Service 101: Just Because You’ve Traveled Outside the US Doesn’t Mean You Are an Expert on Restaurants

In every business there are a buzzwords that alert the expert in their field to a minefield of potential problems. When a director steps on set to hear the new actress declare she’s “been thinking about the script,” they gird themselves for a calculated conversation about character development, plot, and close ups. The late afternoon call from a panicked client to a PR agent that begins with “this will take just a minute,” is a red flag phrase that points to a conversation that will result in an even longer day.

And so it is in restaurants. Whenever I hear the words “I’ve eaten in restaurants all over the world,” I prepare myself for a diner who does not understand the guiding principles of the restaurant business. I adjust my approach for the sort of person who prefers to wallow in a shallow pool of knowledge rather than jump at the chance to try something unfamiliar.

Bottom line, when I hear I’ve eaten in restaurants all over the world I know that the person saying it is someone who is extremely uncomfortable in their environment.

Take for example the angry guest that can’t order his usual Absolut Martini at my bar. When I tell him we don’t pour Absolut or Grey Goose he gets annoyed and demands his trusted vodka. He doesn’t want to hear what other great choices he has to choose from. “I’ve eaten in restaurants all over the world…” he says. And so begins a tirade about how unreasonable and snooty we are to not offer his brand.

How I deal with “I’ve eaten in restaurants all over the world…” at the bar

In order to calm the guest down, I explain why we choose to pour artisan vodkas, gins, and bourbons. Though Grey Goose and Belvedere may be very popular, I tell him the restaurant picks every ingredient for its high quality and traceable sources. I tell him we offer a 100 percent organic American rye vodka from Square One, Lukuskowa–a refined potato vodka from Poland–and Hangar One, a small batch vodka made in a renovated California airport hanger. Conceivably, this information would sooth the irritated drinker. Often, it only makes the angry guest even more aware that they are outside their comfort zone.

It’s at this moment I wish I could ease the guest’s malaise. Or send them on their way to a bar that serves overflowing $7.00 Absolut martinis.

I am aware that trying something new can be daunting. I may be adventurous when it comes to eating, but when it comes to diving head first into a pool I just can’t do it. Despite growing up swimming in the ocean and in our family’s quarry, I still haven’t learned how to dive. I just can’t get past the idea that I might get a bunch of water up my nose or hurt myself. And so, despite lots of trusted advice, I continue to cling to one way of doing things: I jump into the water feet first.

Preaching to the uncomfortable

Surely dining doesn’t have to be scary, confrontational, or even dangerous because a restaurant isn’t exactly what you expected.

For instance, every night at the restaurant, handfuls of diners get irritated when they see that most of the menu is written in Italian. Rather than being able to shoot off their usual fettuccini alfredo order, they must rely on the service staff to translate such dishes as maltagliati with wild boar ragu, bavette cacio e pepe, spaghetti a la gricia. Despite the fact that the food of my employer is celebrated by critics and has been awarded high honors by James Beard, diners continue to battle with the idea of putting their trust in me, their server.

By the time I’ve described how maltagliati means “badly cut”, that gricia means “grey” (and is made that way from the guanciale—pork jowl—sauteed onion, and red pepper), or that the bavette is tossed with with pasta water, Parmesan, pecorino cheese, and black  pepper, the uncomfortable guest is now enraged. “I’ve eaten in restaurants all over the world…” they say. “Why can’t you just serve a couple regular dishes like a nice angel hair pasta or fettuccini alfredo like everybody else?”

This phrase conveys to me quite clearly that the person saying it doesn’t like to trust people they don’t know for advice on a subject they themselves know very little about. Who is “everybody else,” I wonder. Italian chain restaurants? Olive Garden?

My word, try something different!

The I’ve-eaten-in-restaurants-all-over-the-world people are traveled folk that–despite their international experiences–feel uncomfortable trying new things and often order specific dishes in hopes of duplicating a certain past experience over and over again. Maybe there’s a dish that you discovered once a long time ago that enjoyed very much. But just because someone else makes that same dish differently doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means it’s different.

