A Handy Guide to Not Being a Monster When You Dine Out In Boston
If you lost your social skills during the shutdown, please allow these tired chefs to remind you of some basic table manners.
It’s the first summer with COVID vaccines in arms, and restaurant crowds have returned at a volume not seen since before the pandemic. Hurray! How nice it is, to give hugs over Bloody Marys at a drag brunch, or break bread with friends you haven’t seen for dinner in months.
At the same time, though, overrun restaurants are dealing with a historic staffing shortage and major levels of burnout in the service industry. And while most of us—hopefully!—are returning to the public square with a renewed commitment to, in the wise words of Bill & Ted, “be excellent to each other,” it’s obvious that some of us are also, um, relearning social skills. This year, more than most, the region has been rife with reports of Customers Behaving Badly. One Cape Cod restaurant even made national headlines for shutting down for a “Day of Kindness,” after employees endured rankly shitty behavior from diners.
Look, no matter what side of the server-customer relationship you’re on, it’s not easy to be a person right now. We spent a year in varying degrees of isolation. We’re still living through a pandemic—one in which public-health guidance around mask-wearing and more remains frustratingly fluid, owing to the continued presence of a virus we would probably be able to stop in its tracks with multiple vaccines in another, more cooperative time in human history. These are wild times, man! If you sometimes feel like you’re losing your mind a little, you’re not, like, without reason.
All that said, none of this gives us permission to snap at other people like a Hungry Hungry Hippo after one glass of rosé. And so, as you head back out there to celebrate reunions, birthdays, a Saturday night on the town, or just the return of an office-day lunch break, please heed a few points of etiquette gleaned from very exhausted chefs and restaurant staffers around the city. They’re eagerly welcoming us back. Don’t be the person they don’t want to see return.
Adjust your expectations for the reality we’re in. Imagine that your job is to build cars. Under normal circumstances, you are very good at building cars. All of a sudden, though, you find that the staff on the assembly line has been cut in half, you’ve run out of engines (the company that makes those is short of resources, too), and suddenly, after not being allowed to drive anywhere for a while, the entire world really, really wants cars. Right now. With Creamy Balsamic dressing on the side. Even you, Person Who is Normally Great at Building Cars, will find yourself both overwhelmed and practically constrained by the circumstances. We are not really talking about cars. We are talking about your cobb salad. It’s coming. It’ll take longer. Be patient, bring a book.
Don’t dangle bad Yelp reviews like they’re bomb threats. We get it: You’ve got a keyboard and you’re not afraid to use it. This does not a hotshot make. If you have a legitimate grievance with a business that can not first be resolved in person, you might decide to leave your feedback on some crowdsourced-reviews site or another. It is not cool, though, to resort to using one-star reviews as leverage to get whatever you want. Too often, a number of restaurant folks tell me, “wait ’til I tell Yelp!” is used to extort an exception to a rule or submission to a request the restaurant simply can’t meet. Table chef-owner Jen Royle, for instance, says she’s been threatened with them for enforcing cancellation fees that are clearly disclosed on her website, and recently for asking a rowdy group to stop vaping in her restaurant. “Some groups have been coming in that have no regard for other people,” Royle says. “They’re acting like animals.”
Definitely don’t be like this lady: That is, the one who called the city’s health inspectors on South End bistro Frenchie as retribution for a minor and unrelated spat, according to general manager Philippine Hamilton. She says one party was so obnoxiously irate when their outdoor-seating request could not be accommodated, they turned down a free bottle of Champagne—a goodwill gift from the neighborly guests occupying the desired table outside—and hurled f-bombs at the staff when other items weren’t comp’d. (Hamilton says she actually planned to give a few freebies, but the tab reached them before she had the chance.) As revenge, they left a nasty review online and tried to sic the city on the restaurant. “We had no trouble since we were respecting the rules,” Hamilton says. But boy, some people need a hobby. “I remember the inspector asking me, ‘Did you fire anyone recently? Because this woman seemed very upset. She called us every day to make sure we would come.'”
Do let your local haunt know you appreciate them (like this dude). Nobody needs a reminder to speak up when they’re not happy. Don’t forget, though, that it’s equally important to speak up when you are. Generous tips pay the bills, of course, but encouragement is also vital fuel for folks who are running on fumes. “Give yourselves the permission to go beyond just being nice,” advises Ayr Muir, founder of the Boston area’s popular vegetarian fast-casual chain, Clover. Muir says he’s known customers who gifted flowers on one location’s opening day, hopped into line to help out during the early days of operation, and sent staff daily emails of the great-job-keep-it-up variety. “If you had great service or a delicious bite, or even if you noticed a small moment of kindness from a staff member, take the time to write an email or a glowing review or post something,” Muir says. “It will never go unnoticed, and it may really make someone’s day.”
Remember, it pays to be nice. If you’re not, it will be noticed—immediately. Dave Becker, chef-owner of Juniper in Wellesley and Sweet Basil in Needham and Waltham, says he’s heard of crafty hosts inflating wait times for rude guests, in order to send them elsewhere and seat friendlier faces instead. “I know someone who works as a manager on Newbury Street, and he tells me that if somebody seems unpleasant, a host will hit them with an hour-and-a-half wait time to send them somewhere else,” Becker says. “Then if somebody comes in and seems nice, they’ll say ‘sure, we’ll squeeze you in,’ and 15 minutes later they have a spot. He can’t fire them because he doesn’t have anyone else to work. So he’ll pull them aside and reprimand them. They nod and say okay, but they just keep doing it.”
When in doubt, say “I’m sorry.” As soon as the server walks away, you find yourself wondering whether your tone was sharper or more dickish than intended when you grunted about the forgotten side of Secret Sauce—a tragedy from which, you fear, you may never recover. Here’s a tip: When they come back to the table, apologize. Be quick, don’t make it weird. But as you have likely learned after a year in particularly close quarters with your spouse or cat (they both hold grudges), “Hey, sorry, I’m super-stressed and may have sounded like a jerk,” will do wonders to repair a relationship if used immediately as a salve. You are human. They are too. The secret in the sauce is to remember. Also, turmeric. Ssh.