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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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The 5 Questions to Ask to Get a Better Restaurant Meal

Photo-illustration by Eater

Or, how to dine out like an absolute pro

The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it’s full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn’t even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining.

There’s a pretty standard server speech when you go out to eat at a restaurant with table service. Often, the speech happens when the menus arrive at your table. You know the one; it ends, “let me know if you have any questions.”

Having eaten professionally for a decade and having worked in restaurants before that, I ask questions all the time — and you absolutely should, too. Asking a server for advice does come with risks: Yes, you might experience a shameless upsell. Sometimes the answers won’t be enticing or even particularly informed. (That tells you something, too.) But often, asking the right questions will unlock next-level ordering moves, will up the likelihood that you love the meal, and will set you on the path to dining like an absolute pro.

I’ve outlined the questions I most regularly ask below. You don’t have to ask all of them at one meal; I certainly don’t. But next time you go out, do a little more information gathering with your server so you can make the best decisions, and let the answers shape what happens at the table.

1) What’s the staff excited about right now?

Other acceptable variants:
What’s the chef really excited about right now?
Have there been any favorites from recent staff tastings?
Do you have a favorite dish on the menu?
Is there anything especially exciting on the menu right now?

A good restaurant keeps its staff informed about what’s good in the kitchen, whether through pre-service tastings or just talking about what’s new and great in a pre-service meeting. At a good restaurant, you’ll often find that the staff are the restaurant’s most enthusiastic fans: If there’s something exciting to the folks who are the most familiar with what happens at the restaurant day in and day out, chances are you’ll find it exciting too.

2) What’s the most popular dish on the menu?

Other acceptable variants:
Is there a dish you are known for?
Is there something every table has to order?

The point here is to learn whether there’s a widely accepted must-try dish, if you didn’t know already. I find this question especially helpful when I haven’t done extensive research ahead of time; learning what most people are coming to the restaurant for is a good piece of info to have.

3) Is there anything you think our order is missing?

Other acceptable variants:
Is there anything else you think we need?
Does this seem like enough food for our party-size?

A good server will be able to plug the holes you’ve unwittingly left in your order, either because you and your group overlooked a hidden menu gem or forgot about, you know, like, vegetables. It’s an opportunity to hear more about the dishes that are top of mind for the staff and to learn about how the restaurant itself imagines a dinner progressing.

4) Can you describe the [insert category of wine available you want to know more about]?

Some people know a ton about wine. They know regions, producers, styles, and years so thoroughly that when they see the wine list, they know what they’re choosing from without having to whip out their phone and Google it. It’s okay if that’s not you. It’s also okay to do some internet sleuthing at the table. But why not let someone — be it a server, bartender, or even a somm — talk you through the options to help you find something you like? You deserve to like your wine. And you don’t need to feel bashful about asking them to explain an entire section, like the available whites by the glass.

5) Would it be possible for us to sit at that table instead?

This is one of my go-to moves: If you know there’s a table you want, you can politely ask for it. You might not get it, and you must take the no graciously and move on. But asking is okay. All of these questions are about empowering you to have the best possible dining experience: Believe it or not, that’s what any restaurant worth its salt also wants for you.

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