How you can tell you might be an “I’ve eaten in restaurants all over the world…” type:

  1. Seeing unfamiliar menu items makes you extremely uncomfortable.
  2. A menu in another language makes you think the restaurant is trying to be snooty.
  3. Once you find a dish you like, you don’t like to try anything else on the menu.
  4. You order steak at every restaurant you go to.
  5. You expect to pay the same price for the same dish at every restaurant you visit.
  6. You wonder why things on the menu aren’t “normal” or “regular.”
  7. You can’t comprehend why everyone can’t make a dish or a drink like that other restaurant you love so much.

How to avoid being an “I’ve eaten in restaurants all over the world…” type:

  1. Don’t’ be afraid to ask questions about menu items you’re unfamiliar with. If you don’t know what that word is, chances are most of the other people in the dining room aren’t so sure either. Remember, knowledge is power.
  2. Go to well-reviewed or recommended restaurants. Then, once you get there, ask your knowledgeable server what dishes they would order if they were coming in for dinner with a loved one.
  3. Order something other than steak.
  4. If money is tight, look at a restaurant’s menu online before you go. Don’t go to a bar that charges $14 for a cocktail if you think that’s unreasonable.
  5. Anticipate variance from one restaurant to another. Not all restaurants serve the same items, even if they do share similar ethnic or cultural inspirations.
  6. Expect the unexpected and don’t freak out.

What kind of diner are you?


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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

23 Comments

  1. March 25
    Reply

    As always B, brilliant and intelligent post.

    So what kind of diner am I? The kind that is hungry to rely on the expertise of people who work there, who cook the food, who sell the food, who love the food. Nothing excites me more than sitting down, asking what my server loves to eat from the chef, what they had for staff meal, what the chef is excited about that day (because sometimes we can’t always run into the kitchen and chat with a busy chef!)

    Can I tell you I’ve never been disappointed? Ever? Not once?

  2. March 25
    Reply

    Great post Brooke. The whole point of trying a new restaurant is to… try something NEW! : )

  3. March 25
    Reply

    Here here! I think people get very defensive when they are uncomfortable, and that’s unfortunate because they can miss out on amazing things if they can allow themselves to relax. That said, restaurants should take note. If you’re not going to do things in a predictable way it is IMPERATIVE you have a highly trained staff. That means feeding them the food they serve, allowing them to taste the wines and educating them about unique products.

  4. LG
    March 25
    Reply

    This is the most pretentious and arrogant piece I have read in a long time.

    • Food Woolf
      March 25
      Reply

      I realize that people get very defensive when they are uncomfortable with certain new information. As Leah says “that’s unfortunate because they can miss out on amazing things.” Clearly I’ve hit a few tender spots with you, LG. I don’t appreciate your tone, but I’d be happy to hear your opinion on the subject.

  5. March 25
    Reply

    I know of types that are like this who have NOT traveled outside the US. Great post. : )

  6. March 25
    Reply

    Is it possible to have eaten in restaurants all over the world and not be the type who would say, I have eaten in restaurants all over the world…”? GREG

  7. lg
    March 25
    Reply

    I do not eat steak, but eat pretty much anything else, the more adventurous the better. The piece is deeply condescending to your customers who work hard to pay your salary and are allowed to order what they want with their money, steak and Stoli or anything else.

  8. Martin
    March 25
    Reply

    What the “I’ve eaten at restaurants all over the world” folks want is what they get at home.

    I had a senior in high school classmate who, I discovered, had never been to Minneapolis, just 30 miles north, because he was afraid of the “big city.” I married a woman whose father had not spent a night away from her mother since they were married.

    My father was born in China, and my Norwegian-American grandmother cooked Chinese feasts for the family two or three times a year. My father taveled, and would tell us events from New York or Mandan. Literally. My uncle and his family were expatriates until I was 22. I had close extended family that traveled for months. And we were regularly visited by Norwegians cousins. I grew up, fortunately, in a cosmopolitan atmosphere.

