16 simple restaurant hacks you need to be using
At any restaurant worth its weight in ramekins, your dining experience is almost entirely controlled by glorious, synchronous choreography between kitchen, waiter, bartender & host. But no matter how tasty the fare, smooth the service, and hilarious your tuxedo shirt is, little bits of meal-vexing minutiae that require the attention of you, the diner, are bound to crop up. So here they are: 16 tips, tricks & hacks that will improve pretty much any sit-down restaurant meal you'll ever have. Go forth and dine with confidence!
The problem: You forgot to make a reservation
The hack: Bring the hostess chocolate.
Seriously, this actually sometimes works.
The problem: You can't eat unless you're sure the kitchen's clean
The hack: Check the state of the bathroom to gauge overall cleanliness.
If the customer restroom isn't clean, there's a good chance this restaurant doesn't run a tight ship where the food gets made. Post up at the bar, order a drink, and take a look at the loo before you commit to a meal.
Double hack!: Make that drink a beer, and check for bubbles.
Do you see a bunch of little bubbles clinging to the side of your pint glass? That means it's dirty. Dirty bathroom plus dirty beer glass? Flee!
The problem: Wine is expensive, but you can't seem cheap to your date
The hack: Order the cheapest anyway.
Natural inclination is to order the second-most-affordable bottle on the menu and pretend that you definitely would have ordered that one regardless of the price. Fight this tendency! Restaurants, anticipating your chicanery, often slot a bad-value bottle in the two-spot, and spend time time making sure their cheapest wine is great. A wine list is only as good as its weakest link, so buy that weak link, drink it, and explain all this to your date, so she doesn't think you're just being uber-cheap.
Double hack!: Order it by the bottle instead of the glass whenever possible.
The mark-up can be significantly lower, plus you don't have to wait for your waiter to get a refill, which is nice.
The problem: Your table is wobbly
The hack: B.Y.O.S. -- Bring Your Own Shims!
You could jam a wad of napkins under that weirdly-shorter third leg, but that never really works. Instead, pick up some reusable plastic shims (like this) next time you're at a hardware store, pocket one when you're headed out to eat, and no table of yours will ever suffer from sloshed-beer syndrome again. Also useful: a pocket notebook or book -- but choose one you don't care about, like The Hardy Boys: Footprints Under the Window, because the cover will get scuffed.
The problem: You're in a huge rush
The hack: Order your check with your meal.
This one-two punch is common in airport eateries, but fair game anytime you're in a rush. Be polite, and honest about your need for speed, leave a customary tip, and your server will forgive you for skipping out before the flourless chocolate cake.
The problem: You're dining alone
The hack: Instead of poring over a smartphone (which makes you seem like an obnoxious Instagramming menace), try the paper or a magazine and leisurely enjoy its contents. As long as you're a seated, paying customer, your table is your personal space.
The problem: You're in a huge rush to drink at a busy spot
The hack: Always order a beer back, especially at bottomless brunch.
If you're planning on slamming your first drink anyway because your frattiness is unmitigated, help your waiter, bartender, and yourself by ordering two drinks at once. The wisdom of a shot and a beer is mythic and unassailable and must always be trusted, but this move is especially smooth if applied at a table where everyone but you is doing bottomless brunch. You're so smart!
The problem: You're daunted by the prices, but pasta is never too expensive, right?
The hack: Unless this is a serious Italian spot, go with chicken or pork.
Most of the time, chicken or pork will be priced similarly to everyone's favorite carb, but pasta from a non-Ital joint is, well... just pasta. You're more likely to get a better value and understanding of the chef's abilities by ordering chicken or pork. Obviously, order what you want -- but if you're smart and attractive and going to make it in life, you will be eating delicious chef-prepared pork chops by the time you finish reading this story.
The problem: All the specials look so good!
The hack: Order none of them (unless you trust the place)
At good restaurants, specials are genuine attempts at innovation & variety. Elsewhere, they're often nothing more than a mix-and-match of soon-to-turn ingredients that'll cost the restaurant money unless they make it onto plates. If this is your first time here, go with a dish off the printed menu.
The problem: You desperately need a condiment/utensil/something
The hack: Ask a waiter who's headed to the kitchen...
It's not that servers on their way to a table don't want to help you get your ketchup -- they usually do! But they're more likely to forget your request if you catch them on the upswing. Wait 'til they've tended to the party they were headed for, then mention it when they're returning to the place the ketchup is stored.
Double hack!: ... and ask for everything all at once.
This is just common sense. Use it!
The problem: Does the new sushi spot have legit fish?
The hack: Order some sashimi at the bar.
Get a sense for quality before you commit to a full omakase by ordering something simple, like tuna. Without rice and accoutrements, the fish stands alone, which'll make it easier for you to appraise its caliber (and, transitively, the restaurant's overall character).
The problem: You want baller treatment, but you are not a baller
The hack: Make your reservation over the phone.
From our British correspondent, this brilliance: "When you're booking your table the old-fashioned way, ask the person taking the call some oddly specific questions: 'Is there parking nearby?', 'Is the restaurant handicapped accessible?', 'Are you open Sundays?' (when your booking a different day), etc. It might trigger the host/hostess into thinking that you're a restaurant reviewer, and you're checking off a list of things you need for your review. They then make a note on your reservation, and you get guaranteed great service." And if that doesn't work, you can always just borrow some actually rich person's monocle.
For any other problem you encounter in a restaurant...
The hack: Treat your server like a human being (because that's what they are, unless you're at some sort of weird sci-fi themed joint where, like, your food comes out on a conveyor belt). Seriously, these people want to help you, as long as you're not a d-bag. So engage with them! Learn their names! Ask them their opinions on the menu! It's the easiest hack of all, and it'll make pretty much all your restaurant experiences that much better.