To no one’s surprise, I spent many years as a server and bartender. I know. I can practically hear the collective shock — “A writer who waited tables to make ends meet? No way!”
In that time, I learned a great many things: how to swear in Spanish; how to smile through the searing pain of a hot plate against a bare arm; how to balance not just priorities but plates, glasses, condiments, and silverware — all at the same time.
But I also learned a few restaurant secrets that have served me well as a regular patron of our local food joints. Below, I share with you with seven hacks that can make dining out even better.
1. Use jargon.
Just like with any other field, the restaurant business has its fair share of industry-specific language. And just like any other professionals, those who work in the industry will feel a bit of instant camaraderie with any other server, bartender, chef, bar-back, host, or manager they meet.
Use this to your advantage by strategically placing a few well-chosen phrases into your conversation with your server, and they’ll immediately recognize you as someone in the know — and might just give your table a bit of special attention as a result.
We suggest dropping a few terms such as:
- on-the-fly, the restaurant equivalent of “STAT”;
- still mooing, if you want that hamburger extra rare; or
- if you’re in view of the kitchen, asking your server about that delicious looking dish in the window — meaning the shelf connected to the kitchen where all those dishes are waiting to be picked up.
2. Make your reservations by phone.
In this age of online conveniences, fewer people than ever are calling the restaurant directly to make their reservations — but they should. Because it is so uncommon, when they receive these calls, reservationists and hosts immediately listen for certain cues that might indicate someone notable is on the phone, such as inquiries about local hotels, a certain chef’s days in house, or the availability of private dining areas.
It might be that your party is a group of businesspeople looking for a place to celebrate a deal. You may be bringing in a VIP, and need to warn the staff ahead of time of the possible commotion he or she will bring with them. Or — the best possible assumption of all for a diner — you could be a restaurant reviewer coming into town.
More than likely, the reservationist will note this suspicion and warn your server that an overview of your experience may get published in the local paper. And that means the staff might just go one step further to give you an experience worth writing home about.
3. Order the weirdest thing on the menu.
Generally speaking, every menu contains at least a few dishes that are widely appealing. This way, the chef can ensure that even those with less adventurous tastes can find a meal they they’ll enjoy. And because of their widespread appeal, these few items definitely sell well.
However, because they can be creatively limiting, those dishes tend to also be the ones the chef is least passionate about. But that entrée filled with foods you’ve never heard of, and that, quite frankly, may seem a little scary? That’s probably where the chef has put the most time, energy, and creativity — and it’s most likely the best thing on the menu.
You’ll not only have the best dish of anyone in your party, you’ll also get a brief glimpse inside the mind of that particular chef. We can all but guarantee you’ll like what you see — and taste.
4. Try to plan dinner early. And on a Tuesday.
Tuesdays tend to be the slowest nights for restaurant business, and if you think about the average workweek, it makes sense. On Monday, many people are exhausted by the sheer effort of going into the office, and will go out to eat or order dinner to compensate. And by Thursday, many folks are already eyeing the weekend, and want to celebrate accordingly.
Tuesday, however, is that sweet spot where your favorite haunts will be relatively slow — and your service, not to mention the specials, will be at their best. Not to mention that most restaurants receive food deliveries early in the week to compensate for the jam-packed, and very fridge-depleting, weekend rush, so you’re more likely to get the freshest food possible.
To double down on this hack’s benefits, try going out as early as possible. For many, a lengthy commute, a hungry dog waiting at home, or the need to coordinate between several friends’ schedules pushes dinner plans back to later in the evening. If you arrive at 5:30 pm, however, you’ll most likely have plenty of time to get a cocktail, engage with your server, and put in your appetizer order before the rest of the restaurant’s dinner patrons are even seated.
5. Don’t duck the bar.
Ask yourself: When was the last time you sat at the bar for dinner? If the answer is “never,” you’ve been missing out on a valuable opportunity to skip to the front of the line.
Although it is often considered the bastion of cocktail-only patrons or those people waiting for their remainder of their party, the bar can actually be one of the best seats in the house. And, because most people still eschew this option for a traditional table, it’s likely you’ll be seated much more quickly, even on the busiest nights.
This hack is less relevant for large parties — after all, no one wants to literally talk over each other — but it can be a perfect solution for a party of two. Not only can sitting next to your friend or significant other can be a refreshing change from being separated by a table, but at the bar, your server (i.e., the bartender) will be within feet of you for your entire meal — making requesting another cocktail or ordering dessert easy as pie!
6. A few simple questions can save you money.
We’re not advocating for requesting a free shot from your bartender, but there are some secret ways to get a great deal. If you’re looking to try a bottle of wine but it’s not quite in your budget, ask your server or sommelier if they have a “pocket” or “end of bin” wine list, meaning the bottles they have very few of and may want to sell at a discount.
If you’re not feeling hungry enough for a whole meal, you may also want to ask your server if he or she can arrange to sell you a half-portion of your entrée — assuming it’s something that’s easily portioned. They may be able to sell you a smaller size for a little less, or can direct you to an equally delicious appetizer that won’t send you straight into belt-loosening territory.
To get the most bang out of your adult beverage, you can ask your server or bartender for suggestions of different “iced teas” (that’s right, they don’t stop at Long Island) or house-made cocktails. Anything crafted by the bartender on staff will tend to have more complex ingredients — and better liquor — than your traditional well rum and coke. Not to mention, it’ll pair much better with your meal.
7. Make splitting the check easier than ever — and never pay for another person’s cocktail again.
I know you’ve been there: You’re out with a group of several friends — some of whom may not be the best at remembering, and paying for, everything they ordered — and somewhere around quitting time you realize that no one has cash. And you didn’t ask for separate bills.
Unfortunately, many point-of-sale systems don’t allow the user to split the check once each item has been rung in. Most do let you enter multiple forms of payment, however. That’s where a little bit of math comes in.
Rather than forcing your server to not remember what each person at your table had — while simultaneously considering whether table six had a diet or regular soda, making sure the lemons made it to table eight, and checking on the appetizer for that two-top — write the last four digits of each credit card and the amount to charge to each on the back of the receipt. Your server will thank you, and you’ll never accidentally pay for your friend’s Manhattan again.
The ultimate dining hack: earning rewards for every meal. Check out how you can join the club and start earning more for every bite.