Fast, friendly and efficient restaurant service is a two-way street - and diners have their part to play.
FRIDAY NIGHT AND SYDNEY'S Sailors Thai is packed and buzzing. In the middle of the room, a well-oiled table of eight is really enjoying themselves. One fellow is performing magic tricks with napkins and salt shakers, which elicits whoops from his friends. Neighbouring diners are less impressed; the impromptu floorshow is making conversation impossible. Next, the wannabe David Copperfield is calling for requests. One bold patron steps up, telling the magician that she does indeed have a request. ''Name it,'' he beams. ''I wonder,'' she says, ''if you could make yourself disappear?''
Effective, definitely, but not recommended. ''It's always best to let the restaurant staff deal with such issues,'' says restaurateur Erez Gordon, now at Sydney's Bistro Bruno and formerly maitre d' of Jacques Reymond in Melbourne. ''It's our job.''
Any number of issues, including obnoxious patrons, awful food, unmet expectations and inept, disinterested or bad-attitude service, can derail a dining experience. ''People put a lot of meaning into eating out,'' Gordon says. ''Money is hard to come by and they're spending it on a high-discretionary item. Diners don't want to walk away saying, 'That was awful.' They've every right to expect a positive experience, and there are things they can do to get the meal they deserve.''
Tell the restaurant what it needs to know to take good care of you, says Neil Perry of Rockpool and Spice Temple. ''Say if it's your birthday, if you've time constraints, if someone in your party can't manage stairs.''
If you have dietary requirements, advise this when booking, not on arrival. ''This allows the chef to offer a choice of suitable dishes,'' Gordon says. That doesn't mean you can't stump up on the night and declare that you can't eat garlic. ''A good restaurant will be able to allow for that because food is prepared in-house at time of ordering. It's harder for a mediocre restaurant to meet dietary requests because they'll have bought in already-prepared food to keep costs down.''
On the phone is also the time to make seating requests. Sydney-based RT Hospitality Solutions director Toni Clarke, who has run restaurants in Auckland, London, Tianjin and Sydney, says: ''For a romantic dinner a deux or a complex business discussion, ask to be seated far from, say, a table for 20.''
Establish a friendly rapport with staff when you book to receive recognition and respect on arrival, she says. ''When you walk in the door, the connection you've created could manifest itself in a great table, service and food.''
An American colleague researches a restaurant to find the best table and, next time she books, will ask to be seated there. ''We comply with seating requests if that table isn't taken,'' says Sam Christie, restaurateur and sommelier at Sydney's Longrain.
The ploy of booking in the name of someone famous to secure a good table, or squeeze into a booked-out eatery, doesn't work. ''Such ruses work only as long as it takes greeting staff to realise you're not Megan Gale or Kate Middleton and then you'll be seated in Siberia instead of at the table with Yarra views,'' says Vicki Chatfield, director of Objective Perceptions, commissioned by Melbourne's top-end restaurants to send in mystery diners to report back on staff performance.
Even when a restaurant doesn't take reservations, Toni Clarke believes it's worth calling ahead. ''Some places make exceptions, so ask if there are any instances when they do take bookings, perhaps for a table of six or more or, as some do, for a 90-minute period.'' Or inquire when the wait is shortest. She also recommends arriving when the restaurant opens and dining early. ''The food is as good at 6pm as 9pm and the staff may have more time.
''Establish an amiable rapport with your waiter by making eye contact, smiling, exuding confidence and the sense that you really want to be there,'' Clarke says. ''If you see your waiter is being run off his feet, ask for bread and a bottle of wine or water while he attends to others and say you're happy to order your meal when he' s less frantic. His appreciation will be reflected in good service.''
Never be reluctant to ask about the food. Erez Gordon says: ''I've seen patrons Googling food terms and ingredients. I say to them, 'By all means Google, but why not ask me?'.'' And if the waiter doesn't know the answer to a question, Clarke says, ''Ask them to please consult the chef. A waiter can't be expected to know everything.''
