese toilet seat is heated. Fan-cee.
On a related note, when I notice an employee walk in and out of a stall wearing an apron, I cross my fingers the person removed that smock before they took care of business.
What did you say? I really do want to know the special of the day and the dishes that a restaurant is most proud of. Which is why it’s frustrating when a server speaks so softly or mumbles to the floor, making me wonder whether I need my hearing checked. Then, there are the times that the menu spiel is breathlessly delivered at 100 miles an hour or drones on for so long that I’ll order anything on the drink list just to make it stop.
I still can’t hear you. I don’t confuse restaurants with nightclubs, yet, increasingly, when I walk into Atlanta restaurants, the pipes are pumping and thumping so loudly that conversation becomes a battle between me and T.I. A good playlist is one thing. Coming home and popping a Halls menthol lozenge to soothe a sore throat is another. Please get the acoustics under control.
“Are we loving everything?” That phrase, or variations of it, seems to be more commonplace among servers when they check in on the table soon after dropping off the food. The “we” confounds me. When did the server become part of the dinner party? Is that person going in on the check, too?
The part about “loving” the food is uncomfortable, also. Rare is the meal that I walk away loving everything. So, how ought I reply? Truthfully? That the steak is overcooked, the mashed potatoes are dry and the mac-and-cheese is rather average? If only the question would be phrased in a way that doesn’t make me dodge and weave.
And, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the attentive server who checks in on the table. But, please give me a second to pick up the fork and take a few bites first. And, please, please, keep the interruptions in check. Constantly refilling water glasses when they are still three-quarters full, or making small talk with every pass by the table, is a sure way to grate on guests.
There must be a shortage of plates. Small-plates concepts dominate the dining world. You need to order many wee dishes for you and your party to fill up, you’re told. So, you order many wee dishes. But, your same wee dinner plate just sits there, course after course, getting dirtier and dirtier. When I need to request a fresh plate is when I get tapped out on tapas.
Maybe it’s also a plate shortage that leads a server sometimes to whisk away my plate before I’m done. Ditto on a $15 drink that still has a few sips left to it. Diners shouldn’t have to protect their food and drink.
Did the chef want that soup to come out cold? Hot food should be served hot. It’s that simple. And it doesn’t matter whose fault it is — the kitchen’s, or the server who let it die on the pass.
Advance tipping. The rise of fast-casual restaurants that use a counter-service model means that diners pay — and tip — in advance. It is an awkward moment when the cashier flips the point-of-sale touchscreen terminal my way and it’s time to choose between no tip, a standard 15, 18 or 20 percent, or some other amount. Yet, the only service I’ve received thus far is that of placing an order. If I tip more, will the food come out faster? Will it taste better? By the way, the tip jar at coffee houses does nothing for me except to stir up guilt.
Now that I’m done ranting, it’s only fair to remember that we diners do our share of riling up restaurant workers who, in my experience, are some of the most patient people on the planet.
Have you ever considered that your order of hot tea takes a fair bit of time to gather together? There’s the tea pot to fill and refill with hot water, the tea bag, the saucer, the lemon wedge …
It’s ignorant to ignore front of house staff when they greet you. And, please, don’t ever act like my mother-in-law did when she snapped her fingers to beckon a server during brunch at Bar Mercado. It’s mortifying for everyone.
Also, try to remember that your server is not your babysitter. If you need ketchup, Sriracha, another napkin and a soda refill, ask for it all at one time.
Service was bad? Showing them who’s boss by leaving a couple of pennies is not the solution.
Sure, restaurants are part of the hospitality industry, but we diners also can do our part to make that meal memorable in the best of ways.