Does the thought of ordering wine for the table fill you with all-encompassing dread? Do you look like praying mantis going through puberty every time you touch chopsticks? Are you forever envious at the diner in total control of the room – the one who's best dressed, sitting at the best table, eating oysters with the grace of a waltzing swan?
It's OK. You're not the only one. Many Australians are still confused about which side of sushi touches soy or when, if ever, it's acceptable to drink a grasshopper. But we can help. With expert advice and the Good Food team's own experience in the field, here's how to dine like a champ, drink like a pro and eat like a deadset boss.
Stage-side tables are prime real estate at Restaurant Hubert in Sydney. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer
How to score the best table in a restaurant
Where you're seated can be a dice roll but there are a few things you can do to lock in that spot by the window or gangster table in the corner. If you know an employee at a restaurant, you're sitting pretty. Give your insider fair warning and they should be able to sort you out with something nice.
For everyone else (that is, most people) it helps to book well in advance and request a specific table. Most restaurants are in the business of hospitality and will do their best to make sure you have a swell time. If the restaurant doesn't take reservations then become a regular, be nice to staff and tip well. It will get you far. It also helps to dress with intent. You won't score a table by the piano at Hubert or a window seat at Vue de Monde's Lui Bar wearing polar fleece.
How to tip
Leaving a tip is always a boss move (10 per cent of the bill is a nice go-to amount) but don't make a big song and dance about about how lucky the staff are to receive a gratuity. The staff will think you're a jerk. Everyone at the table will think you're a jerk. Be cool, big dawg.
You should also tip the local cheap-and-cheerful like you would a hatted restaurant. Especially if you go there once a week and the staff always give you free prawn crackers and a smile.
A squeeze of lemon is fine but don't go too hard on the mignonette. Photo: Wayne Taylor
How to eat oysters
Bivalve boffins give oysters a sniff to appreciate the unique beachy, briny characters of each one. Use your tiny fork ensure the oyster is detached from its home, and slurp the little dude from the wide end of the shell, making sure you get all that life-giving brine.
The diversity of Australia's coastline and waterways means we have fantastic oysters all year round, says John Susman, director of seafood sales and consultancy company Fishtales.
"The fun in becoming an oyster aficionado lies in exploring the different regions and species." Susman recommends eating Sydney rock oysters from the south coast of Australia between September and February when they're at their peak, and north coast Sydney rocks from October to June.
Pacific oysters from Tasmania, South Australia and even NSW these days are best shucked during the cooler months.
How to split a bill
Divide the total bill (plus tip) by how many people are at the table, and everyone pays that amount. End of discussion. Don't be that guy adding up drink prices individually – "I only had one glass of riesling and a flat white blah blah blah". What goes around comes around. Also, don't be that guy ordering 10 negronis at a two-course lunch and expecting everyone to finance your drinking problem. We're all tax-paying adults here.
How to use your mobile phone at the table
If you receive a call, you need to send it to voicemail or take it outside. If you receive a text and absolutely must respond before the first round of Fernet, apologise to the table and return serve with haste. This isn't "how to eat like a boss"; this is common courtesy. A brief note on food photography: make it quick and only use the flash if you want a smack in the head.
Put down the spoon. Photo: William Meppem
How to eat spaghetti
Are you a five-year-old learning to eat pasta? By all means use a spoon to perfect your twirling technique. For most of the rest of us, fork only please. If sauce flecking your shirt is a concern, it's totally fine to bib a napkin. You'll be the one looking like a boss when your mate has bolognese on his Bottega.
You don't want so much spaghetti on your fork that most of it ends up half-chewed back on the plate and it's also polite to go easy on the slurping, says LuMi Dining executive chef Federico Zanellato. "You can have four strands of pasta at a time, you can have six. You can twist it, you can twirl it, it doesn't matter. But, you should never make sound. It's not like eating ramen. When I was a boy I tried to make slurping noises eating my spaghetti and my mother would always give me a slap on the head."
Johnny Di Francesco tucks into a margherita pizza. Photo: Eddie Jim
How to eat pizza
Step away from the knife and fork, says Johnny di Francesco, of Melbourne's 400 Gradi. Pizza should be eaten with the hands. According to Di Francesco, the first Australian trained in Naples to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana ("true Neapolitan pizza") rules, the best way is to grab a slice by the two thick corners and fold them together. Then fold the pointed end back towards the crust and eat. This keeps all the toppings on top of the dough and allows you to get the full taste of the pizza.
