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Restaurant Etiquette 103: Placing an order

Served table with sign Reserved in restaurantSo, you got yourself a table. You’re all situated, and now you’re scrutinizing a menu. Hopefully the host did you the service of providing an appropriate variety of menus and enough food menus for each diner to have one. It’s always fun to get a separate specials, cocktail or draft menu, but more than one per table isn’t generally necessary for these. This post will be about how to order and the process of putting an order in with a server, a brutal landmine for service folks who’re just trying to get your meal started and push you down the road towards full and happy.

First of all, most servers will say, “Take all the time that you need”—and mean it. In fact, it’s annoying as hell when you have to stand there at a table while your guests hem, haw and oscillate between what you “always get” and “trying something new.” Some diners like to get all upset when a server says “I’ll give you more time.” That’s because we’d rather let you make an informed and confident decision. Take 15-20 minutes … shit, just take all the time you need to feel strongly about what you’re about to choose. Because once you choose it, there will be none of that “Wait, I change my mind” 10 minutes after your order’s in front of a chef or prep cook.

Every once in a while, no bigs—like if the house is full, and the kitchen’s backed up, but you want to switch the temperature of your burger from medium rare to medium well. Done. (After all, it’s way easier to go more well than more raw.) Or if you’ve ordered three courses and think maybe you’d like to cancel something from your final course. Easy. But if you order a steak at medium and it’s on the grill, then you decide you want chicken, do you realize what you’ve done? You’re making a kitchen—unless they have another steak ticket up that’s waiting for a fire—either throw out a beautiful piece of meat or resign it to a second staff meal for kitchen and front of the house staff.

Lots of servers are pretty good at playful menu-choosing chit-chat. They’ll answer every single question you could possibly come up with about a dish, and if they don’t know the answer, eagerly go get it for you. We’ll even, most of the time, have favorites and preferred dishes. I’ll happily shoot that shit with you. But at the same time, you shouldn’t grimace when I say, “I’m not a chicken fan, but it sells really well.” You asked for an opinion, and I gave you one. Feel free to absolutely not take any of this advice or opinion at all, but do feel free to not give any shits about how my feelings will be affected by your order. Like we say now, “You do you.” I won’t be upset unless you jockey for a table on a busy night and order hot water with lemon and a side of fries. Even then, if you’re in and out in a half hour with your $10 check, I’m not mad at you.

Here’s the thing about substitutions: sometimes it’s no big deal at all, and sometimes it is. Where it isn’t a big deal, it’s probably obvious: the menu’s huge, there are sides of things listed, and those same sides are included in the description of dishes. Want to switch out green beans because you see them as a side and don’t dig asparagus? You’ve got it. Interested in a non-grain or potato, but want some kind of salad or greens? No bigs. But when you go to a BYO or a fancier place with a smaller, tighter menu, a bunch of those dishes have been thought through, from herbs to dressing, and asking for sauce on the side or an altogether different sauce will sometimes make the chef look at the ordering server like she has just shoved a knife in his gut. The rule of thumb is generally “You can take things away, but you cannot add.” Please, please do not think that because you see all of the ingredients in a dish you’ve concocted in your imagination on the menu that you can order any combination thereof. That is the absolute worst. Getting requested with “Can’t you just ask? I see all the things I want here on the menu!” is like saying, “I know I can bully you around and waste your time and get you in trouble with your boss, so I’m just gonna do that.” Just always try to be reasonable. A quick study of the menu in your hands can yield great and reasonable requests–and servers can immediately identify the idiocy as soon as it presents itself.

You know who some of the biggest nightmares in the service industry are, though, right? Gluten and allergy people. Sorry, folks. Something happened in the last two decades and people believe it reasonable to turn an aversion into an allergy. Again, know your predispositions, study the menu, then bring your pointed questions to your server. We will love you for it. It’s now commonplace for restaurants to have a star system to annotate gluten-free options or to even have an additional gluten-free menu. But do not roll your eyes if the business you’re attempting to patronize doesn’t have an exclusive gluten-free menu; we will happily guide you down the menu with your safe options and even point out stuff that could be made safely without even a dash of gluten. Even more insulting? “I see that star next to this dish that denotes that it is gluten-free, but is it really?!” No, we’re fucking with you and are actually trying to send you to the hospital. C’mon.

It can be fun when a server gets the “You choose” prompt because it might mean that a guest is truly “down for whatever.” But blindly guiding a stranger to a happy place without at least some preferences is pretty impossible. However, we really do enjoy an engaging table of diners who are curious, hungry and thirsty. Even pairing a beer or wine with your meal is a pleasure. But when you say you usually like white zinfandel, we’re screwed. Don’t take us to that place. It’s cold and scary and full of night terrors.



