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The Rhythm of a Restaurant Meal

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?

Reader Comments (4)

I always used to think the asking for the wine order before you've ordered your food is the most annoying.

But now I've come to realize that it's the last one you mention -- the asking you if you'd like a refill of your by-the-glass wine, and then taking ages to come back with the wine list when you tell them, predictably, that you'd like to change -- that's most annoying. I've taken to figuring out at the beginning of the meal which wines I'll order with all the coming courses, in order to avoid that annoyance.

Then, I just have the problem of remembering them.

May 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSneakeater

No, you are being quite reasonable. Service should make one happy, not irritated. There are a few restaurants that are consistent, but I would suggest that at least half make these mistakes all the time.

I had a very nice evening at Otto recently. The food was very good, but what stood out was the excellent service. The bar waiter was attentive, but the table waiter was a real professional. She did the little things that helped make the evening memorable. What is sad about this is that service like this is becoming rare.

P.S. Her name was Lourdes. Request her if you go to Otto, and order the lardo pizza.

May 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteriamnotachef

I agree with all of your complaints.

the one thing I'll say for restaurants is that many/most wine-by-the-glass orderers do seem to order the same glass over and over.

this is really annoying on a date (which is usually when I see it) when she orders refills of the same glass of wine....leaving me thinking at the third glass point that she should have just ordered a bottle. (same price but with 2 extra pours)...so restaurants may just expect that.

May 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNathan

You are being sort of reasonable, sort of unreasonable. But you have to understand that restaurants try very hard, but ultimately can't please all of the people all of the time. To make things more difficult, all diners have different expectations. Some diners will order wine and want wine served even before the first bite of bread or amuse bouche - and will be angry if their wine isn't on the table before the food (see ridiculous WSJ journal on the subject). Some diners insist upon ordering the food before the wine "so they know what wine they should order." This makes the timing very hard for a server/sommelier to get the wine down at the same time or before the 1st course lands, especially if the restaurant is packed.

Also - servers and sommeliers may hit you up a moment too early because you are not the only table in the restaurant, and they may have time convenient for them at that moment. It's better to be asked a few minutes early then ignored for 10 minutes, no? In most restaurants at the 3 star level that I dine in in NYC, timing has never been that crazy that my cocktail/wine/menu sequence is so out of wack, but I don't expect someone to appear the nanosecond I am ready. A perfect restaurant would have one server for every diner, but we all know that the staff would not make any money unless your entrees were $80 each, sort of like a 3 star michelin restaurant in France. :)

May 24, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterchefboy

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