He also has a rule of four toppings per pizza, including the olive oil. "If you load it with too much topping you lose the essence of that beautiful dough."
Di Francesco took out the World Pizza Championships in 2014 with his margherita, a combination of good tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves, and for him it remains the ultimate pizza. "People say it's too simple but it's the only pizza where you can truly see whether it's made 100 per cent correctly."
Tricky pronounciation? KISS: Keep it simple, stew-pid. Photo: Rebecca Hallas
How to order a menu item you don't know how pronounce
Maraschino? Cevapcici? Zabaglione? When in doubt, don't try. Sage life advice that's never more relevant than when trying to impress someone in a restaurant.
Sure you can stumble over bouillabaisse to convince your date it rhymes with Patrick Swayze but one day they'll discover the truth – that it's pronounced "boo-yah-behss", not "boo-la-bay-zee". And then what's next? How long until they discover you've been refilling that Aesop bottle with supermarket handwash? Or that sometimes you'll eat a whole packet of Monte Carlos for dinner? Is this the kind of life in the shadows you want to live? "I think I'll just have the fish stew please." Good choice.
Seared otoro nigiri at Kisume. Photo: Supplied
How to eat sushi
K.S. Moon, sushi master at Kisume, Melbourne
The biggest mistake people make when eating nigiri (raw fish served on pressed rice) is to use their chopsticks. You should use your hands. In traditional omakase-style dining the sushi chef will actually hand you the piece of nigiri.
You should use your chopsticks to add wasabi to the top of the sushi or to eat the ginger in-between pieces. Ginger isn't meant to be layered on top of your sushi, either. It's there purely as a palate cleanser. Don't mix the wasabi and soy together. Put a small dab of wasabi on top of the fish and then flip it. Dip the sushi in the soy, fish down. This helps to keep the flavours balanced. Most people incorrectly dip the rice in soy sauce.
You should also eat your sushi all in one bite, they're bite-size for a reason. And when you eat it, flip the sushi in your mouth upside down, so the fish hits your tongue. That way you taste just how fresh the fish is.
Sushi isn't all about the fish. Ask any itamae – any true sushi chef – and we'll all tell you: fish is the second ingredient. Sushi's main ingredient is rice. The flavour balance, texture and serving temperature of the sushi rice have been painstakingly thought-out. I have spent the last decade perfecting it and trying to fully understand the true nuances of sushi rice. Each chef's cocktail of rice, salt and rice vinegar is a "secret recipe".
Kylie Kwong demonstrates how to get to grips with chopsticks. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
Kylie Kwong, executive chef at Billy Kwong, Sydney
It's best to grasp your chopsticks with the tips of your fingers around the middle and the back of your hand pointing closer to the ends. I find that holding them closer to the ends gives you much more "opening up" leverage, rather than grasping the chopsticks close to the "tip" end.
When I pick up my chopsticks in order to use them, I first gently tap the tapered ends of the chopsticks on the table to ensure they are even, as it provides for a more stable grip on your food. The bottom chopstick should be placed between your middle finger and your thumb. This chopstick stays stationary. The top chopstick should be placed between your index finger and thumb. This chopstick opens up to grasp your food.
When picking up food from your bowl or the serving dish you do so at roughly a 45-degree angle. When it comes to etiquette, it's best to not spear your food with the ends of your chopsticks, point them at others during your meal or stick them upright in your food.When you've finished using them, lay them together, vertically, on the side of your plate (which sits underneath your bowl) and to the left.
Automata sommelier Tim Watkins. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Words on wine
Tim Watkins, sommelier at Automata, Sydney, and Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2017 Sommelier of the Year
When do you call in a sommelier for advice?
Unless you've found something on you're own you're happy drinking, ask to speak to your wine waiter. When I approach a customer as a sommelier, it's more about having a conversation about what they like to drink, what I can suggest may be some good options, and mostly creating a bond with my guests so they get the best experience we can offer. I promise I'm not trying to rip you off! (That's why I didn't become a used car salesman) Don't be afraid to ask to have a chat. This is what I do for a living! Also, don't be afraid to give a price range if you are on a budget. Another advantage when chatting to the sommelier is we often have other bottles available that we haven't had a chance to put on the wine list yet.
Do you still need to taste wine if it's from a screwcap bottle?
