Welcome to the second episode of “a letter to restaurants”, a series in which I try to help and admonish and poke and scold eating establishments who are missing easy opportunities to deliver good experiences to their customers.
I call restaurants like you now and then. Many of your customers do. We often need to check the business hours (because who knows if whatever is listed on Yelp is accurate or current), verifying that you still serve a particular dish, or finding out if there’s a crowd and a wait time to get in. These are all valid reasons to dial the digits.
Once your phone number is actually located (hopefully it is prominently displayed on the website or directory page) and the ringy-dingy is heard on the other end, it is a most frustrating experience to hear one of these two scenarios as a result:
“I’m sorry. The mailbox belonging to 505-123-3456, is full. Please hang up.” <click>
“I’m sorry. The number you have dialed, 505-123-2345, has a mailbox that has not yet been set up. Good bye.”
You see, by cutting off this avenue of communication, YOU as the restaurant are effectively saying, “hey, we might exist. Come by and see for realz! Seriously!” It’s sending the same mixed message as if you had turned on the Open sign and unlocked the doors but barricaded them, or handed over a menu to diners while saying that most of the items are not available today. It makes zero sense AND everyone loses.
Restaurants, learn how to clear your mailboxes and set them up in the first place. Seriously. For realz.
Make a promise, right, now, that the next time you eat at a restaurant, you’ll throw one more question into the pile of “what’s the special today?” and “can I get a side of fries?”. Ask where the restaurant gets their meat.
You can do it gently, a simple add-on, “Ooh, that burger sounds good – is the meat from New Mexico?”
You can do it more directly, “I’m learning more about restaurant ingredients – can you tell me where your meat comes from?”
It will be kind of awkward, and I bet that a lot won’t answer at all, or they’ll deflect. That’s OK. In the Mission District, a writer asked for two years, learning both much and little.
You see, even if they don’t answer, even if they mumble something noncomittally, even if they pretend you didn’t even ask, just hearing the question will make them think about it for one second. Hearing it from multiple diners will make them pay attention. It will trickle up to the managers of these restaurants that their customers want to know. That influences how they choose suppliers and what questions THEY ask when buying meat. Even if the question has to start with, “what country did this meat come from?”
You will help start a revolution.
It is going to be a snowball effect, and I’m asking you to contribute your own snowflake.
I will. Promise you’ll do it, too.
You should know that restaurants come and restaurants go. But all restaurants, yourself included, have an ideal customer to attract or a genre they are trying to occupy. Diners do their no-fuss thing with Bunn-bearing coffee fillers while the truly fancy roll out the white-tablecloth hush-hush treatment.
However, you could be one of those restaurants that want to be FUN, trendy, visually appealing and hip. Sadly, these restaurants lack self-esteem. Yes, self-esteem. In a restaurant. You show it in practices that make you look like you are trying too hard, and one habit stands out the moment courses are served: fear of empty plate space.
This plain cheesecake is garnished with raspberry sauce AND chocolate ganache, neither flavor represented in the cake. Thanks, Chef ‘docgeek’. No disrespect.
This fear can be witnessed in places as diverse as wannabe midscale chains to wannabe midscale local joints with aspirations of hipness. It is on striking display on rims of plates from starter to dessert: an unwillingness to let the food sit unmoored on the dish. You see, plate rims are for holding the contents of the plate in. They do not need a dusting of dried parsley to add visual “whatever”. Here are common manifestations:
Oh gawd, the poor, poor crème brûlée….
One caveat, dear restaurant: not ALL showy saucing is superfluous. There are places where the artistic swirl of flame red was an essential flavor component of the dish, to be mixed in and enjoyed as a true sauce. You awesome restaurants follow the sauce/garnish rule, which says that they should: 1) complement or enhance the dish’s flavors and 2) be edible.
Everyone else: just stop it, please.
Restaurants, you do often have other (not so minor) issues like not having a phone number on the website or not being open when you say you are or forgetting food orders between your table and the kitchen. Fix those issues first, and then attend to the trying-too-hard stuff. You’ll be a better place to dine.