Restaurant Etiquette 102: Table space maintenance

Served table with sign Reserved in restaurantIn the wake of this drivel circulating on the Faceplace recently, it seems this series of posts are relevant and seek to eradicate ignorance.

So, now you’ve got a table. Please don’t be rude about your table space maintenance. If a host asks you if you’d like to check or get rid of your jacket, take him or her up on it. It’s not obligatory to tip, but it’s pretty much always welcome. It’s nice to not have a jacket in your lap or on the back of your chair, and sometimes, restaurants have copious coat-checking space (or just a bootleg stand-alone rack kept in the basement) just for that free and nice service. It’s particularly mind-boggling when diners think they can use neighboring tables to store a purse, winter accessories, a briefcase, phone, pile of books, etc. You’re just going to get asked, nicely, to move your things when that table’s needed. And again, even if the table next to you’s empty, wait 10 minutes, and it may be no longer.

One thing that can always freak out a host or a server is when you sit down and start moving your table all over by dragging it or nudging it an inch or five. Combining tables without permission can also get hairy. Here’s the thing: There’s usually a logic to the very placement of every table in a restaurant. They’re mapped out and positioned to optimize access to the table from the perspective of a server, busser or food-runner. When you force us to contort in weird ways to pick up your empty plate or fill your water glass, we’re silently resenting you. You should usually just wait for your server or host to mess with table orientation. Ninety-five percent of the time, concern over table positioning is with you in mind. We want to be able to do everything for you so you can just sit and enjoy. Five percent of the time, it’s more of a traffic concern–don’t make every single diner and employee in the restaurant hit their hip on your chair because you insist on sitting two feet away from your table. Please. We typically think that if you’re dead-set on giving your legs all the space they need by pushing out your chair, it’s directly proportionate to your potential for being a dick.

Side-sitters: What’s wrong with you? You’re that much in love, and you have such a spatial disposition that you insist on a table where you can be hip to hip? You’re a target for scrutiny now, lovebirds. We’re ALL talking shit about you in the service station. Now, with pretty much anything, an advance notice or request and nearly everything can be accommodated. But to walk in on a Friday night and turn your nose up to tables that don’t maximize your intimacy requirements? The host now wants to destroy you. You really need a quiet table for six at 8pm on a weekend? Stay at home. There is no such thing in Philadelphia, except at terrible businesses where no one spends money.

The other thing people love to complain about as soon as they sit down? Temperatures. It’s freezing! I’m boiling! It never ends. There are definitely some situations in which it’s completely acceptable to say, “Hey, we’re kind of cold. Would you mind turning up the heat a degree or two?” But then there’s always the thing you do where you make sure you’ll be comfortable when you go out: It’s winter, so have a sweater. It’s summer, so don’t wear a sweater. Is it also not obvious that your climate control needs affect everyone else in the restaurant? The servers who are comfortable in a heated room in a t-shirt through February are moving around a bit more than you, yes, but if you’re freezing with a sweater and a scarf on, something’s wrong with you, and it’s not our heating and cooling system.

Regarding the constant party-size changers: It’s cool to have a flexible number of guests in certain capacities. Your reservation’s for four, but you have three? Cool. Called for six, but now have five? No biggie. Made a reservation for two, but invited two more couples at the last minute? No idea where we’re going to put you, and you’ve just fucked yourself and your friends. Thinking your party may shrink, expand or fluctuate periodically through your meal? Let us know–we probably have an ideal table for you. It’s really hard to wait on a table where everyone’s coming and going at different times. That seems completely lost on a large swath of Philadelphians.

And finally, this is less table and more bar space maintenance, but have the decency to maximize seatings at a bar. A bartender’s money-making is far more dependent on his actual bar patrons than the amount of drinks he or she is making for the rest of the seated restaurant. And when you sit at an empty stool such that a twosome walks in and can’t find two seats next to each other because you’re too scared to sit right next to a stranger? Get over it, and move one spot down. Also, don’t be afraid to talk to strangers or kindly ask them to shift a stool. They’ll usually oblige. To walk into a bar where there are several empty stools but no two that are next to each other, and you turn around and walk out, is one of the saddest adult human behaviors a service person can witness. We want to serve you and enjoy the business. If you’re too much of a wimp, any of us are willing to do that “dirty work” for you.



Restaurant Etiquette 101: Getting a table — the right way, thanks

Served table with sign Reserved in restaurantI’ve done a few different hosting-type gigs—one in which I was working with paper-printed maps and using all kinds of erasable pencil and white-out (and also served), and one in which I became extremely proficient in OpenTable. They were both challenging positions in their own ways, sometimes because of the need to easily handle a sudden volume of diners and sometimes because people can act like babies when it comes to dining out. A host often tries to maximize business; we get hired because a boss thinks we can deal with people well and optimize table space.