There are two schools of thought on boning up on the menu before you arrive. By educating yourself on the dishes, their ingredients, flavours, textures and other intricacies you'll be able to make an informed choice. Neil Perry disagrees. ''Forget the website. Treat going to a new restaurant like a first date. You want romance, surprise and delight, like starting a relationship with a beautiful girl.'' To Perry, ignorance can be bliss. ''I simply put myself in the hands of the staff, the chef, the wine team, the management, and let them show me what they can do. Good restaurants really respond to that. I know we do at Rockpool.''
Says Gordon: ''A dream customer is one who comes in with an open mind and adventurous spirit, so giving the chef carte blanche to thrill.
''It's one who says, 'I want to be impressed. Let the chef suggest our menu this evening. Give me your best food and service, your philosophies, do the things you think make you special, and whatever wine you think I should be drinking, then bring that as well.' This puts the chef on his mettle to rise to the challenge.'' Adds Sam Christie: ''While always giving diners what they want - if they insist on having what they always have or topping off their green chicken curry with a cappuccino, then that's what they'll get - offering new experiences makes us feel good and if we succeed, the customer has a memorable time.''
''I always enter a restaurant relaxed and excited,'' Perry says. According to Gordon, ''If you're obviously enjoying yourself, it's contagious and the whole room will hum. Don't go to restaurants with people you don't like. Dining out is about more than the food, it's about a congenial, scintillating atmosphere.''
If your food is poor or your waiter rude, never suffer in silence. Make your feelings known courteously and a good restaurant will set things right. ''You should never walk out of a restaurant after a bad experience without telling the restaurant,'' Clarke says. ''Innocent mistakes happen, it's rarely malicious. Waiters are human and sometimes the food isn't acceptable because the chef is under pressure and cuts corners. And complain immediately: don't wait till you finish eating, as some people do to get a free meal.
''At Aubergine in Canberra I ordered mulloway and was served venison. I brought it to the waiter's attention that my order was wrong, but said I was happy to have the venison. He handled things beautifully: 'No, we'll bring you mulloway, and meantime enjoy a glass of wine on us and perhaps share the venison with the rest of the table at no cost. I'll bring side plates.'''
Besides, complaining boorishly is a dangerous game. Clarke says: ''I've seen kitchens take revenge and heard some horror stories, food being dropped on the floor, stepped on, run under the tap, steamed, cappuccinos topped not with shaved chocolate but shaved Laxettes, and worse. Such behaviour from kitchen staff can never be condoned, but rude patrons reap what they sow.''
Obnoxious or inconsiderate fellow diners can unravel a perfect meal. Patrons within earshot of your table swearing, blaring away on their mobile phone, children running wild, can destroy an experience as surely as a surly waiter or a beastie in the salad.
''Mobile phones? Turn them off or put them on vibrate or silent when you enter the restaurant,'' Clarke says. ''If there's a call you have to take or make, do it in the bar or step outside.''
Perry is more relaxed about electronic devices. ''Mobile phones, computers, cameras - I don't have an issue unless they're annoying other diners. I've taken photos of food I've had at Noma, Mugaritz, Per Se, The Fat Duck and simple places in Spain or Hong Kong. When I scroll through them, great memories flood back, and restaurants are about memories. We're in the nostalgia business, creating memories that give patrons pleasure and bring them back.''
''Guests shouldn't have to endure anything that spoils their meal,'' Gordon says. ''If something is upsetting you, tell us immediately and we'll do what we can. You can head off the problem to an extent when you book by asking not to be seated near large tables, but a table of even two can be annoying. Unfortunately we can't vet our customers and tell if they are going to be obnoxious.''
''A good waiter will be attuned to diners' feelings. They'll realise by body language if they're being upset by another table's behaviour,'' Christie says, ''and if there's a quieter table available, we'll discreetly move them to it.'' If that's impossible on a busy night, it may be necessary to have a quiet word to the offenders.
Clarke has no qualms about ''reminding them politely and respectfully that other guests want to enjoy their meal too and asking them to shush. Usually they've no idea they're being disruptive and the issue is resolved.''
It's good manners, if the service has been fine, to leave a tip - ''10-20 per cent is good, depending … '' says Vicki Chatfield - and to thank the waiter and, via him, the chef.
''A smile and a 'thank you', a 'please give my compliments to the chef', boost morale,'' Christie says. ''An email sent to the restaurant next day is posted up in the kitchen. Taking the trouble to offer personal praise, when it is so easy to consider a tip praise enough, is hugely appreciated.''
