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10 Things Your Waiter Doesn't Want You to Know

Your waitress knows more than she may be letting on.
Your waitress knows more than she may be letting on.
Bloom Productions/Getty Images

Everyone loves dining out. What's not to like about letting someone else do the cooking and enjoying creative cuisine? But while you're relaxing and enjoying a glass of wine with a favorite dining companion or group of friends, what's really going on in the kitchen?

In tough economic times, restaurants are seeking out ways to cut waste and maximize profits, and many of those practices have an effect on the food that's being served. For example, you may find it harder than ever to find a quiet little bistro for a relaxing dinner. A more stimulating environment -- bright lights, lots of color, upbeat music -- encourages quicker turnover so that more diners can be served.

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And while a good waiter can help you make the most of your dining experience, it's wise to treat him or her with respect, whether you're eating at a national chain, a local pizza parlor, or the hottest restaurant in town. You may not realize it, but your waiter holds most, if not all, of the keys to a quality night out. If you treat him or her right, you could end up with a sublime dining experience.

Read on to learn the top 10 things your waiter doesn't want you to know.

To make the most of dining out, smart diners learn the art of reading a menu. Menus often start with a higher priced item. Why? When the first item that you see is a $35 surf-and-turf, your expectations about the amount you need to pay for dinner increase. Suddenly, the $22 trout amandine doesn't seem all that unreasonable.

Sometimes the items that are the most profitable for the restaurant are listed first or starred as a "house specialty" to catch your eye. The items with the highest serving costs and lower profit margins are buried in the middle. Savvy pricing creates the illusion of a value: a chicken dish priced at $15 may look like a bargain compared to the $25 prime rib, but the profit margins are actually much higher on the chicken pasta than the pricier beef, since the chicken used to make the pasta dish is a lot less expensive.

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So, some of the best deals are actually the most expensive dishes on the menu, when it costs the restaurant more of the menu price to prepare it.

This may be the safest way to eat healthily at a restaurant.
This may be the safest way to eat healthily at a restaurant.
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Another trick to be aware of is that many restaurants rely on butter and other high calorie or unhealthy garnishes to make food taste good. Even lighter dishes like salmon or halibut can be laden with butter or extra salt. Mashed potatoes and pasta or rice pilaf side dishes may taste delicious, but they may be loaded with extra cream or butter.

According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), restaurant meals average 1,000 to 1,500 calories, or roughly two-thirds of the daily average recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) [source: Bockelman]. So if you're looking to cut calories, consider sharing an entrée, ordering an appetizer instead or skipping the bread. (But if you're sharing an entrée, be aware of hidden sharing charges.)

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Some restaurants add sugar to items on the children's menu so they'll eat more, pleasing parents and earning repeat visits [source: Parmar].

Is your waiter tempting you with a cool gazpacho as a refreshing appetizer? If it's the soup of the day, the chef may be trying to use up an abundance of tomatoes and other vegetables before they go bad. Same with any stew or casserole that's being touted as the special of the day: Monday's beef stew may be Saturday night's prime rib.

Smart chefs try to order carefully, but they also have to make the most of what they have on hand. For example, if a chef orders oysters, he may offer several dishes that include oysters to make sure they are all used. Buying asparagus in season may mean the vegetable goes on the menu as a side dish, an appetizer, a salad topper, or a soup.

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So how can you identify a special that's really just the chef's way of using up leftovers? Look for an expensive item, such as lamb or duck, used in a way that minimizes its flavor. Pastas, stews, and soups are often suspect. Remember, sauces and gravies have helped cover up cook's mistakes for centuries.

Waiters and waitresses work stressful jobs in conditions that can be less than ideal, so it's important to recognize that some shenanigans can go on in the kitchen.

Steve Dublanica, author of the book and blog "Waiter Rant," writes about the challenges that waiters face in dealing with difficult customers. He offers some startling insights about what may happen to those who misbehave in a restaurant. The urban myth about waiters spitting in customer's food, it turns out, isn't one at all [Source: Hodgeson]. If that isn't enough, they may sneak a few fries off your plate or spoon out a taste of cobbler that's sitting in the kitchen.

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Most waiters do work hard, earnestly trying to serve customers and do their jobs well to earn a decent wage that includes tips from diners. Remember the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." A "thank you" and a smile will go a long way towards improving the service you receive.

Ordering fish in a restaurant is the best way to get the freshest food from the sea, right? After all, isn't it flown in daily? Not necessarily. Even if you order Maryland crab cakes, they may not be made using crabs from the Chesapeake. High demand means crabs may be brought in from other states -- or even imported from Thailand or Vietnam. That doesn't mean the quality or taste is compromised, but you might not be getting exactly what you expected [source: SmartMoney].

When prices on key ingredients soar, restaurants may swap out pricier items for less expensive substitutes. For example, when the price of sea scallops soared a few years ago, one restaurant substituted cod for scallops on its shellfish skewer [source: SmartMoney].

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Make sure to ask where the fish comes from and when it was delivered. If the waiter hesitates or can't tell you, consider a meat dish instead.

At some restaurants, even the water can cost you big bucks.
At some restaurants, even the water can cost you big bucks.
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"Flat or sparkling?" your waiter asks. "Flat," you reply, hoping to avoid the charge you'd expect to pay for a bottle of sparkling Pellegrino. Your waiter appears, opening a bottle of Fiji spring water. "What a lovely touch," you think, especially when the first bottle is emptied and another appears.