Every once in a while, you stumble upon a magnificent host in this city who greets you warmly, may even have a good guess of who you are as you walk in, and quickly, efficiently and pleasantly delivers you and your guests to your seats with charm and grace. Of course, there are also some idiots who get paid simply to stand in sightlines of the door and look good. And maybe answer the phone.

If I may, I’d like to try to prepare you for distinguishing between the two the next time you go out to dinner.

Three quick things:

A) The value of space in a restaurant is pretty much in direct correlation to what day and time of the week it is, and if you walk into a restaurant at 8pm on a Friday night without a reservation and act like a table should be given to you immediately, you’re going to the bottom of the list of customers to find tables for.

B) A little bit of kindness and patience goes a long way. In my experience, if you seemed like a good person who asked nicely, I did my best to make it happen (by calling a late reservation or rearranging tables to make space). Smile and tone are so underrated.

C) Even if it looks like there are empty tables, and the host’s saying “It might be about 20 to 30 minutes,” chances are there are a bunch of people who had the foresight to call or reserve something online. Again, it directly corresponds to day of the week and time of night. They say this on a Sunday/Monday/Tuesday night with a quarter-filled dining room? Go to the bar—or another nearby spot.

See, what I always thought was “Be cute. Be sweet. Be helpful and charming. Do more than is asked (water and bus tables). Accommodate every walk-in possible. Negotiate if necessary (“Come back in an hour; have a drink down the street”). And always check in with your kitchen and servers to let them know how long folks have been seated, if they’re chill or riled up, how many more reservations are coming in, etc.’ What you also have to keep in mind is this: There are people who’ve had reservations for three weeks, and their plans are rock solid. You have to make sure their night’s protected. And it’s okay to be 15 minutes late—especially with some communication. But not 35 minutes late. Not without a phone call. Show up 25 minutes late for your reservation, and we’ve been calling you for 20 minutes and gave your table away? Yeah, that’s standard. Again, at 8pm. Forty minutes late for your 5pm reservation’s not so bad. It’s not a big deal at the final seating at 10ish either.

Service industry people also love guests who come in knowing what they want and how many there are in their party. A group of five that step in and talk amongst themselves, are on a phone, are aimlessly staring down the interior’s details—they’re setting a bad tone for themselves. Let’s get you seated and with menus and orders in; don’t just stand in the doorway looking around and muttering to each other. You’re just having drinks? Great—that opens up options for where you can sit. You have a show at 9pm? Cool, I’ll put you in Jonny’s section because he’s light right now.

Your fixation with apps and OpenTable are a little weird. We want you to get those points, too! But if there’s a problem, it’s probably not because the host fucked it up; it’s more than likely that you made a reservation without speaking to an actual human. Sometimes bad app behavior can’t be blamed on a person who isn’t pushing the buttons on the other end. Every once in a while, I’d get the pleasure of making someone eat their words after they pull up an online reservation on their smartphone, and they see that they made it wrong. Those are special moments of redemption and pride retrieval.

There are hundreds of restaurants in this city. Some are more busy and popular for a reason: because they do a good job, and paying customers want in. But everyone seated in that restaurant beat you to it.

The most obnoxious behavior of all time? Pretending like you know someone on staff when you don’t. Knowing someone is not going to make a group of friends who’ve been looking forward to this meal for months eat faster or pass on a final round of drinks. And citing the manager’s name is not going to make me give away one of these last two tables, because one of our final reservations of the night is late.

In fact … “Oh, there they are right there! They’re great! … Hey guys! I’ve been saving your favorite table for you.”



Photos: Forking Stupid at The Farm and Fisherman

At roughly the same time this week’s installment of Forking Stupid hit newsstands, it was announced that this fall, The Farm and Fisherman’s Chef Joshua Lawler will be bringing his farm-to-table cuisine and hospitality to the good people of New Jersey, opening a second and much larger restaurant, The Farm and Fisherman Tavern & Market, in Cherry Hill (1442 East Route 70).

The Market will feature the freshest seasonal and local products, ranging from sustainably, humanely raised meats and fish, butchered by hand, to fair trade coffees, craft beers, bountiful produce and painstakingly aged cheeses. Meanwhile, the Tavern will serve similarly honest and artfully prepared small plates, snacks, entrees and family-style meals in a casual, 100-seat dining room.

