I get it. Your favorite restaurant is Big Chuck's Grilled Meat Wagon, parked between The Noodle Truck and The Taco Truck down at the daily lunchtime curbside bazaar of food trucks. Fine. I, too, love Big Chuck's selection of grilled meats. He's got some quality meats down there on the wagon, no one is denying that.
I also get the general aversion to what has been labeled "runway food": stupid and massively expensive parades of twee bite-sized ego "cuisine," an irresistible lure to self-described "foodies," a group of people notable for how urgently they should all be nudged into a roaring volcano. Who has time for all the goddamn ceremony? Who, for that matter, has the money for such an extravagant meal? As my comically industrious grandfather once said, it all goes to the same place anyway. He was talking about the toilet, you guys.
Still, undeniably, there's something to be said for the experience of dressing like a grownup (for a change), practicing personal hygiene (for a welcome change), going out among adults (for a goddamn change), and, most importantly, being treated like an adult, in this case by an entire team of tuxedoed professionals. And, look, dammit, despite any preconceived notions that happen to align satisfactorily with our common and well-informed impression of dipshit foodies, the food at many of these fancy joints is spectacular. Those stupid colorful dots and infuriatingly tiny slabs of glistening ... food? Is that food? Man, that shit is de-fucking-licious.
And, besides, you will have occasion to eat at the sort of place that has tuxedoed waitstaff, white tablecloths, impenetrably dense menu descriptions, a wine list longer than the book of Genesis, and, yes, runway food. Perhaps an anniversary, maybe a retirement party, maybe your goddamn mother-in-law only ever eats at five-star Michelin-rated restaurants. It will be helpful, on those occasions, not to look like an interloping jackass. Know what I mean?
Look good. You're gonna want to look sharp tonight. Why? Because there will be plenty of stuff to intimidate you—tuxedoed sommeliers, Moby Dick-sized wine lists, a thousand fuckin' forks—without you walking in looking like Pig-Pen and being crushed flat by mortal embarrassment. Also, looking good is good. Who doesn't like to look good? Look good, dammit. Check out your restaurant's website, read a couple reviews, check out Yelp, and get a sense of what the level of attire is for this joint. Knowing in advance will help you prepare, and preparation will settle your nerves.
Whatever the suggested attire is, approximate it in such a way that you can stand in front of the mirror, look at yourself, and not gag at all (for a change). Confidence will be important, and it will be good for you to ditch the urban lumberjack look for one night. And then all the other nights. Jackass.
Arrive early and check in early. You made a reservation, yes? Good. Get there 15-20 minutes early, pause in the entryway, take a big deep breath, stand up straight, and have a long look around the restaurant. You belong here! This ritual pause will do more than help banish your timidity. Nice restaurants look nice—the ambience is part of the experience—and you should take a moment to soak it in. Later, when you're doing a headstand in a bowl of consommé, it will not be so easy to appreciate your surroundings.
Proceed to check in, and for the love of God check your coat. There's a tendency, when one feels vulnerable, to think of checking your coat as imposing upon the host/hostess. This is nuts. No one wants to pick your jacket up off the floor every 10 minutes. Leave it with the host, take the ticket, and relax.
Get to the bar and get a drink. A drink. Don't go crazy over there. You'll want a little alcohol in you to smooth the edges, so instead of creepy, snarling, wild-eyed-caged-animal you, the restaurant (and your fellow diners) get clap-the-waiter-on-the-back-and-insist-that-he-join-you-for-dim-sum-tomorrow you. Everyone loves that guy. Also, your time at the bar will give you a chance to get a feel for the place, eyeball a few dishes as they're whisked out of the kitchen, and build a nice cushion of smug superiority as you scoff at the bar's limited selection of bitters. Who the hell do they think they're kidding, anyway?
Take your time. Not just with your Brandy Alexander (foamy!), but with the whole evening. You should never feel hurried in this fine dining establishment, and this includes finishing up your pre-dinner beverage, ordering at the table, proceeding from course to course, or paying the bill. Enjoy your drink at the bar, and when you're ready, pay the tab at the bar before moving to the table. Waitstaff may feel inclined to rush on your behalf, but they'll settle into your pace before too long. You should not take this as an invitation to change into your pajamas and snooze under the table, even though it is appealingly warm and dark under there. Don't linger unnecessarily, but don't be hurried.
