Dine Like a Pro
There's an art to eating out--and it's easy to learn
By Robert Rabine
As owner of a couple of highly regarded restaurants, I have also been a student of dining out for some 35 years. I’ve seen how good chefs lay out a menu, I’ve heard from the best how to pair wines and food, I’ve tasted the good and the bad. In short, I have learned how to dine like a pro—and you can, too.
Choose the right restaurant
I rely mainly on word of mouth and media reviews for recommendations. When I find a spot I really like, I keep going back so I can build solid relationships with the staff. While I was visiting a winery in Provence years ago, the proprietor told me there were two types of people—grand and great. Here’s how to accommodate each.
If you are dining with grand people, choose an appropriately posh restaurant. If you’ve never been there before, do your homework. Drop in during the day and ask for a menu, introduce yourself to the host, and check the place out. Make your reservations a couple weeks in advance. If they are booked, call back—using a different voice—and pretend to be the personal assistant of somebody important. It works more than you would believe.
If you are dining with great people, take them to your regular hangout.
Choose the right table
If I am having dinner with those grand people—who want to see and be seen—I ask for a table by the front door. If they are avoiding an ex-wife or the DA, I ask for a side table.
Once I am comfortably seated, I start looking around for my server or captain. Two or three minutes should be all it takes for someone to acknowledge my existence. After that, catch his eye. I try to stay one step ahead of them in terms of what I want and when I want it. My motto: Never let a server leave the table without asking for something—that way you are assured of his eventual return. All kidding aside, the pace of the meal can kill an evening. Too fast is just as annoying as too slow. Don’t let them rush you.
Dissect the menu
As with all things, the menu design says a lot about the restaurant and its chef. The menu should be a simple affair—a single card or folder. If the host drops a large leather-bound tome filled with paragraph-long descriptions of each dish, cancel your drink order and sprint to the car. The offerings should be limited and focused, with descriptions kept to a minimum. House specialties should be duly noted with the menu—in writing, with prices. Who likes being pelted with a verbal litany of plates du jour too complex to remember?
Chefs have a comfort zone in terms of skillful preparations. They could be classically trained and excel at French or Continental fare; or perhaps they interned in a Japanese restaurant. If you look closely at the menu, there are usually groupings—dishes that are stylistically similar. The kitchen’s strengths and influences will be reflected in these groupings. Once I see where the chef’s strengths lie, I order within that range. When I first dined at Babbo, I noticed that chef Battali’s menu included numerous dishes that used game, second cuts of meat, and offal-tripe, trotters, sweetbreads, and tongue. It was obvious that he was comfortable and competent using rustic ingredients, simply prepared. I was rewarded with the best rabbit I have ever tasted.
Don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations
The staff will be impressed you want their opinion. But beware: at the pre-service meeting, they are sometimes instructed on what to push, so feel free to inquire as to when something was last prepared. Is it actually the soup of the day or, in fact, the soup of the week? Obviously, I wouldn’t order tomato salad in January or short ribs in August, and I would ask myself why they were on the menu in the first place.
If there is a pastry chef, I will usually indulge. It means the desserts are made in-house with some serious thought. Most restaurants get a fresh fish and poultry delivery on Tuesdays and Fridays, so if it’s Monday, I have a steak.
dig into the wine list
This may sound strange, but great food does not demand great wine. In fact, a truly great wine from a great vintage may overpower the food and is better appreciated with something simple. A rare vintage Burgundy or Bordeaux might be best enjoyed with nothing more than a fine Camembert. Spicy foods and dishes with lots of fat content are best accompanied by high-altitude wines or wines with high acid levels. When I was at the Institute of Port (yes, there is such a thing) in Lisbon, an elderly gentleman was kind enough to inform me that a good vintage port needed only some freshly shelled walnuts to be completely appreciated.
There are, however, some basic ground rules. I usually poll the table to see which way the menu choices are going, then decide on all the wines at once. That way, the ones that need to breathe can be accommodated. I can also check for proper temperatures. Champagnes and whites that are too cold lose all fruit. Reds that are too warm taste fleshy. When the wines are presented, carefully check the vintages. If the vintage is incorrect, ask for a discount of ten percent. A serious restaurant will oblige. Older reds should be decanted of sediment and drunk immediately.
Proper glassware is important. To maximize aromas and flavors, most good restaurants have moved away from the multi-purpose wine glass toward a few different types—perhaps one Bordeaux-style glass, one Burgundy/Rhône-style glass, and a port or Sauternes glass. Crystal is preferable because it has a rougher microscopic texture that helps with aeration.
The bottom line is that I drink what I like, not what the sommelier thinks I should drink. Although I ask his opinion, I am unaffected by prestige or the latest, new thing.
Lastly, have the courage to send something back when it is flawed or not what you requested. Ultimately, the staff will appreciate your ability to discern between what is right and wrong. Remember to tip well when deserved and compliment when impressed. It takes untold numbers of staff, years of combined training, and a nightly dedication to excellence to pull off a great meal at a great restaurant. But you can certainly contribute to the experience by being an educated diner.