The Art of the Meal

Tired of being treated like leftovers at nice restaurants? No Reservations’ Anthony Bourdain shows you how to become the flavor of the day.

It’s Saturday night, and you’ve scored an 8:30 reservation at the hottest restaurant in, say, L.A.—a 300-seat Asian-fusion palace that’s been in the papers twice a week since it opened. Two starlets have rather famously overdosed in the bathrooms already, the gossip columns tout its “Kobe beef sliders,” and, from where you stand, the place looks stunning. A gigantic reclining Buddha looms over the dining room; the serpentine bar is three deep with good-looking women who sip brightly colored concoctions from heavily garnished martini glasses. If only the hostess would notice you. You arrived on time and gave your name—at which point she looked at you as though you were teeming with anthrax spores. You are finally seated (by the bathrooms) before being hurried through an expensive meal by a waiter who holds you in contempt. The food sucks. You examine the check: You’ve spent more on water than you’d normally spend getting heroically drunk. Just the same, you overtip and slink out, feeling like you didn’t make the cut. What went wrong? How can you eat at the best restaurants in town and not feel victimized, intimidated, gouged, or foolish? Do as I do.

Pick Your Palace
In your case the humiliating outcome was a foregone conclusion. You chose badly. The “hottest restaurant in town” is not the place you want to be. Truth be told, a large sector of the moneyed dining public demands cavernous “pan-Asian” terror domes with $22 drinks. This ass-hat clientele doesn’t want authentic Asian anything or affordable drinks. They want the feeling of victory at making it past the host stand and the thrill of pissing in a rest room that looks like a German S&M club.

If famous people eat there—and you’re aware of it—it’s not worth going to. The restaurant is so insecure about its product, they pay a publicist to place items in the gossip columns every time some bold-faced crackhead comes in the door. A good restaurant, one that’s in it for the long haul, doesn’t want that kind of publicity. In fact, they’re sensibly wary of it. A high-quality restaurant believes in discretion. Word of mouth will keep them busy.

Timing Is Everything
Why eat out at 8:30 on a Saturday night anyway? Especially at a slaughterhouse of stylish folly where every other knucklehead, tourist, starfucker, gawker, and rube who’s in town for the frisson of proximity wants the same table? Even at good places, there’s a sneaky assumption that you’re not a regular at 8:30 on a Saturday night. You’re a one-time customer. What’s more, you risk being rushed if you eat too early (so they can turn the table for the 8:30 seating) or too late (when the chef has gone home and the second-stringers are looking to get the food out so they can go drink). Eat out on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. Those are the home-team nights, and you’re more likely to be treated like a good friend.

Fully Committed
If there’s not a table when you want one, it’s not a conspiracy to keep you out. It’s because there isn’t one available. Even people with a lot of dough need to book well ahead of time. Making reservations 30 days in advance is good practice. A good restaurant will hold one table, maybe two, for friends of the house, but those people have spent a lot of money over a long time for the privilege. And if you don’t intend to use your reservation, give it up. You may not realize it, but restaurants actually keep your information when you book, and you will end up on a blacklist.

A Good First Impression
If a hostess treats you like whale crap, without care or concern, you should walk. It’s a sign of things to come. Good restaurants are democratic. If your table isn’t ready, a good restaurant will greet you warmly, apologize, and escort you to the bar, where they will often buy you a drink. Great restaurants know that the real shakers and movers are as likely to be the dumpy nerd in the Suit Barn threads (who, it turns out, owns half of Microsoft) as the well-groomed gentleman in the Brioni suit (who turns out to be Joey Buttafuoco’s not-so-distant cousin). And while slipping the host a twenty to secure a good table quickly may work in the short term, it also establishes you as a nouveau riche dickhead.

Love Thy Waiter
The golden rules of dining out: Don’t be an ass, and be nice to your waiter. It really is that simple. Are you pleased to be at the restaurant? Tell him. Are you happy? Look happy. Acknowledge, in word and attitude, that your waiter works hard, that he knows what he’s doing, and that he knows what’s truly great on the menu. Your waiter is your trusted ally. It’s in his interest to be. He wants you and your guests to have fun, enjoy some of his suggestions, drop some money, tip well, and come back with your friends. Even if the chef is yelling at him to move last night’s stinky cod, he’s not going to foist it on you. But if you’re a rude, imperious fuckwit, you’ll see the shutters come down behind his eyes instantly. You’re no longer a “friendly,” you’re a problem to be hustled out of the restaurant ASAP. And for your sake, you had also better like cod.

The Meal Plan
If the place is famous for seafood, order seafood. Beyond that, get over your manly need to know everything and ask for help. In dining it’s a strength, not a weakness. Try saying to your waiter, “Let me ask you something: If I were planning on dying tomorrow and had only one crack at this menu, what should I absolutely not miss?” Have no fear of the chef’s special in a truly good restaurant, either. He’s probably putting his most creative foot forward with fresh, exciting, seasonal ingredients.

If you have special dietary requirements, speak freely. What will piss off the kitchen, however, is designing your own menu. Do not mix and match sauces or ask for aged beef or wild fish to be cooked into oblivion. Most good restaurants will tolerate you, but they won’t love you. Some places will throw you out. Better to take the full culinary ride as the chef intends once before your group decides to split 20 appetizers.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing food, but don’t ask the kitchen to split orders. Ask for extra plates and hack at it yourself. There’s nothing wrong with ordering four desserts for two people, taking a few bites of each and leaving the rest. Everyone will understand. What is not OK is half orders. They don’t do it at McDonald’s, do they? And nothing says “I live in a cat-hair-covered walk-up that smells like piss” like taking leftovers to go. If you wouldn’t do something in front of a first date, don’t do it.

Don’t Whine About Wine
Let me guess. You always order the second cheapest wine on the list? It’s time to grow up. Feel no shame in confessing near total ignorance to the sommelier. Tell him what you’re eating and ask for appropriate suggestions. If it’s a multicourse tasting menu, ask about pairing wines by the glass. This will let you try a few wines without committing to one you don’t like. If you’re looking for wine by the bottle, try saying the following: “Can you select something good for me?” Then add, “Please don’t kill me—too expensive would be wasted on me.” It’s a good way to order a well-selected wine without looking like a cheapskate.

One Last Tip
Thank your servers and the host warmly on the way out. There should be no hidden charges on your bill unless you’re British. Some places add 15 to 20 percent tips to the bills of Britons, who assume that waiters are on a decent salary. That or they’re just cheap fucks. If your meal was good, 20 percent is the minimum gratuity if you hope to return. That tip gets carved up between a lot of hardworking people. That’s why restaurant people are good tippers. If you’re looking to become a regular, making an impression with a 30 percent tip is not just nice, it’s wise. You are more likely to be remembered. Tip above 50 percent, however, and you look like a big-pimpin’ fool.