Wrangle the menu. Now we come to the important part. In the likely event that your restaurant's menu looks nothing like the menu you're used to down at the Denny's, you'll be glad you came armed with knowledge. Your restaurant might have an À la carte menu, or it may not. It may instead have something called a prix fixe menu, or a menu broken down as First Course/Second Course/Meat & Poultry/Fish & Shellfish. Or, it may not have a menu at all—just a meal price. Let's break these down a bit before we move on to me shaming you into doing it my way:
- À la carte: The idea behind an À la carte (French for "according to the menu") menu is that you, the guest, will pick the plates that seem the most appealing according to your own criteria, and will order and eat as much or as little as you please. An important thing to remember when ordering from an À la carte dinner menu is that you are only limited by your own imagination and budget: Don't let anyone take that menu away from the table until you are damn well ready to stop eating. It is not uncommon or rude or gluttonous to order multiple courses, including multiple entrees, at such a fine fancy palace of gustatory excess. Kings ate like this! They ate until they were full, they evacuated, and they ate some more! If kings could do that, by God, you can damn well order and eat until you are full. Anyway, taking this approach will drive home the fist-pump excitement of being an adult who is completely in charge of his own good time. Hang onto your menu, order round after round of delicious food until your buttons fly off and ping around the room dangerously, and enjoy yourself.
- Prix fixe: This is a fixed-price (prix fixe is French for that) meal of a certain predetermined number of courses, and you, the diner, are in charge of picking each course. So, for example, it could be a five course prix fixe, and for each course there will be a small menu of four to six plates. You will order all your courses all at once, and the waitstaff will bring them in order, as you finish them, until you are done. There may also be certain menu items that carry a small up-charge if they feature certain high-dollar items (think foie gras, for example). This can be a lot of fun, especially at a table with a few friends, where each subsequent course will bring several exciting new plates to ogle while plowing into your veal sweetbreads.
- Chef's tasting menu: The tasting menu might be going out of style, but I still think of it as a rewarding experience of grownupitude. This meal has one price and a set sequence of courses pre-selected by the chef to best represent his restaurant and the available ingredients. There's no choosing. Just as an old-timey king might say bring me all the very best mutton and cheese in the land, you're telling the waiter to bring you what's best. Ordering the tasting menu is telling the restaurant to knock your socks off. Bring it on. Very good sushi bars and counters will offer an omakase menu, which operates under the same premise: The chef will choose what you eat, and in what order you eat it, based upon what she thinks is best. Some tasting menus include five courses; some include a dozen. Minibar, in Washington DC, counts its courses by the dozen, so make sure you know what you're getting yourself into, here.
Wringing full satisfaction out of an À la carte menu may require a bit more creativity and nerve than simply ordering the chef's tasting menu, but that can sometimes be part of the adventure. My point here is you can have a killer time and eat like a fuckin' boss with any of these menu types. What we don't want is you using the À la carte menu because you want to protect your finicky palate (you prude, you bore, you disgraceful flaccid mockery of a human being), or because you want to skip a course or two to save money, or for any reason other than that you are a badass dinner Viking. Order À la carte because YOU WILL NOT BE RESTRICTED BY THE NARROW BOUNDS OF ANY QUOTE UNQUOTE MENU, not because you don't like what's available with the prix fixe. That's weak. You're weak. You make me sick.
Order for yourself. Ever secretly wished your dinner mates would be grossed out by your choice of appetizer so you could have it all for yourself? Ever felt bitter resentment when your wife tells the waiter she'll just share what you're having? Man, that is the worst. The good news? Fuck all that. You may share here, but you are expected to order for yourself. So, the incredible foie gras appetizer with porcini butter and fresh strawberries? Order it for yourself. It's all yours. On multi-course menus the food will generally be sized for individual portions, not for the table. If there's something on the menu you want, unless it specifically says something about it being for the table, order it for yourself, and flip the double-bird to anyone at your table who raises an eyebrow.
Pay particular attention to the small plates. This tip applies more to the À la carte adventurers: It's an oft-unspoken truth of multi-course dining that the small plates often are richer, more texturally interesting, and more creative than the later courses and entrees. This makes some sense: A person is more likely to enjoy something particularly bold and assertive in the first bite than they are on the ninth. Small plates and amuse-bouches often are meant to be eaten in one or two bites, exactly as presented, whereas larger plates will feature more components and offer more variety from bite to bite. Chefs tend to better express their creativity and culinary chops in those one- or two-bite small plates, and if you're going À la carte, you should work your way through that portion of the menu before deciding if you want to go for something heftier.
