Editor’s note: This is a first of two parts about getting the most enjoyment out of your trips to restaurants.
I’ve been fortunate to dine out quite a bit, and in many areas of the country. I’ve learned a lot from those experiences.
One of the best things I’ve learned is that a dining experience is a two-way street — it’s the restaurant and you.
I’ve also discovered there are things you can do to enhance your dining experience, and I want to share some of those secrets with you here.
First, let’s talk about where to sit. If you’re at a restaurant that’s known for its views, by all means try to get a seat by the window, beach, waterfall or whatever. However, for a really good dining experience, sit at the bar. Why? Several reasons.
I feel that the bar is where I can get a real good pulse of what is going on in the restaurant. Plus, you can usually get better one-on-one attention since the bartender is, well, right there at the bar.
Most bartenders these days really focus on flavors and flavor combinations. So who best to help you pair a cocktail or wine with your meal? And if there’s an issue with your food when it arrives, the bartender can often recognize it quicker and resolve it faster.
No offense to servers, but again, the bartender tends to be close at hand at all times. I once had a bartender who immediately came over to me and asked me what was wrong just by reading my facial expression when I bit into some chips that were a bit on the “overdone” side. That blew me away.
The bar can also be like a reference library. If time allows, the bartender might share some information about the area, the history of the restaurant (if applicable) or even other places to check out in the neighborhood. If there are other patrons at the bar willing to chat, you can get information from them, too. This is especially interesting if you’re traveling or in a new town.
Bar seating might give you a meaningful “first time” taste, especially if you really enjoy cocktails or trying a new spirit.
“You’re going to remember that first Pendergast or trying your first Japanese Single Malt,” said Brock Schulte, one of the mixologists at The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. “It can be a great learning experience.”
Here’s another seating tip: If the restaurant has a chef’s counter or chef’s table, try to get a seat there. Now, this might take some planning on your part, because you’re not the only person that wants to sit there, but it’s worth it. Call ahead and make some reservations.
The chef’s counter is where I say “all the magic happens,” especially if it gives you a view into the soul of the restaurant — the kitchen. You can observe techniques, ingredients, equipment and how the cooks interact with each other. Often the chef may present the dishes to you.
Don’t squander the chance to ask questions of the chef. You can get fascinating insights on a dish, like what inspired it or if there’s a uniquely-sourced ingredient.
Once you’ve gotten a good seat, here’s my next secret that can change your restaurant experience: Ask questions.
Not just any questions, mind you. I have three of them that, when used properly, can open your mind and mouth to new tastes that you may have otherwise missed.
Question No. 1: “What are you known for?” or “What should I try?”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made the mistake of ordering something, being disappointed, and then find out that the place was known for some other dish that I overlooked. For example, one time I was eating at a Mexican restaurant called Las Chili's, which is located at 6210 Raytown Trafficway in the Center 63 Shopping Center in Raytown.
Of course I was going to order something Mexican when, almost as an afterthought, we decided to asked our server what we should try. The answer was “our burgers.” Was this the answer I was expecting? No. Were they right? Holy cow yes, they were so right.
Question No. 2: “What does the chef wish more people would order?”
Most servers will be shocked by this question, trust me. If the chef is in the house, many servers will take the time to talk to the chef and find out for you. And if you’re sitting at a chef’s counter, the chef will probably be surprised at the question as well … and delighted.
Most chefs know the popular dishes in their restaurant, and of course they would like to sell more. It’s a business, after all. But, chefs are also highly creative and take pride in their craft. Some might have created a dish that they are extremely proud of, but maybe isn’t popular with the masses.
Find out what that is, and a whole new door could be opened up to you. You may agree, you may not, but at least you will have little more insight into where this chef is coming from.
Question No. 3: “Where do you like to eat?”
This is a question to ask your server, maybe toward the end of the meal. I love asking this when I’m traveling. People in the food service industry always know the best places to go. Be prepared for a wide range of answers.
Here’s how that question played out once while in New York City. My wife and I were finishing a meal at The Dutch and we asked our server that question. The guy was thrilled to talk food and gave us quite a list to check out. One of them was a pizza place. It was brand new, hard to find (the door was just an open gap between all of the other restaurants and shops on Avenue A — no signs, no nothing).
Once we found a place at the bar (remember my earlier tip?), we started talking to the bartender. We told her that we were from Kansas City and eating our way around NYC. You should have seen her eyes light up.
“You’re from Kansas City? I’m from Olathe!” she said. “And see that girl at that table? She’s from Olathe, too. You two get to drink free all night!”
We never would’ve had that experience had we not used Question No. 3. Your results may vary.
So there you have it. Get a strategic seat and ask interesting questions the next time you dine out. I’ll bet you’ll have a new perspective on your restaurant experience.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a master student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.