Now that I’ve filled you in on this exciting piece of breaking news, check out the elaborate spring salad Josh and I crafted as well as the unmentioned masterpiece I used my fingers to create with the salad’s remnants…



Photos: Making Gucamole and Tortilla Soup at La Calaca Feliz

Here’s your behind-the-scenes look at the latest installment of Forking Stupid in which Chef Lucio of La Calaca Feliz showed me how to master two delicious Mexican staples. I highly recommend hitting up this Fairmount restaurant for happy hour drinks and grub. They’ve got a great little outdoor seating area in the back, not to mention some killer guac.


Nicole Finkbiner | Apr 18 2013 7:43am | FOOD & DRINK, how to, Fairmount, Forking Stupid, La Calaca Feliz | Comments 0

Photos: Making Ice Cream With Little Baby’s

Now that shared my experience whipping up some sweet creamy goodness with the help of Little Baby’s co-founder and production manager, Martin Brown as well as the recipe for our delicious bourbon vanilla bean ice cream, interesting syrups and wacky, candy-coated baby bananas, I figured I might as well give you a behind the scenes look at the production process.

WARNING: Photos may cause increased salivation. Some individuals may also experience sudden and intense sugar cravings. View at your own risk.



3rd Ward Is Coming To Philadelphia And It’s Going To Make Our City More Awesome

imageI got a rare opportunity today. Disclaimer: my friend, Jestis Deuerlein, is going to be a major player in this exciting cultural movement coming to Northern Liberties. She’s going to be helming some event planning and has a ton of infectious enthusiasm about the space, what’s going to go down there and how so many Philadelphians are going to reap the boundless potential of this incredibly multi-functioning space. Before I get down to the virtual tour, feel free to do a little reading up on exactly what 3rd Ward is. Here’s the two-second version of what they do from the horse’s mouth:

image“3rd Ward is a multi-disciplinary workspace and education center. Here, you can take advantage of our Wood Shop, Metal Shop, Photo Studios, Jewelry Studios and Coworking Space, as well as learn new skills in one of our many classes. Whether you’re a beginner looking for a creative outlet, or a seasoned professional in search of a full-time workspace solution, 3rd Ward can help.”

And they’re bringing this spirit of creativity and community to Philadelphia in a matter of months. We won’t try to name a date at this time but you can bet you’ll be kept abreast of the space’s grand opening (almost definitely with a big, fat party).

For one, as a music journalist, I’m pumped about this as a space for dance parties, music events, performances and art parties. There will basically be two performance/event spaces; one on the first and one on the second floor which extends out onto an open-air roof-top deck. The third floor is a sickeningly sprawling and beautiful co-work space, but more on that later.

imageimageThis is a pretty odd neighborhood, let’s be real. I used to live over here. Just a few blocks north of Girard and west of Front isn’t what you’d call a vibrant or distinct neighborhood. Sure, there’s a bunch of great things in this odd mix of Northern Liberties, Fishtown, Kensington and North Philly: the robust strip of 2nd Street between Girard and Spring Garden, the newly-bustling Super Fresh, and stuff like Johnny Brenda’s, Kung Fu Necktie, El Bar and Fishtown Tavern. This is all to say ‘This space is going to do good by lots of people, including the neighborhood.’

So let’s start at the ground floor. The two main entrances will open up to a big combo restuarant/cafe/performance/art show space (above, left) and to a reception-y welcome center. Curious about the restaurant space? Check out Stone Park Cafe in Brooklyn – they’ll be related. In the back is a massive metal and wood shop. The cafe space will also feature loads of outdoor seating, perfect for its slated summer opening. The second floor is a home for a handful of classroomy spaces including what will be a huge work kitchen, and, perhaps the crown jewel of this whole endeavor, a lovely small/mid-sized outdoor patio (above, right) with room for a projection wall, maybe a small bar, a DJ booth and around 100 people. I can already see the artsy folk in their shorts and sun dresses mingling under the stars.

imageUpstairs, on the top and third floor, is one of the biggest and most beautiful co-op/co-work spaces I’ve ever seen. This puts the Flavorpill office in SoHo where I interned five years ago to shame. Beautifully restored finishes and wood floors, endless snaking cubicles and phone call booths will make this one whacky-ass floor full of people looking for a home base for their young company or their freelancing needs. As our economy still figures out what’s going on and young folks are smacked in the face with the reality that freelancing is the future, not staff jobs, it’s possible this space will be a bustling and thriving epicenter of Philadelphia’s already-strong-but-still-blossoming intellectual and literary culture. Not to mention all the artists/crafters/designers/printers/tech nerds that’ll benefit from work spaces and opportunites to get their work seen (and bought).

The space is freakin’ 27,000 square feet. PW will definitely be keeping an eye on the opening, the class and events lineup and welcome newly-hired members of a powerful 3rd Ward team.



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