I admit that when it comes to eating out, I can be hard to please. Not when we go to a diner, where I don't expect too much, but when we spend more than $10 for an entree, my expectations go up with the price. And when a restaurant has been anointed--or is clearly trying to be--one of the best in the area, well... I want things right.
And I have pretty specific ideas of how "right" is done. There are the basics we could all agree on, though not all restaurants (even a few of the otherwise top-notch ones) deliver on these. Such as hot food should be hot, and cold food should not be frozen.
Beyond that, I have a list of issues I consider basic--but many restaurants clearly don't see it my way. Thus, I offer here my Diner's Bill of Rights, with commentary (and since I'm a baker, you get a baker's dozen of rights).
I. The right not to know your waiter's name, or to have to become friendly with him or her, shall not be abridged, by restaurants cheap or pricey.
I don't care that you're Jill and you'll be my server tonight (which is obvious). This chatty, can't-we-pretend-we're-friends attitude detracts from the professionalism of waiting.
II. The right to make a reservation shall exist at all levels of restaurant, popular or unpopular, or customers shall not bother to eat there. Additionally, the restaurant shall reserve the right to make you guarantee that reservation, within reason.
If you don't take reservations, don't expect me to try your food. I just don't have the time, and I lost the desire to sit at a bar for 45 minutes about a decade ago.
III. The right to be seated at the time of your reservation shall not be infringed upon except in dire circumstances, to be accompanied by profuse apologies and more.
Sure, things go wrong: That couple that should've left an hour ago keeps asking for their coffee to be refilled, and that family's kid takes one bite every 10 minutes. But we've had to cool our heels too many times for the privilege (?) of eating at some popular spots, and with little or no compensation. I am not, as you may have gathered, patient enough for this.
IV. The right to eat alone without shame shall not be violated, especially by hosts.
Is it really that hard to say, "One for dinner?" instead of "Just one?"
V. The right to know the price of specials without having to ask shall not be infringed, to keep customers from feeling stingy.
And to keep customers from getting angry. We once ordered a lamb chop special without being told the price at a restaurant whose entrees didn't top $12. Then the bill came for $22 chops.
VI. The right to get a clean fork after an appetizer shall be preserved except in times of extreme drought.
No, I do not want to lick my fork clean and place it on the table in anticipation of the rest of my meal, but thanks for asking.
VII. The right to grind one's own pepper, rather than going through the show of a waiter doing it for you, shall not be abridged.
I know this helps restaurants avoid having diners take the pepper mills home with them, and I know I'm supposed to feel pampered by it. But all I end up feeling is that I have no idea how much pepper is actually on there, because I didn't do it myself.
VIII. The right not to be asked "you still working on that?" shall never, ever, be violated.
We are not cows still working on our cud. Rather, would I like you to take that plate? Well, no, actually, because it's not polite to remove plates until everyone is finished. But at least you asked nicely.
IX. The right to hear your dining companion's conversation without a hearing aid shall be respected.
X. The right to expect a restaurant to make it right when things go wrong shall not be violated by any restaurants, but especially by those considered among the best.
A tale of two restaurants: We went for brunch a few months ago at restaurant one, a favorite of ours. The food took ages to arrive, and when it did, my husband's order wasn't quite right, and it didn't taste too great. Then, the waitress spilled juice all over me. Did she apologize? Yes, a bit, for the juice, but not for getting the order wrong. Did she or the restaurant make any other attempts to make up for the mistake, such as taking off the price of the juice, or offering to pay for my dry cleaning? No. My husband wrote an e-mail to the owner to complain, with no response.
At restaurant two a few nights ago, a waitress got butter on a friend's jacket. First she made an attempt to clean it up. Then she returned with a stamped envelope addressed to the restaurant, with a letter inside explaining what happened. All the friend needed to do was attach his dry-cleaning receipt and drop it in the mail.
I have great sympathy for waiters when they make mistakes. I poured sauce down a diner's back during my one and only waitressing attempt, required while in cooking school (this came as no surprise to me, as I have terrible balance and had warned my teachers they'd regret it). But good manners, not to mention good business sense, led me to make up for it as much as possible.
XI. The right not to feel like a fool when one can't pronounce the food shall extend to all customers at snooty and non-snooty restaurants alike.
This one reflects my inferiority complex when it comes to languages. As a former copy editor, I'm a whiz at English, but I have no memory for other languages. I've taken Latin, Spanish and Japanese, and about all I can say now in any of them is "I don't understand." Post-college attempts to pick up French fall by the wayside of the other demands in my life. So I feel particularly self-conscious as a food writer unable to pronounce more than the most basic words on a French menu--and it just gets worse with other cuisines. The worst, for me, is when friends ask me to order the wine, and although I know what I want, I can't begin to pronounce the name. So yes, I should just find the time and learn the language. Meanwhile, though, I expect waiters not to smirk when I screw it up.
XII. The cruel and unusual punishment of tipping shall not be inflicted on diners and waiters alike.
I know some waiters really like the tip system. But I find it wearying and dreary, and insulting to waiters' professionalism. I don't expect this country to get rid of tips, but I would gladly become a faithful and frequent customer at any restaurant that set such a policy and simply paid their employees a fair wage.
XIII. A special parents' right shall be noted at all restaurants that include a children's menu: To have an interesting, at least vaguely nutritious children's menu that includes more than grilled cheese and chicken nuggets, and doesn't consider french fries one of the basic food groups.
And of course, everyone has a right to a fabulous dessert. As the days get cool and I serve heartier entrees, I like a lighter dessert for balance. This torte comes from my mother, who served it at the dinner after my baptism. Since I was a month old, I didn't get any that night--but I've loved it as long as I can recall.
Cook's notes: Meringues work best when the weather--or at least your kitchen--is dry, so they're not sticky. Be sure to add the sugar to the egg whites slowly, so it has time to dissolve before more is added. Note that this needs to be made ahead, so that the meringue softens a bit and the flavors meld. I stick a few toothpicks in the torte and lay plastic wrap over them, so that the torte is protected in the refrigerator but doesn't stick to the plastic.
Bridge Meringue Torte
6 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup chopped pecans (optional)
2 cups whipping cream
Pinch of salt
6 3/4-ounce Heath Bars, crushed
Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Draw a 9-inch circle on each of two parchment paper-lined baking sheets.
Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Beat in vanilla and cream of tartar. Very slowly add sugar; beat to very stiff peaks. Fold in pecans. Divide meringue between baking sheets; spread evenly in the circles. Bake for 1 hour. Turn off oven but leave door closed; let meringues dry at least 2 hours in oven.
Whip cream and salt just until stiff peaks form. Set aside a little of the Heath Bars for garnishing the torte; fold the rest into the cream. Spread a third of the cream onto one meringue layer. Top with remaining meringue. Frost with remaining cream and sprinkle with Heath Bars. Chill 8 hours or overnight.