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March 3, 2010

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Amateur night

The day after Valentine’s Day, a friend asked where my boyfriend had taken me to dinner. I’m afraid a whoop of laughter escaped before I could clap a hand over my mouth.

“Oh, is he one of those non-romantic Valentine’s Day haters?” she asked. To set the record straight: My Valentine’s Day was plenty romantic, thank you — what with a cuddled-on-the-sofa viewing of “Julie & Julia,” an elaborate home-cooked breakfast and gifts of jewelry. Surprise: We never dine out on Valentine’s Day. Or New Year’s Eve. Or Derby Night, Oaks Night, Mother’s Day … “People who’ve worked in the restaurant industry call those ‘amateur nights,’” I explained.

Just consider what you’re getting yourself into when you make a dinner reservation for one of these holidays. Chances are, you’ll be dining among a subset of patrons with some (or all) of the following qualities: They only dine out on “Hallmark holidays” and similar occasions; or they dine out sometimes, but step up the caliber of restaurant for holidays. They may not be adventurous diners, and holiday menus — often prix fixe — may be geared toward more pedestrian palates. They may not know proper tipping etiquette. (“Ten bucks oughta do it, right honey? I mean, look at all these people! The servers must be making a fortune!”)

And then there’s the staff. Restaurant owners and managers are stressed. They’ve been obsessing about this night all month, all week and especially all day. They wanted smooth service but may have overbooked as a result of special favors, a holiday promotion or advertising. The serving staff is stretched to the breaking point, with all hands on deck — the “B” team as well as the “A” team. As for chef and cooks, well, they’re worn out before service even begins, having worked especially long shifts in advance to prep menu items that can be re-heated or resurrected quickly. Wholesome, decent food, to be sure, but not anything that needs expertise or exquisite timing to get ready. Your filet was probably grill-marked yesterday afternoon and thrown into the oven when your order ticket reached the kitchen. That side of Parmesan risotto probably spent a cold night in a stainless steel half-pan, ready to be doused with chicken stock and warmed to your order rather than cooked properly from scratch.

Mind you: I’m not advocating that you skip patronizing your favorite restaurants for special occasions. Just make your reservations around the specific dates rather than on them. Dedicated foodies know this secret and use the knowledge to their advantage.

So take Mom to dinner on the Saturday night before Mother’s Day. Have your Valentine’s celebration on Feb. 7, or Feb. 12. At least 350 nights a year offer a fabulous dining experience in our city, which is blessed with so many fine independent establishments. Choose yours wisely!

 

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou. She is currently a teaching assistant at Sullivan University, her alma mater.