''Make no mistake,'' Clarke says, ''Saying thank you makes a lasting impression that means you'll be remembered, and treated royally next time you come.''
Recipes to avoid disaster
Three front-of-house professionals. Three Good Food Guide award-winners. And a bunch of curly questions about how restaurants really work. Ainslie Lubbock of Pei Modern, Coda sommelier Travis Howe and Flower Drum restaurant manager Jason Lui provide the answers.
One of your staff spills wine or food on a customer. What should the customer expect?
AL: A sincere apology and the offer to dryclean or replace if necessary.
TH: A quick delivery of soda water and the offer of a drycleaning bill.
I've forgotten my wallet and can't pay the bill. Will I end up washing dishes?
TH: I've only seen this once and the police were extremely helpful in fixing the situation. If this guy wasn't so drunk, I would have loved him to do the dishes, the floors and the bins.
AL: Most diners have made a booking, so we generally have contact details already. We've worked on an honour system thus far and it hasn't let us down.
How do you handle vexatious customers who aren't happy with anything? Do they get more attention?
TH: They certainly get attention but I don't think it's always for the better. Most waiters are generally fair when it comes to those customers. It's almost always something happening outside the restaurant situation that's causing them grief.
JL: These guests do not necessarily get more attention, but we would be more careful than usual to make sure everything is attended to appropriately, both from a service perspective as well as the food.
How much can a diner ask for a dish to be changed?
AL: These situations can be some of the hardest to negotiate between guest and kitchen. I think it's my job to steer guests towards dishes on the menu that they will enjoy without having to alter them. Changing dishes to accommodate allergies, pregnancy, etc., is done wherever possible.
JL: Changing a dish isn't too much of an issue for us. We are very much about flexibility. The majority of our menu is done to order, so can be easily adjusted to taste.
Is the customer always right?
JL: While we try to accommodate every request, there are times when a question is thrown to us that we do not have an answer for. Once I was questioned about the authenticity of our wagyu beef. Even after showing them the Blackmore packaging, they still weren't convinced. Sometimes you can't win.
AL: No. I aim to treat a customer like a guest in my home. I work to make that guest feel comfortable, welcome and nurtured to the best of my ability. If a guest is rude, insulting to staff, disruptive to other guests or has completely unrealistic expectations, then they are not in the right.
TH: Is this a loaded question? Of course, customers are not always right.
I don't like my table. Should I expect to be moved?
AL: Not always. The ''best tables'' are usually given to people who book a long way in advance, who request in advance or who are celebrating a special occasion, rather than a guest who has just walked in. We happily move guests on request if none of the above applies. Often we'll seat guests to spread the load across the evening, hopefully ensuring better service for the guest.
JL: We generally don't have a problem about guests wanting to switch tables, unless we are full or there are guests that book well in advance and request a specific table, which does happen quite often.
I don't like my dish. If there's nothing wrong with it, is it just my bad luck?
AL: Most of these situations can be avoided if waiters give good explanations of dishes before they are ordered. In the case of degustation menus, there's often one dish some people love and others hate and that's a part of the journey. I'd always recommend alerting your waiter as soon as you realise you're not enjoying a dish. I will rarely comp a dish if a guest complains they didn't like it once they've finished it.
TH: Engage the staff and ask them [about the dish] beforehand. Very rarely do you not get an opportunity to find out more about the food before you order it.
In what circumstances might you take a dish, or wine, off the bill?
AL: If it has been incorrectly cooked or if it's spoilt in some way. Generally with wine, if I've recommended a bottle and it's not to the customer's liking, I will take the bottle back. If the wine is clearly corked or spoilt, the guest shouldn't expect to pay for it.
TH: I do not know how to get free food and drinks from any restaurant, except by engaging staff and tipping well over a long period of time.
My dinner is being ruined by the crying baby/loud guests/diner who's had too much to drink at the next table. What will you do if I complain?
AL: Firstly, quietly ask the offending guest to pipe down or suggest they need to take their baby for a walk to settle it. If the problem continues, offer to move the [complaining] guest to a quieter table, if available.
TH: Too dangerous. I am just a sommelier. Get the manager.