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Table, Booth or next to Newborn?

By Tom "raspberry vinaigrette is for sissies" Waters
February 16 2004

Nobody wants to see a staff person forced to wear pinwheel hats with stupid buttons and recite foolish menu options by parroting the same dialogue that a million other robots were taught at hamburger college.

Dining out is a very tricky proposition. When I was fourteen, I worked as a dishwasher at a restaurant that used to reheat their cornbread rolls after theyíd been out at someoneís table, manhandled, and uneaten. This is a fact thatís never escaped me, and thatís why I understand my fatherís panic and paranoia regarding dinner dates. Heíd rather stay at home and cook than worry about someone dropping his strip steak on the floor in the kitchen in a puddle of bleach, sneezing on it, and throwing it back onto the plate after the ten second rule. I suppose the trick to enjoying a meal out with friends or loved ones is not to dwell too much on the fact that the food comes into contact with other people before it shows up at your table. My mother, on the other hand, goes out to eighty five lunches a week. She stacks up reservations in rapid succession and goes off into the wilderness with her old lady friends in search of new diners, eateries, and buffets. Iím somewhere in between. When I go out (which I donít do very often), I do it in style. I starve all day, throw on a tie, and pack a full money clip. Whether itís a friendís birthday, a celebratory brunch, or a pub crawl, I like to get the most out of it. Why? Because Iím dangerously antisocial. I canít stand being in public when itís not necessary, and consequently, I donít get out much.

Not many people know the difference between a salad fork and a regular fork. For your edification, the salad fork is the short one. Itís in poor taste to eat with your elbows on the table, and itís horrendous to wear a baseball hat out to a meal unless youíre at a fraternity mess hall. My big brother and I hold ourselves up to an impeccable code of etiquette and go crazy when others canít adhere to the same at surrounding tables. I went out to dinner with a beautiful young woman last week and came dangerously close to swallowing my tongue in a blind rage thanks to a neighboring booth full of young, drunken girls and their monster of a child. When the trailer park escapees werenít rocking back and forth on the other side of my seat, their demon spawn was either doing a ripping impression of Phil Collins with his silverware or screaming his head off to the delight of his dinner party. I reserve a special vein in my forehead for bad manners, and it was pulsing on orange alert level. Why this gaggle of girls would torture the rest of the establishment on a weekend with this sort of infraction is beyond me, but they were better off going to Chuck E. Cheeses for the night instead of an upscale eatery. My date was sweet enough to lean over during a trip to the bathroom to inform them that they were being outlandishly obnoxious. This is the sort of thing that will merit another dinner out in my book.

My friend Richie and I have lofty standards for customer service in the service industry, and will flip out when we donít receive satisfactory performance. We went to a steak house a few months back and I waltzed in beaming and looking forward to prime rib. I told the waitress that I wouldnít need the menu and that Iíd like the largest slab of prime rib they had. She told me that they wouldnít be serving prime rib until 3 p.m. We walked. What did they have to do, wake up the cow? Thereís an ice cream parlor we go to as a guilty pleasure whenever we get a vicious craving (rhymes with Hans Christian Ampersand) for a sundae and they screw up one of our orders irrevocably every single time we go. Luckily, they take turns messing up one of our orders, so we keep coming back. Since he has a hair-trigger temper, we both do our best to keep the other person from throwing things, launching drive through orders back through the drive through window (which Richie has actually done, mind you), or losing our shit completely and giving a loud, lengthy discourse in the middle of an establishment as to why it shouldnít be impossible to get our order correct in a speedy, efficient manner with pleasant service and breaking things at the same time. Being well steeped in customer service, we expect the best.

In a given dinner situation, nine times out of ten a guy will order part of a chicken or part of a cow. We may read the entire menu back to front and agonize over entrees and appetizers and toy with the notion of trying something pasta based or without meat, but like a homing pigeon we return to the beef or the chicken. Unless of course the man is a vegan, but then heís really not a man at all, is he? Depending on my mood or the weather, I order prime rib or chicken fingers. Thereís not much deviation from that. My filet mignon days are over and Iíve enjoyed more than one veal parmesan, so Iím going through a prime rib renaissance. Women who just order salad on a date infuriate me. Itís kind and well meant to buy something cheap and healthy, but donít insult me. Youíre not fooling anyone. You donít eat healthy constantly and watch your figure like a hawk, ladies. Iím sure if I caught them at the right moment, thereís a time of week (or certainly a time of month, if you follow my drift) where most girls cram entire cheesecakes into their mouths or eat a tub of Ben & Jerryís mixed with a grocery bag of peanut M & Ms in their sweatpants while watching "Sex & The City." Like I said, I like to do it up when I go out, so Iíd prefer that my date follows suit.

Decor, ambiance, and all that other crap doesnít amount to jack squat in my dining decisions. I couldnít care less if thereís a moose head on the wall or fancy romantic candles fashioned from glasses with wicker baskets wrapped around them or wacky stop signs hanging from impossible angles. I donít go out to eat so I can look at the walls and admire antique memorabilia or stupid sports jerseys. Music is sort of important. If I can find a place with stained wood and bad Ď80s music, Iím comfortable. Good service is important, waitresses with great bodies donít hurt, and itís a good measure if you can go to a place with a well traveled wine list. I donít drink wine, but if a restaurant knows their wine, theyíre invariably proficient in other things as well. I tend to avoid chain restaurants or corporate foodbags because I prefer individuality and character. Nobody wants to see a staff person forced to wear pinwheel hats with stupid buttons and recite foolish menu options by parroting the same dialogue that a million other robots were taught at hamburger college. Itís demeaning to everyone involved, and dignity is in short enough supply in the world.

My grandfather taught me to tip over the top at all times. Itís good karma. Lifeís too short to skimp on people who thrive on the kindness of strangers. Unless a waiter or waitress is so rude as to snap at me, hurry my order, or forget about my table, I see no reason not to tip at least twenty percent. There are enough cheapskates in the world and too many people calculate fifteen percent or under as it is. I was a pizza delivery boy once upon a time and I know how a poor tip can destroy the happy face you put on for the customer. I treasure every meal I take in with the people who are close to me, but at the same time, I inspect the cornbread with a black light and a portable magnifying glass.