Ask questions. Menus needlessly written in French are bullshit. I'm sure it makes the one out of fifty guests who can read and speak French feel super-cool to understand what the hell all this bluh bluh bluh la bluh bluh et bluh bluh-bluh bluh stuff is all about, but the rest of us are utterly in the dark. This is why God made good waiters: to walk you through the menu. Don't do the thing where you turn the menu and point and say I'll have the... and then trail off while the waiter follows your finger. That's ridiculous, and demeaning to both of you. Tell the waiter you're having trouble identifying the dishes on the menu and she'll be happy to explain. The same goes for confusing culinary terms: Go ahead and ask what a "sweetbread" is. (Actually, know what? Don't ask. Just order it. You will not regret it. But everything else you can and should ask about.)
Solicit recommendations and be willing to follow them. Nothing you order is going to be bad, in the sense that it is all edible and carefully made and life-sustaining. Tonight should be easy and fun, and it will be even easier if you follow this advice: Let the expert decide. Ultimately, this is the idea behind a tasting menu, but if you're going for a prix fixe or À la carte meal, solicit recommendations and then follow them.
This is important! Maybe you love lamb and rarely get to eat it and they've got a lamb chop option for the third course and you just can't wait to order it—don't do it. Tell your server that you're thinking about the lamb chop, but you'd like to hear about her favorite third course. Maybe she likes the lamb chop! Maybe, instead, she's crazy about the fish you've never heard of, prepared as you can only imagine. Maybe just the slightest expression crosses her face—a fleeting darkness at the word lamb that implies it's maybe not the best thing on the menu. Maybe she gasps, recoils, and throws a carafe of cold water in your face. Whatever.
The point is, at a fancy restaurant the waitstaff know their food and have informed thoughts about it, and if they think there's something better than the lamb for the third course, they probably are right. And this is how you expand your palate, by trusting that what other people think is delicious will probably be delicious.
Get the wine pairing. Wine menus are huge. Holy moly are they huge. Before you waste half an hour pretending you can discern between the Chateau Frenchy-French 2003 C-cab-er-n-net? S-suv-igg-noun? and the Cutie Pie Cellars 2005 Adorably Rustic Sounding Blend, consider that your fancy restaurant employs a sommelier, that this person has already picked out perfect wine pairings for every single dish on the menu, and that it will take you mere seconds to say, "I'll have the wine pairing."
Most tasting menus will offer an optional full wine pairing for a predetermined price. Order this. If you're having a prix fixe menu, tell your server you'll have whatever is recommended with each course. If you're going À la carte, seriously could you be any more boring, just drink your tap water and go home.
There are those of you who would prefer not to finish the night just staggering, blind, ol'-building-and-loan-buddy-ol'-pal drunk, and that's fine. Make sure you order a glass of wine to accompany anything with red meat or anything especially rich or substantial. Your waiter and the sommelier will steer you in the right direction here. You might be able to skip a glass with the seared scallops on braised endive, or tuna tartare, or if there are two fish or red meat courses back-to-back at any point. This can save you a little change and allow you to drive home after your meal.
For chrissakes, do not request substitutions. Don't be a jerk. If you have a real allergy (as in, an actual histamine response, you big weenie, not an upset tummy, or blech I don't like the texture of that at all) or a genuine, non-imaginary, diagnosed-by-a-real-doctor-and-not-your-aunt-who-is-a-self-accredited-"holistic"-"nutritionist"-on-LiveJournal gluten or lactose intolerance, inform your server. Otherwise, order the dishes as they're intended, and eat them.
This isn't because the restaurant won't try to work around your (pathetic, shameful) palate or accommodate your (little baby) appetite—they probably will. No, it's because the dishes themselves are conceived and made with extraordinary care, and they will be depressingly dumbed-down if you take out the mushrooms because you're afraid of things that are good. If there are things you simply will not eat, and growing up is not an option, notifying your waiter at the outset and letting her make recommendations will be so much easier for everyone than asking the kitchen to redesign their unique dishes without their usual and important ingredients.
Don't worry about all the forks. Here's some good news: very few restaurants still do the full place-setting, with half a dozen forks on one side and a knife and spoons and holy hell is that another fork on the other—but if they do, just ignore it. This is for show, and no one, I mean no one, not one single person other than your obnoxious snob of a mother-in-law will notice or care whether you use them in the right order.