    On a larger scale, Europeans, for example, encounter differing cultures far more frequently than Americans, so I suspect they are more open to different day-to-day events. But the US is so large a single cultural market that many of us don’t ever encounter anything different from home. In fact, given the chains, we need not ever encounter anything different from our home.

    I don’t know there is any simple way to change the dynamic. But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t serve us well.

  9. March 26
    Reply

    I love your Service 101 series (just read all of them after this post) because it touches on the most basic and simple concepts of respect for others, regardless of their job title, status, salary or the car they drive. One theme I noticed throughout all your pieces is that people automatically assume that once they have the spending power or are paying for something, they have the right to behave in whichever way they choose, be it arrogance or downright rudeness. I sure hope you encounter your fair share of polite and engaging customers to balance out these negative ones!

  10. Eric
    March 26
    Reply

    To start… “I’ve eaten at restaurants all over the world.”

    I think this post skims the cream off the top of a much bigger issue. The persona you describe is more indicative of the fanny pack wearing, entry level DSLR traveler, moving from 5 star hotel to 5 star hotel without ever leaving their comfort zone. You know, the type that drives around SF in one of those goofy three wheel go carts or has “seen” a third world country from the comforts of their AC bus… maybe they’ve done the walking tour of Paris.

    If you are frustrated because these are the types of people you attract to your restaurant, you might have a bigger issue.

    I have eaten at restaurants all over the world, and I can guarantee that everything on your menu or behind your bar is within my comfort zone.

  11. johanna
    March 26
    Reply

    hmmm

    do you have any advice for almost the opposite kind of person?
    the one who has difficulty deciding exactly what to order because, at the types of restaurants you work at, everything just looks/seems so amazingly yummy, creative, and inspired? so beautiful, delicate and well-thought out?
    this person asks lots of questions about many of the dishes, and some of the unfamiliar terms, to determine/feel/imagine just exactly what taste combo and mood the chef was going for in each of the dishes and wine pairings in question—all this to determine the fantastic meal for the night–to be paid for with very hard-earned money…i wonder if this too, could be a bother or nuisance to the server(s)?

    for the guy with the vodka: would offering him a taste of one of those great vodkas you described help? it might be a step towards sincerely working with him, and who knows, he might be appreciative of your effort and the new taste–it could become his new favorite!

    i enjoy so many of your posts, ideas, recipes, design and photos. i appreciate your continued effort and creativity.

    • Food Woolf
      March 28
      Reply

      Johanna,
      Every night I work I get excited by the enthusiastic diners that want to explore the many wonderful options at the restaurant. I find out there likes and dislikes and then enjoy showing them the dishes I think will most appeal to them. This kind of interplay, however, does require trust on both sides. And yes, for the Angry Vodka guy, I do offer tastes of our vodkas. Some people appreciate that extra step, while others seem either offended I’d even offer to taste them on our vodkas or are uninterested in taking the time to learn new things.

  12. Kelly
    April 5
    Reply

    Seriously? You must be a pessimist. Don’t you also run into a lot of people who don’t pose these problems? Why waste your time commenting on these… um… challenged individuals. Have a heart and move on.

    When I encounter these people I consider it an honor to make them feel more comfortable and less intimidated by world cuisine.

    • Food Woolf
      April 6
      Reply

      Kelly,
      I’m incredibly lucky to work at a restaurant where most of the guests are excited by the incredible food and beverage offered there. If you read a little closer, you’ll see that when I encounter these types of people I consider it an honor to show them the way to learn about new things. This piece speaks about the “I’ve Eaten All Over The World Type” that, despite all my best efforts, is often non-receptive to new information and downright combative.

  13. Keith
    April 5
    Reply

    Fanatastic point of view. Just had the most wonderful argument with my girlfriend over this. Cheers.

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