Spending the month in Los Angeles was a great decision. Not only have I learned much more than I ever knew about Persian cuisine, but I’ve made some wonderful new friends. One person I’ll miss is Brooke Burton, a pro in the field of food service and restaurant management.
Brooke’s mission in life is to teach people about giving good service, and restaurants hire her as a service coach to do just that. Brooke is a philosopher who grapples with the question of what it means to serve, in restaurants and in life, and she writes about these issues on the award-nominated Food Woolf blog, where she takes on everything from tipping correctly, to why some diners are impossible to satisfy, to why you should kiss goodbye that fantasy of opening your own restaurant.
I’ve always been a back-of-house person — my stint as a server at a café in Philadelphia lasted two days — so I asked Brooke to answer some questions about restaurant dining from the front-of-house perspective. I’m friends with enough servers to know that a diner should always leave a decent tip unless the service is horrible, but should you tip on the amount before or after tax? Over some excellent Thai food at Pa-Ord Noodle, Brooke’s favorite place in L.A.’s Thai Town, she expounded on this and other restaurant-related conundrums.
Interview with Brooke Burton
Louisa: Should you only go to restaurants that have been recommended by a friend or a review, or is it okay to just walk into a place that you know nothing about?
Brooke: Keep an open mind, but also do your research. If you think paying $30 for an entree is too much, then you shouldn’t be eating at a restaurant that serves $30 entrees. You will most likely be disappointed, even if it is the best restaurant in the city. Your expectations will be off. Getting a recommendation from a friend is good, but ask questions about what they liked about the place. What you like might be very different from what your friends have interest in.
Do you trust review sites like Yelp?
B: I don’t really like Yelp, but I find that it is incredibly important to the way the business is viewed by the general public. Not everyone knows what they’re talking about, but you have to take the pulse of what the general public has to say about your restaurant to heart.
What’s the deal with servers describing the daily special, without giving the price?
B: Servers tend not to say the price because they are doing their best to minimize time talking at the guests. If you are interested in ordering the item, you should ask how much it is. Believe me, servers who are forced to recite specials have to gauge from their guest just how much talking they can do at the table. Many guests get angry, frustrated and annoyed at servers for announcing specials at the table. The less a server has to say, in those cases, the better for everyone.
B: Good question. I think questioning where your food comes from is important. Questions about the provenance of food that are asked in order to prove a point or a person’s point of view can be somewhat self-serving, especially if you’re not interested in truly listening to the answer. I also would say that questions are great, but you should keep in mind that when you’re dining in a restaurant you aren’t the only guest in the establishment. Be aware that the more time you spend asking questions, the less time your server will be able to help other guests.
Do servers hate diners who don’t order alcohol?
B: Well, it certainly can affect their check average, and ultimately their tip, but I think hate is a strong word. A professional server is in the business to take care of the diner and should be able to find other things to get for the guest—like an awesome mock-tail or great coffee drink—that could make that guest’s experience even better.
What happens if your dish appears, and it’s loaded with mushrooms, or peppers, or another ingredient you can’t stand, that wasn’t listed in the menu description?
B: You can ask for something else. I would also recommend that if there are certain ingredients that you find offensive, you should mention this to your server before you order. I have a thing about truffle oil and if I smell that stuff in the room I always tell the waiter I can’t stand it in order to make sure it never makes an appearance on my dish.
What do you do if your waiter is too involved with you and your meal—coming over too often, staying too long, making unwanted jokes and conversation?
Brooke: It’s a hard balance. I appreciate a waiter who checks in with me–some people find that intrusive, but I find it to be a genuine step of service. However, that once I had a waiter in New Orleans who didn’t have any personal boundaries and kept telling stories to my table completely unwarranted. I found that kind of storytelling and self-absorption to be rude. I’ve actually never seen anything like it before. It was just incredibly selfish of the waiter and floored me that he had no idea how intrusive he could be.
What would you think if a diner brought Tupperware containers with them to take home leftovers, and made the transfer themselves right at the table?
B: There are a lot of people who like to treat restaurants like they are fancy picnic tables. They bring their own food, drink, and even containers–thinking nothing of the fact that restaurants are a business. I’ve never seen anyone pull out a Tupperware container at any of the restaurants I’ve worked at. It may be something of an ecological choice that a diner may engage in—which I can appreciate—I would offer to try to do that for them, though I don’t know if that’s a health code violation. Gotta find that one out!
Should diners tip on the total before tax or after tax?
B: I always tip on the total, including the tax.
Pa-Ord Noodle: 5301 Sunset Blvd., #8, Hollywood, Los Angeles. (323) 461-3945. Open daily, 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Cash only.