I always offer the guest who has selected a wine under screwcap to taste before pouring. It's as much about retaining the tradition of pouring/tasting a wine, as well as knowing there is still a chance (albeit small) the plastic seal under the cap has been damaged during bottling, and the wine may have oxidised. I always tell the customer it's one of the honours of being the person who selected the wine to have the first taste. However, if you prefer not to taste, just let the wine waiter know when they present the wine that you're happy for them to pour the wine once opened. Easy.
How do you pick a great wine no matter what the budget?
Dan Sims, Good Food Guide wine panel member and Bottle Shop Concepts director
First you need to ask yourself why you're there. If it's a bling occasion then champagne all the way. If it's mid-week and you're just heading out for a really nice feed, a medium-bodied blend, such as a grenache blend, will do the job. And if it's date night then get a cheeky little bottle of pinot noir, because that's always going to make you look sophisticated. Plus you get to use all the "s" words like silky, seductive, sexy and svelte.
Wines that are almost always a good bet include Tasmanian sparkling and Yarra Valley chardonnay or pinot. Margaret River cabernet is a classic and there are really cool medium-bodied blends from McLaren Vale and the Barossa. Mornington Peninsula pinot is excellent too. Burgundy is great if you want to show off, but if you want really good bang for your buck, Australian and New Zealand pinot is on fire at the moment.
A dirty martini is a good pre-dinner drink. Photo: Michele Mossop
Talking dirty martinis
Chris Hysted-Adams, bar manager at Black Pearl, Melbourne
What cocktails should I avoid ordering so I don't look like a drongo? Are fluffy ducks and grasshoppers out of the question?
Every drink has its time and place. However, if there was one drink to avoid ordering I'd probably say the long island iced tea [the tall order of rum, gin, vodka, tequila and triple sec with a slug of Coke]. Just because there's so many excellent spirits being produced these days and so many great bartenders making drinks to bring out the best in those spirits. The long island is quite a clouded drink. It's not doing anything to accentuate the base spirits.
Cocktails got a bit too elitist about five or six years ago but things have come full circle – especially in Australia – and people realise that there's nothing wrong with enjoying what you like.
What should I order to drink before dinner?
A wet martini is a great way to kick off because it's a bit lower in alcohol and you won't be too far behind the eightball by the time mains come out. It's something we've noticed a lot at the bar – people are finally starting to realise you can drink cocktails without getting rugby-league-level drunk.
A dry martini refers to the dry vermouth used. A wet martini will have more dry vermouth added to the gin – as counterintuitive as that sounds. Dirty martinis, meanwhile, have a splash of olive brine added.
You should avoid those heavier, creamier numbers at the start of the night. I love a grasshopper more than anyone, but I probably wouldn't kick off a meal with it. It would be a bit like going to a wine tasting after knocking back a tin of Eclipse mints.
A chambray shirt is a pretty safe bet. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer
What should I wear to a three-hat restaurant?
Dan Rookwood, an editor for MrPorter.com
"Dress up. It'll get you in the mood to have a good time and your dining guest will appreciate the effort. Your outfit should suit the restaurant's vibe. If it's a fine dining place, go formal; if it's more sharing-plate-style, go smart-casual. For men, a pretty safe bet would be: button-down chambray shirt tucked in to belted, slim but not skinny, navy blue chinos worn with chocolate brown suede Chelsea boots. If in doubt, play it smart. (So, maybe add an unstructured charcoal grey or navy blazer.) It's always better to be slightly overdressed than slightly underdressed. And no hats – the restaurant has already got three of its own."
Jenna Clarke, fashion editor at Fairfax Media
When dressing to dine out it's best to take the advice of one of the greatest style sages of a generation: Bridget, the shop girl in Pretty Woman. "Dinner? Well you'll need a cocktail dress then," she told a clueless Vivian. This advice still rings true, even though dress codes for women are looser than Don Draper after a few martinis. If it's fine dining, go for a midi-length dress or smart, tailored pieces. For somewhere more casual (this is not likely to be a three-hat restaurant), opt for a favourite pair of jeans and well-cut blazer. Food and fashion have similar rules – nail the basics and add flair with garnish. A good pair of shoes is like truffle salt, while activewear "after 5" is about as appealing as six-month-old seafood extender.
The Good Food Guide goes national this year with hats awarded across Australia. The Good Food Guide 2018 will be launched in October with our presenting partners Citi and Vittoria and will be on sale in newsagents and bookstores.