Steven Shaw's "Turning the Tables: Restaurants From the Inside Out" (HarperCollins, 240 pages, $24.95) takes the reader behind the scenes and shows how restaurants run and how one's dining experience can be maximized.
Interested in what the governmental regulations are on cheese? How to order sushi? Plant density at vineyards? Who knew that a zigzag (as opposed to concentric) pattern on a clamshell indicates it comes from a genetically modified strain? The book is a mixture of avuncular advice ("If you don't like a table, say so before you sit down") and sociological observations.
Mr. Shaw spoke about his book Thursday, saying there were a few topics he regretted not having addressed in the book. One is the common situation where the waiter brings everyone's food out except one person's.
"For some reason, everyone believes they have to wait." While most watch their food get cold, this polite overcompensation makes the non-recipient feel uncomfortable, which is the opposite of what etiquette is supposed to do. Even if the person insists the others "go ahead and eat," they often do not. He urged the audience to start a new trend of eating rather than waiting.
"Why are restaurants so reluctant to provide separate checks?" he asked next. If your friend likes to order all the appetizers and drink cocktails, very lopsided bills can over time put a strain on a friendship. "This shouldn't have to happen. The goal of going out to restaurants is being happy," he said. Those dining at sophisticated urban restaurants should not be discouraged from asking for separate checks.
Mr. Shaw said waiters were more like "independent contractors" than restaurant employees, since they make a living wage through customer gratuities. A corollary, he said, is that a complaint or compliment to a waiter will likely remain with the waiter. But telling a manager instead can have an effect or actual career benefit.
In researching the book, the author worked in restaurants to see them firsthand. Someone asked whether management fixed and cleaned the place before he arrived to affect his impression. "They do, the first day. But by the third day, it's back to normal. It's like reality television, they quickly forget."
Sometimes he observed restaurant kitchens more anonymously by posing as "friend of the chef." But then the kitchen staff would usually inquire, "What is this guy doing here, since he's not very helpful?"
Mr. Shaw next turned to the "too loud music" and the "too little light" problem. "Who decided that restaurants should be dark? What's that about?" he said. He called romantic a really great meal that you can see. He said there is also a strange misconception that loud music improves ambience.
Other topics he covered were tipping versus a required service charge (he favors the latter, but said Americans tend to feel, "If I can't control the tip, I'm not going to get good service").
He also discussed the trend of more educated students being drawn to culinary schools: "Culinary school is the new law school." Indeed, Mr. Shaw himself went to law school, but left that career for food writing after realizing "I was more interested in my business lunches than in my business as a lawyer."
One person asked about returning wine if one doesn't like it. "The restaurant is going to make more money selling it by the glass, and if they're too dumb to do that, don't return there." Asked the origin of the word "tip," the author poured cold water, so to speak, on tidy historical explanations and doubted its derivation really was "to insure promptitude."
As the event wound down, Mr. Shaw offered this advice: Don't dine at restaurants whose signs say "authentic." Good restaurants do not announce they are authentic; they just are. But, he said, there are always exceptions such as China 46 on Route 46 in New Jersey, which is presently his favorite Chinese restaurant in the tristate area.
Earlier in the talk, the sound of a baby close by interrupted the speaker. This prompted Mr. Shaw to mention that his wife had had a baby boy the prior day. "So if I look a little disheveled," he said, it was that he had been at the hospital for 48 hours. He was about to return to see his wife and baby at Mount Sinai Hospital.
The baby, Peter, was born exactly 10 years after the death of Mr. Shaw's father, Peter Shaw, who taught American literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. As Mr. Shaw writes in "Turning the Tables," his father treated people as intellectual equals. "He would try to explain Dostoevsky to the Greek ex-con dishwasher at a restaurant at 69th and Broadway in Manhattan. 'This man,' my father would patiently explain to me, 'may very well be a descendent of Aristotle.'" The younger Shaw likewise has an egalitarian impulse, extolling fancy Manhattan eateries as well as a hot dog stand in Fairfield, Conn., and New Haven pizzerias.
One of the final questioners inquired, "What do you do with a restaurant that serves superb food but is bad in every other way," such as service, noise, and so on? Furthermore, the man continued, the restaurant management didn't speak English. Someone in the front row interjected, "Get takeout." The audience roared. "See," Mr. Shaw said, "the audience always knows."