Eat like a pro

Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel tells how to make the most of a meal out

By Phil Vettel

Every week I tell you where to eat. But I never say how.

I mean, I assume that most of my readers have mastered the cut-chew-swallow basics, and I'm certainly not going near the tines-up/tines-down controversy. But there are simple steps you can take that can make any dining experience a little better--that is, a little more attuned to your personal tastes.

And so, after consulting with some of my other dining colleagues, I assembled the following tips, consisting of insider information, professional tips and assertiveness training. It's theoretically possible to employ all 10 tips in a single restaurant visit, but that isn't necessary. If there's one common theme to these suggestions, it's that flexibility is a good thing.

Dine on Wednesday nights. Why are some customers greeted by name at the door, while the rest of us settle for obscurity? The fawned-over ones generally are famous, very rich and/or regular customers. Fame and riches being beyond the grasp of most of us, the best strategy is to become a regular, and the most cost-effective way of doing that is to visit on a quiet night, when you're one of the few paying customers and more likely to be noticed. To be sure you'll be remembered, chat up the manager or the owner, rave about the food or service or decor. On your way out, make a reservation for another Wednesday night. Do that a couple-three times and you too can be welcomed like family, treated to the occasional extra dessert or quickly seated on a packed-to-the-rafters weekend night.

Eat like a chef. Most of us are accustomed to ordering appetizer, entree and dessert. But that's not what chefs do when they visit other restaurants; they try a dozen small dishes and pass plates like demons. So if the appetizers look more interesting than the entrees (which is often the case), why not order several, and either skip the entree or share one with a companion? Why not ask if a certain entree is available as an appetizer, or vice versa? (That's an easy request for pasta dishes, a trickier proposition for a veal chop.) If the day's tasting menu looks exciting but there are one or two dishes that don't appeal to you, ask for substitutes. You'd be amazed at how flexible chefs can be. And the staffers won't dismiss you as a lunatic; they'll assume you're a knowledgeable foodie.

If you must bribe, do it right. I condone neither the practice of tipping hosts to get seated quicker, nor the practice of accepting such bribes. But two hosts who understandably insist on anonymity say it happens all the time at certain, frequently crowded restaurants. Rule Number One: Fold the bill small enough so it can be transferred via handshake; ostentatious tipping can get the host fired. Rule Number Two: My anonymous sources assure me that tipping the host $10 is a waste of money; you won't get seated more quickly for anything less than $20. (For $20, I'll wait my turn.)

Chat up your waiter. Too many customers never communicate more than "I'll have the salmon" to their waiter. Too few waiters contribute more to their tables than their obligatory upsell pitches. But a great dinner experience is often a conversation, and whatever you do to increase communication with your server likely will yield positive results. Silly icebreaker questions such as "How long have you worked here?" and "What's your favorite restaurant besides this one?" can open things up. Don't be afraid to challenge a waiter with, "What does this chef do better than anybody else?" Just don't ask any question that can be answered with, "Everything here is good."

Want a great table? Date hunks/babes. If a restaurant has window tables visible by passersby, hosts generally like to seat them with good-looking people, using them as surrogate advertising: Look at the hotties who dine here! My movie-star appearance comes in handy in these situations, but if you're a normal person being shown to an undesirable table, speak up. Ask for another table. If you're told that this is the only table available, offer to wait at the bar for a better location. Or offer to dine elsewhere.

Don't be embarrassed to discuss wine prices. Here's a too-common scenario: You ask for a wine recommendation, and the waiter or sommelier picks a really nice bottle--at $85, more than double what you'd planned to spend. Whatever you choose, you harbor resentment toward the person who tried to "push" a pricey bottle on you. Well, guess what: Sommeliers aren't mind readers. It's perfectly OK to reply, "I wasn't planning on spending that much tonight; I'm looking for something in the mid-$40s." It's also perfectly fine, as well as time-efficient, to mention a price range when asking for wine advice in the first place. Me, I like to let the sommelier go nuts. If the price is too high I'll go cheaper, but I'll try to remember the name of the recommended wine for the next time I'm feeling wealthy--or wine-shopping.

Stupid menu tricks--and how to avoid them. Some restaurants--rarely the better ones--use subtle gimmicks to get customers to order high-profit dishes. I sat in on a restaurant-profitability seminar years ago, and the instructor revealed that the most-frequently ordered appetizers are generally the first and last on the list, so many restaurants place high-profit items in those positions. Drawing a box around a menu item--even if you don't call it a "specialty"--results in higher orders. If the menu has a big box highlighting the pasta and turkey breast entree, don't assume it's a great dish.

Design your own wine flight. When you order venison and your friend orders seafood crepes, finding a bottle of wine that matches both dishes is difficult, if not impossible. The more courses you order (particularly if you follow my multiple-appetizer strategy), the more difficult the match. So why not ask for a wine match for each dish? Most restaurants would be happy to pour half-glasses of wine for each dish of your multicourse meal; restaurants such as Bin 36 practically specialize in the practice. Better still, name a budget (between $25 and $50 per person is a good range) and let the in-house wine expert pick the pairings.

If something's not right, speak up. Assertiveness is not a crime, and most restaurant managers and owners (those with working brains) are grateful when unhappy customers complain. The old saw is that a happy customer tells three friends about his experience, and an unhappy customer tells at least 10 friends about it. Smart managers/owners welcome the chance to make things right--not by responding to an angry letter received a week later (though that's better than nothing), but by dealing with the dissatisfied customer on the spot.

There's an art to this, of course. Make your complaint specific. Speak calmly and unemotionally. Maintain your perspective; know the difference between a slipup and a crime against humanity.

It's OK to send any dish back - if it's overcooked, too tough, too salty, way too spicy or if you simply don't care for it. But the time to send back a dish is after the first few bites, not after you've consumed two-thirds of it.

Caveat emptor with valet parking. Relatively few diners realize that most valets don't work for the restaurant, but are independent contractors. That's not a subtle distinction. If there's damage to your car, you'll be dealing with the valet service's insurance, not the restaurant's. And if the valet is surly or slow, that doesn't reflect on the restaurant's training program. Nevertheless, the restaurant contracts with the valet service, so feel free to complain if the service isn't up to par. (Yes, I tip car valets. A buck over the usual fee, generally, more if they've parked it in a nice safe spot out front. And $5 if the parking is complimentary.

Random deep thoughts. Dining in a fancy restaurant's kitchen table is something every foodie should do once, but I wouldn't make a habit of it; these restaurants spend a lot of money making their dining rooms comfortable, and that's where I'd rather sit. A martini before dinner is a fine idea, but not if you're drinking a faux, fruited-up martini imitator (mango-tini, choco-tini, Osama bin-tini); save 'em for dessert. I've heard of people who tip less if they didn't like the food, which is unfair to the waiter unless he/she also runs the line; send the food back (smart choice) or suffer in silence (foolish choice), but don't take it out on the servers.

Phil Vettel is the Tribune restaurant critic.