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How to Behave in a Four-Star Restaurant

illustration of a waiter and a patron at a restaurant, image
Photo caption
A waiter discourages a patron from taking the flowers.

Everybody's a restaurant critic, from the authors of the Michelin guide to your great-aunt Martha. Who doesn't have an opinion on what makes a nice night out? A stunning setting. Sterling service. Haute cuisine at a modest price. Yada, yada. For the sake of freshness, let's turn the matter on its head.

What if we asked not what a restaurant can do for us, but what we can do for a restaurant?

Although there is no rating system for diner behavior, patrons should follow some basic rules.

Silverware belongs on the table, not in your purse — A former maître d' at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Bill Staggs used to watch diners make off with the restaurant's floral arrangements. "People feel entitled," Staggs says. Simple rule: Flowers don't come with the price of your meal. Neither do the forks, knives, butter plates, and salt shakers.

Cut the cell phone chatter — Many restaurants forbid the use of cell phones and say so on their menus or at the front door. But even if there's no explicit ban, step outside if you need to make a call. It's one thing for others to overhear your dinner conversation—they don't also need to know that you're buying low and selling high.

Try to maintain a fair rate of returns — Fly in your soup? Then it's OK to send it back. Same goes for a burger if it's overcooked or underdone. It's also reasonable to return the wine if it's bad or has been misrepresented (they told you it was sweet, say, but it's dry). As for people who reject a bottle simply because they've decided that they now want something different, they should put a cork in it.

Request recommendations . . . it's recommended — It's a good idea to ask for recommendations, but don't blame your waiter if your tastes disagree. The best way to ask: "What do people come back here for?"

A few tips on tipping — Tip at least 15 percent, pretax, if the service met your expectations. Twenty percent or more if it went above and beyond.

Communicate, communicate, communicate — Let your waiter know your needs and preferences. If you don't like salt, if you're allergic to peanuts, make that clear before you order. But no matter what you ask for, try to have realistic expectations. Don't go to a steak house when you're craving the world's most creative vegetarian entrée. Don't go to a diner expecting white tablecloth service and an extensive list of rare wines.

Cancel your reservations — If you're not going to make it, do call the restaurant as soon as you know. This is especially important for high-end restaurants that may have trouble filling an empty table at the last minute.

Illustration by Melinda Beck

This article was first published in September 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.