News & Politics

Ask the Critics: How to Get Great Service

We are much more often disappointed by the service than the food at restaurants. Are there ways, short of slipping the maître d' a $50 bill, to assure you get attentive service in a restaurant? Are we doing something wrong?

Bad service happens, even at good restaurants. But a meal gone wrong could play out differently. Patrick O'Connell, chef/owner of the Inn at Little Washington, a restaurant known for its service, says diners have more control than they think. "I relate it to a sort of dance. It's not a passive interchange. Approach it as you would a hairdresser. Impart your expectations." Of course, a server has to be receptive. At the Inn, servers are trained to gauge a diner's mood on a scale of one to ten, the idea being to elevate the number to a ten by the end of the meal.

Tommy Jacomo, general manager at the Palm, where oversize egos are massaged every day, touts communication, though he says the onus is on the staff to read body language and anticipate a diner's needs. "Don't be embarrassed. If you're having a problem, call a manager over before the end of the meal when we can still fix it." Here then are tips on how to get good service.

Is the person taking your reservation cordial? Responsive to special requests? If you're not satisfied, ask to speak to a manager. Is he or she helpful and welcoming? If not, it could be that indifference to your happiness starts at the top.

If it's a special occasion, say so when you reserve–and be specific. Is it a birthday, an anniversary, a first date? (The Palm has different songs for each.) Indicate if you want to play it low-key or go all out.

Treat a restaurant visit like the social occasion it is. When you walk in, aim to charm: "We've been looking forward to coming here." Then when you want that table by the window, it's likely to be yours.

Connect with your server. Not back-slapping chummy–just a "We've heard so much about the food." The idea is to become "the nice couple at table 34," not the diners from hell. The server then has a stake in making your experience wonderful.

Don't be shy about money. If a restaurant is out of Chandon Étoile Rosé, ask the price of the bubbly being proffered instead. Likewise, asking prices of specials avoids surprises when the check arrives.

Become a regular, and a visible one. Greet the maître d' and mention how much you enjoyed your dinner there last time.

Nip trouble early on. Don't sit and stew–politely demand attention. Don't like your table? Say you'd rather be elsewhere and suggest a spot. Is the pork roulade inedible? Ask the server to suggest something else that can be made posthaste. Lag between courses deadly? Summon the manager and calmly explain the situation. Chances are, amends will be made–a round of drinks, dessert on the house, a percentage off the check.

Don't expect too much by way of apology. Few mistakes would make a restaurant sympathetic to a demand that a meal be comped. The response really depends on the crime and the restaurant. If a waiter spills soup on your favorite tie, help with cleanup and an offer to pay for cleaning or a new tie would be appropriate. A nightcap would be nice, too.

When all else fails, there's always revenge. Write letters to restaurant reviewers and copy the restaurant. And tell all your friends to boycott the place.