The Host with the Most: Advice From Danny Meyer

Danny Meyer

Restaurateur Danny Meyer, known for his top New York eateries, dishes on how to get the best dining experience.

The best restaurants, big or small, work hard at providing hospitality. But there are things you can do to get the best dining experience. For an inside look, we asked Danny Meyer, who presides over well-known restaurants such as Union Square Cafe, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, and Blue Smoke--all in New York City. His new book "Setting the Table" recounts the role hospitality plays in his business. And in it, he writes about "collecting the dots" of information in order to offer a great dining experience for guests. But how can guests be a great partner in that dialogue? He tells us.

Budget Travel: How should you go about trying to get special service for a special occasion such as a birthday or anniversary without appearing demanding?

Danny Meyer: It's not at all demanding to let a restaurant know what your agenda is for a meal beyond nourishing yourself. It helps us to know that you are celebrating, or negotiating, or romancing, or meditating, or whatever. After you've made a reservation, just say what you're hoping to accomplish besides eating a good meal. "I'll be entertaining my future in-laws" or "I'm treating my college roommate to dinner after he won a big bet." A good restaurant will perform even better when they know why you're really there.

BT: If you arrive on time for your reservation, but the table isn't ready, how long before you're allowed to be annoyed?

Meyer: The restaurant owes you an apology for not being ready at the appointed hour, and, as important, the host should always let you know about the actual status of your table--with no BS--so that you don't have to wonder what's really going on. Do understand that many times, the delay is beyond the restaurant's control, especially when the earlier party on your table arrived late, or is "camping out." It's hard for a restaurant to hurry someone along in a gracious way, even when your party is waiting. (Imagine how you'd feel if you had just spent a fortune on dinner, decided to relax for an additonal half-hour over digestifs, and then the host asked you to leave!) If a delay goes beyond, say, 20 minutes, it's customary for a restaurant to offer a complimentary round of drinks. You're allowed to get annoyed whenever you want, but legitmately, I wouldn't be too annoyed if the restaurant is playing it straight with you, handling the situation with graciousness, and is genuinely trying everything they possibly can to get you seated.

BT: There's sometimes a lot of confusion around wine! What's the etiquette? If you order an expensive bottle of wine, do you really have to tip 15-20 percent on it? And how expensive a bottle of wine do you have to order before you get the good glasses?

Meyer: These days, few people distinguish between food and wine when it comes to leaving a tip. If you can afford an expensive dinner entree, or a pricey bottle of wine, you can afford to tip your standard percentage on that which you've consumed as well. If tipping didn't reward (and encourage) even better service, Americans would have disposed of the tradition years ago. Good restaurants will provide you with their best, most expensive glasses (assuming they have them) upon request, regardless of which wine you've ordered. They usually provide them for their more expensive wines without being asked.

BT: Have you ever sent back a bottle of wine? What's the best way to go about doing it?

Meyer: Many times! Sadly, about one out of avery 30 or 40 corks contain a bacteria that, while harmless to your body, creates a musty, "off-taste" in the wine called "corkiness." It's nobody's fault, and you should not assume the restaurant did anything wrong. But nor should you pay good money for a bottle that won't deliver its maximum pleasure. I am sensitive to that smell and flavor and will bring it to the attention of the waiter as soon as I notice it. "I'm sorry, the wine is corky" is direct, and you need not fear that you are doing anything rude by politely saying so. A good restaurant will replace the bottle and appreciate that you've given them the opportunity to satisfy you. It's a good idea to keep a bit of the corky wine in a glass to compare to the wine from the replacement bottle. Comparing them side by side can be revealing and educational for both you and the waiter.

BT: What's the appropriate way to express displeasure with something you ordered? Is it enough that you don't like the taste? What's reasonable?

Meyer: Express yourself directly, politely, and when you're displeased--when a restaurant can actually do something about it--not afterwards when all a restaurant can do is to feel bad that you were unhappy. You should speak up whenever you are less than happy with a dish. "I'm sorry, I hadn't know there was blue cheese in the sauce. May I please order something else instead?" or "I wanted my steak medium. Could you please have the chef cook it a bit further?" A good restaurant will appreciate the opportunity to fix problems on the spot so that you'll leave satisfied. Above all, patrons should understand that in the restaurant business, as in life, mistakes happen. Don't ever take it personally, and I'd go so far as to say not to hold a mistake against a restaurant. DO, however, judge a restaurant by how swiftly and graciously it addresses and overcomes its mistakes.

BT: You write about having comment cards at your restaurants for guests to fill out. What is the most helpful comment you've received?

Meyer: Any comment that is shared constructively so that we can improve as a restaurant is helpful. We love hearing from guests. The only ones that are tough to digest are the ones that are vituperative--assuming that a mistake we made was intentional or illustrative of a lack of caring on our part.

BT: Care to share the least helpful comment?

Meyer: "This restaurant will never work. Go back to the drawing board!"

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