You’ve gone and done it. You’ve saved your pennies (read: made available some credit card balance) and made your first reservation at one of those restaurants. You know the kind—white tablecloths, amuse bouches, mother-of-pearl caviar spoons and the like. Your fanatical consumption of all things food media has been leading up to this, your personal gastronomic Mount Everest.
When you called to make your reservation, though, you couldn’t help but notice that your palms began to sweat and you began babbling in a bizarre tongue that can best be described as “attempt to speak with cosmopolitan swagger meets having a stroke.” Subconsciously you must believe that even talking with a member of the restaurant’s staff requires something of an elevated mien, nevermind that the reservationist is likely a 22 year-old college student simultaneously Snapchatting while taking your call. Could it be that you are nervous?
Fear not, your nerves are normal and not at all unfounded. While the whole point of treating oneself to a meal in a fine dining restaurant is pleasure, not knowing entirely what to expect or how to behave can lead to some uneasiness, at least for the hyper-socially-conscious among us. The purpose of this guide is to walk you through certain aspects of the experience so you can relax and enjoy it. You had to call three months in advance for your reservation. You don’t want to spend the three hours actually in the restaurant on edge.
No matter what, remember that the name of the game is hospitality, and the ultimate goal of the staff is not to catch you out as some hopeless rube, but to ensure that you have the best experience possible, whether you are a practiced fine-diner or a first-timer, and whether your budget is modest or enviable. Here are some moments to look out for which might not be obvious how to navigate.
Leave your preconceived notions at the door, along with your coat or cumbersome bag. This is not only for your benefit so you feel uncluttered, but also so the staff can easily get around your table without tripping over the tails of your North Face.
Know thy Cocktail
You may be asked if you’d like to start with a cocktail or glass of Champagne before any menus are even presented to you. If you have a go-to classic drink such as a martini or Manhattan and (this is important) you are interested in drinking one, then feel free to call for it. But you are not obligated to do so, and simply asking to see a cocktail or wine list at this time is the way to proceed, especially if there’s a chance you might blurt out “Slippery Nipple!” left to your own devices.
New World Food Order
It’s generally best if everyone at the table agrees to the same type of menu, whether it’s three-course, six-course, chef’s tasting menu, etc.. This may or may not be restaurant policy, but it will make for a more graceful experience when everyone is on the same timeline.
Speak up about any food allergies and even aversions you may have. You have every right to your own preferences, but then let the captain suggest accommodations, or consult with the kitchen to create a bespoke menu for you. Tasting menus are not meant to be choose-your-own adventure opportunities for you to mix-and-match.
Putting the “Yay” in Sommelier
The very term “sommelier” can strike fear into the heart of even the most practiced fine dining guests, conjuring images of some sneering French-person trying to upsell you into something as unpronounceable as it is cost-prohibitive. The key to communicating with a member of the wine team is honesty, and an open mind—which goes even further than having an open wallet. Be honest about what you like, what you know (don’t overplay it), and how much you would like to spend. If you are self-conscious about naming a price range in front of a date or client, pointing to an item on the list that is near to your target is perfectly fine. Hear them out for suggestions on pairings, even if it’s something you’ve never heard of.
Inviting Emily Post
No need to hire an etiquette coach and behave as though you are auditioning to be a dining room extra on “Downton Abbey,” but a touch of refinement to your normal restaurant behavior could be welcome. You can revel in the most effortless service by keeping your tabletop—and especially the space between your fork and knife where plates must land —free from cell phones, purses, eye glasses, and your limbs. There is a lot of coordinated effort to both presenting your dishes and clearing your table, so allow the space for these flourishes to happen.
Check Your OCD at the Door
In modern fine dining, you will be set with new silverware for each course specific to what you ordered, so you need not worry about which of five available spoons to use. However, any settings that are put on the table, including bread plates/knives, glassware, etc., should stay relatively where they are placed. Try to resist your OCD urge to rearrange everything.
Play With Your Food
Don’t take everything extremely seriously. If it seems like something is meant to be eaten with your hands, do it. Certain things are never meant to be eaten with a fork and knife, so if it looks like the restaurant is trying to do something irreverent or playful, they probably are. You are more likely to be targeted as a rube if you’re sawing away with utensils at something that looks suspiciously like an ice cream cone or slider.
You will probably have to ask for the check. Excellent restaurants should never rush you out, or even hint that they need your table back by presenting the check automatically. Your captain may ask a leading question such as “is there anything else you need?” but unless you state that you want the check, you will probably be the last guests in the dining room.
The goal of fine dining hospitality is an experience that feels like it happened for you, not to you, so allow for all those gracious moments to happen, and do your part to ensure that they can happen seamlessly. In short, lean into the hospitality, but lean away from the table
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.