The surprise will be all yours, however, when the bill arrives and you've been billed for each bottle of water. What he should have asked was "Tap, flat, or sparkling?" Be careful and listen to what your waiter is asking, or you might be surprised with an extra charge of up to $10 on your bill for each bottle of water.

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Some restaurants avoid filling the water glass altogether, hoping the thirsty consumer will order pricier beverages or alcoholic drinks instead. The average mark-up on tea is about 4,440 percent, and a glass of soda costs the restaurant only about ten cents [source: Parmar].

Entrées used to come with bread and vegetables, but that isn't always a given today. In the past, restaurants figured extras like bread into their prices.

Now, many restaurants have taken advantage of the low carbohydrate trend by making bread available only when a customer asks -- and you may be charged for it.

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Vegetables are also commonly appearing on menus as side items that must be ordered a la carte. At $6, an order of broccoli or a baked potato may sound like a small addition to your meal, but it probably only costs the restaurant about $1.50 or less.

Yes, even professional chefs have shortcuts. This delicious pastry may be on its way to a restaurant across town.
Yes, even professional chefs have shortcuts. This delicious pastry may be on its way to a restaurant across town.
Digital Vision/Getty Images

Time is money -- even in the restaurant business. Restaurants always do their best to improve efficiencies and save time in the kitchen. Professional chefs have learned to take advantages of clever shortcuts and conveniences to make the most of the little time they have.

This means the fresh ranch dressing may be made every three days instead of daily. The homemade coconut pie you order may not be made on the premises, but delivered from a bakery on the other side of town. Mom's homemade relish may actually come from a jar purchased from a food service company. And that delicious French bread you smell baking in the oven? Purchased frozen from a specialty baker in California.

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These time- and cost-saving practices aren't necessarily bad, but don't be afraid to comment on anything that doesn't smell quite right, or has a questionable consistency.

Airlines aren't the only service businesses prone to overbooking. According to John Fischer, associate professor of table service at the Culinary Institute of America, "Overbooking is almost a necessary evil." Restaurants calculate their customary no-show percentage and overbook by that much, hoping everything comes out even [source: Bockelman].

So what should you do if you've called ahead and made a reservation for Aunt Polly's birthday, then find yourself waiting once your group arrives? Politely ask after about 15 minutes, and if you don't like the response you get, go someplace else.

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It's usually not a good idea to tip before you are seated, but on your way out, give the maître d' a $10 to $20 tip -- he'll probably remember you and make sure you're seated right away the next time you call.

If you want your food ultra-fresh when you eat out, know that some days may work better than others.
If you want your food ultra-fresh when you eat out, know that some days may work better than others.
Vegar Abelsnes Photography/Getty Images

Many people find themselves in restaurants often due to busy schedules or business dinners, but when is the best time to plan a special, relaxing meal out? Don't choose Sunday or Monday night when the food probably isn't as fresh as it would be earlier in the weekend. And Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest times for many restaurants, so chefs are hurried and waiters are stressed.

Holidays, especially Valentine's Day or Mother's Day, are often a restaurant's busiest days of the entire year. If you can talk your sweetie or mom into celebrating at home and going out to a restaurant on another day, you'll find the atmosphere less hectic and enjoy more attentively prepared food and service

So when is the best time to dine out? Try Tuesday, when many restaurants receive fresh food orders to replenish supplies used over the weekend and the atmosphere is more relaxed. You can also give Thursday a shot: Chefs are gearing up for weekend crowds, fine-tuning recipes and ingredients, and there are plenty of servers on hand to serve guests.

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Sources

  • Bockelman, Christine. "10 Things Your Restaurant Won't Tell You." Smart Money. March 22, 2007. (Accessed July 2, 2010)http:// www.smartmoney.com/spending/rip-offs/10-things-your-restaurant-wont-tell-you-20980/?page=2.
  • Kessler, Jason. "Blog: The Nitpicker." Bon Appetit. June 29, 2010. (Accessed July 2, 2010)http://www.bonappetit.com/blogsandforums/blogs/badaily/2010/06/restaurants-bottled-water-tap-trick.html
  • Hodgson, Moira. "Take your own damn order." Wall Street Journal. August 1, 2008. (Accessed July 2, 2010)http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121755069219002901.html?KEYWORDS=waiters
  • Kaplan, Michael. "10 Things Restaurants Won't Tell You." Smart Money. August 14, 2009. (Accessed July 3, 2010)http://www.smartmoney.com/spending/deals/10-things-your-restaurant-wont-tell-you-13791/
  • Parmar, Neil. "Crafty Ways Restaurants Cut Costs." Smart Money. October 2, 2009. (Accessed July 2, 2010)http://www.smartmoney.com/spending/rip-offs/crafty-ways-restaurants-cut-costs/
  • Parmar, Neil. "8 Restaurant Ploys to Watch For." Smart Money. October 2, 2009. (Accessed July 2, 2010)http://www.smartmoney.com/Spending/Rip-offs/How-Restaurants-Cut-Corners/
  • Templin, Neal. "Tipping Point: What it takes to make your waiter like you." Wall Street Journal. October 23, 2008. (Accessed July 2, 2010)http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122471487660660237.html?KEYWORDS=waiters.

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