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How restaurants sometimes forget who's paying the bill

Last week we delved into the sinister world of bad customers. But being a restaurant critic, I couldn't let the other side of the equation off the hook. This week it's the restaurant foibles we're after.

I couldn't begin to tell you how much money I've spent as a critic and a private diner on essentially bad dining experiences. What other business could get away with completely pissing you off and then charging you well more than $100 for the experience, plus tip? So, in the spirit of more successful restaurants and happier diners, here's a list of the worst mistakes of bad (and often good) restaurants. The flagellations are broken down into three components: the kitchen, the service and the management.

KITCHEN

Laziness: Recently, I was at an intown breakfast spot with a sign that advertised a new specialty, homemade cookies. On my way out, I noted a Sysco truck driver unloading boxes of frozen cookie dough. Liars! Cads! The mark of a good chef is doing things the hard way. At the best restaurants, herbs are hand-picked from the stem, fish are cut that day and tomatoes are sliced to order. Cutting chicken off the bone so it's easier to cook or precooking meat and bringing it up to temperature are choices to save time, but they also compromise the flavor. Running a kitchen is an exercise in getting blood from a stone, and choices must be made. But I'd veer toward simpler, more honest food than complex dishes that require substitutions for quality.

Lack of respect for the ingredients: The single most disappointing mistake I come across in Atlanta restaurants is overcooked fish. And pork. And duck. Even restaurants that take the time to source the best ingredients – a fat slice of wild salmon or an organic pork chop – will very rarely cook them to the medium I request. I also see a lot of delicious salad greens ruined with sugary dressing, or seafood drowning in overwhelming sauces. The best restaurants take a perfect ingredient and figure out how to let it shine.

SERVICE

Points of service: This term refers to the small decisions every restaurant makes about how it serves its customers. Do you clear plates all at once or when each person finishes? Do you reset silverware after every course? Do you pour wine for customers or let them pour their own after the bottle is open? There are correct answers to all these questions, but the most important thing to do is decide on your policy and stick to it. Otherwise, eating out can seem like you're taking part in a frenetic social experiment.

Ignorance: Waiters are essentially salespeople, so imagine trying to sell someone a car without being able to explain horsepower. A menu is a complicated and often-changing thing, but a server can easily overcome his ignorance by asking a co-worker who's more familiar with the menu. The worst is how one Midtown server responded recently when I asked him what was on my plate. "I don't know," he said and smiled dashingly. Then he walked away.

Disrespect: Disrespecting the customer comes in many forms. Telling diners that you close in half an hour when they walk in the door is disrespectful – closing time should mean when you stop seating customers, not when you go home. Rushing people – in Atlanta I see this most commonly when servers drop the check while I'm still eating – sends a message that the customer is not valued.

Of course, arrogance, bad attitude and smart-ass behavior are problems, but more common is unintentional pretension. I often encounter this at one of my favorite high-end restaurants in town. For instance, I ask, "Can you tell me about this Riesling?" And they respond, "Well, Riesling is a sweet wine, so I'm not sure that's what you're looking for." At which point I want to yell, "That's not what I asked, pop tart!" There are customers who need education, and a good server is capable of finding out tactfully if a lecture is in order. "Are you familiar with Rieslings?" would do very nicely.

MANAGEMENT

The shakedown: Recently at an upscale restaurant in town, I ordered a $13 appetizer and a $27 entree. "Will you be wanting a salad with that?" the server asked. I nearly swatted him. The up-sell is almost always the management's influence, and I have an instantly combative reaction when I feel as though a restaurant is trying to squeeze every last penny out of me. The ultimate (and universal) Atlanta example: valet parking. At a busy downtown eatery with few parking options, I have no problem with it, but when a restaurant has an adjacent parking lot that's off-limits to me because of the valet, I start out the evening already feeling ripped off.

Underestimating the customer: Sometimes chefs lowball the sophistication of their customers' palates, but more often it's the management. How many times have I heard the phrase, "Atlanta's not ready for that"? You're telling me that in a town where Richard Blais is revered, a chef who recently proudly served me bone-marrow foam, customers aren't ready for inventive food?

Because I am not privy to the inner conflicts between management and chefs, I can see this most readily on wine lists. Some days I feel like if I see one more wine list full of obvious, lowest-common-denominator wines I'm gonna scream. Give us some credit! Places that take risks and assume their customers will be excited by interesting food and wine usually thrive (think of 5 Seasons proudly serving organics to suburbanites or Pura Vida's exotic mix of Spanish and South American).

Poor training: When servers don't know what the hell they're doing, I don't blame them; I blame the management. Taking time to properly train might be expensive and frustrating, but it is the most important component of having a successful staff. And no, yelling at people in the heat of service doesn't count, which brings us to ...

Employee abuse: It's rampant in the service industry, and I'm not talking about screaming chefs (who I think are kinda cute). Maybe it's the stress, or maybe the restaurant business attracts megalomaniacs. But the bad feeling, which pervades any restaurant where employees are truly mistreated, can't be covered up with mood lighting.

There's one last sin to cover – and one that's a problem in all three arenas of restaurant staff – and that is contempt for the customer. Jaded workers are a cancer on the restaurant world. Customers can be stupid, arrogant and demanding. But they also pay your bills. So show some respect.

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