For all the tuxedos and gowns and haughtily upturned noses they may contain, even the fanciest restaurants are no less about you having a great time than the crab shack out on the highway. That good time might look different in this glamorous environment, but the fancy restaurant people aren't so committed to the unimportant details of those differences that anyone's going to care if you use the wrong fork on your carpaccio. Grab the fork you like best and use it.
Compliment the kitchen as often as they deserve it. If that lamb chop blew your hair back, don't be shy about telling your waiter. Yeah, he knows it's great; this will not be news to him. But still: You haven't yet met a person who doesn't like to feel like part of the winning team, and these little interactions will go a long way toward opening up a dialogue with your waiter.
Your average waitperson at a high-end fancy restaurant is knowledgeable about food to a degree that makes your regular viewing of Good Eats, by comparison, seem like learning about forestry by reading The Giving Tree. They like food and they're proud of their stuff. When you like what you've been served, say so. A nice ancillary benefit is this behavior will make you feel like a judge on Iron Chef, if only for one night.
As for when to complain or send the food back: don't, unless there's something genuinely wrong with it—like it has hair in it or the poultry is raw—that might alert the kitchen staff to an actual problem they can remedy, like the guy at the grilling station being dead drunk, for example.
If you're just not particularly wild about a given dish, keep your yap shut and try to enjoy the experience of tasting something that someone else finds delicious. Describe it—to yourself, and to anyone who asks—as "challenging." Because: that's what it was! It wasn't bad; it was new, and you couldn't quite figure it out.
Put down the camera phone, dummy. Some restaurants even have rules about this, and this can seem ridiculous, except when you look up from your licked-clean plate of house-made pasta and see dozens of smartphones lit up around the restaurant. Snapping photos of your food makes you look like a dipshit tourist. We should all feel grateful there are places with rules that, whatever their intention, protect us from looking like dipshit tourists.
Feel free to skip dessert. This is an odd tip, isn't it? Still, there are times when that final bite of short rib is the last thing you could possibly shove down without your body rejecting it. If you've got room left or a second stomach for dessert [turns fully and stares meaningfully at wife], by all means order away. Your fancy restaurant likely has a dedicated pastry chef, and the desserts often are spectacular. On the other hand, for the most part a great restaurant with a great multi-course menu is built around the vision of a talented head chef, and the savory offerings generally will be where the menu shines. Skip dessert if you're too full, and don't feel bad about it.
Or, alternately, ask for the regular menu, and order another fuckin' round of sweetbreads. I don't care what goddamn organ they are! I need the sweetbreads!
Run. Run! RUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN!
Tip like a non-asshole. Yes, tipping, as a system designed to exclude waitstaff from the livable wage and benefits to which they rightly are entitled, sucks and should be replaced. On the other hand, you are not going to abolish it tonight by stiffing the kind and knowledgeable professional who helped make your dining experience so wonderful. Since many of you assholes are apparently rotten tippers, here's a quick guide: tip like a fuckin' boss. Why? Because the staff earned it, and it's the money they live on, and it's why they bust their ass at a high-end joint. If you're too cheap to drop 20 percent on the tip, at the very bare least, you shouldn't be eating out.
Also, if you remain unconvinced, here's what Ernest Hemingway had to say about it:
If you want people to like you, you only have to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back. I would dine there again some time and he would be glad to see me, and could want me at his table. It would be a sincere liking because it would have a sound basis.
See? Tipping is a sound basis for someone to sincerely like you. And since there's no other reason for anyone to sincerely like you, you should start there.
Ultimately, life is just an accumulation of experiences. This particular experience—playing dress-up in an expensive fancy restaurant and being waited upon lavishly by experts and professionals—is richly gratifying, and something everyone should do at least once. There are those among us, sadly, who will reject this opportunity. It's just food, they will say. Some among them will say I'm not eating THAT. Still others, in their small-mindedness, will say But I live in the Yukon wilderness. These sad people are crippled by their busted priorities. They're assholes for the same reason that the guy who won't eat sushi and the girl who shies away from the turkey drumstick and the dipshit who says he's allergic to gourds because he thinks their texture is gross are also assholes: Life is an accumulation of experiences. This fancy meal in this fancy restaurant is your birthright as a human. Claim it! You can go back to punching foodies tomorrow.
Miserable Shitehawk lives in Virginia, writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He's also written for Vice Sports and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.
Art by Sam Woolley.