During the first ten or fifteen minutes after you sit down at a restaurant, several things happen in quick succession that will determine the rhythm of the rest of the meal:
- You’ll be given menus
- You’ll be told about specials—if there are any
- You might or might not receive a separate wine list
- You might or might not receive a separate cocktail menu
- You’ll be asked if you’d like to order cocktails
- The cocktails, if you ordered them, will arrive
- You might or might not receive a visit from the sommelier
- You’ll be asked if you’d like to order wine
- You’ll be asked for your food order
It’s remarkable how the order and timing of these events will vary from one restaurant to another. And how often they get it wrong.
Even at three-star restaurants, I’m amazed at how often servers ask for your food and wine order when you’ve just begun to sip your cocktails. This often sets up a situation where your half-consumed cocktails, your just-opened wine, and your first savory course are all on the table at once. If you finish your cocktail, then the wine isn’t serving its intended purpose—to accompany the food. If you leave your cocktail behind, then you’ve just wasted $5–7 (assuming the cocktail costs $10–14, which is typical).
This, of course, is merely one way that these events can be mistimed. There are many other permutations, such as the sommelier asking for your wine order before you’ve seen a menu. He surely knows—or should know—that wine is normally chosen to go with the food.
If there are specials, I prefer to have them in writing. But if they’re going to be recited, this should be done at the same time the menus are presented. The time to tell me about other options is before I start studying the menu, not after. It’s annoying when the server circles by later on with new information, potentially upsetting the ordering strategy I had already tentatively decided on.
But it’s the timing of the cocktail order that restaurants most often get wrong. If a party orders cocktails, it often means they want to relax a while before launching into the food and wine. The server ought to at least ask. Even high-end restaurants—places where diners are paying to enjoy a leisurely meal over at least a couple of hours—fail to get this right. This struck me last weekend at Café Boulud, a top-tier restaurant in most every respect, but where they were ready to take our wine and food order before the previously ordered cocktails had even arrived.
The other alternative is that a party is drinking only cocktails and wines by the glass. Here, servers make a different error: once your glass is empty, they they circle back and ask if you’d like a refill. But what if you ordered by the glass because you want to sample more than one item? Isn’t that one of the main benefits of ordering by the glass? Yet, I invariably have to ask them to bring back the beverage menu. That can take a few minutes, and then it’s a few minutes after that to prepare another cocktail or fetch another glass of wine. In the meantime, I’m sitting there with an empty glass.
Not all restaurants make these mistakes, but they happen well over half the time.
Am I being unreasonable?