from Grub Street by Ben Leventhal
Any self-respecting eater is a Regular somewhere. It might be at his or her one favorite restaurant, or it could be at a small handful of beloved go-tos. But at these places, the Regular knows the staff, the best and worst seats, the menu's standouts and chef's blind spots. The Regular never waits for a table, desserts or drinks are perhaps “compliments of the chef,” and maybe the Regular even gets a discount (one top-level Soho restaurant in New York customarily knocks 50 percent off the bill for its top-level VIPs). Dining as a Regular is, obviously, a great pleasure. So how do you do it?
As conventional wisdom goes, there are three golden rules that are fundamental to being a Regular.
1. Go to the restaurant a lot.
2. Don't be a pain in the ass: Show up on time, say please and thank-you, respect the house and its rules (such as dress code).
3. Always tip 20 percent on the total bill, and tip in cash.
Okay, so the rules are a bit obvious — nevertheless, they are indeed essential behaviors of a good Regular.
But, if you're really serious about your bid for the house's undying love and affection, there's more you can do to make it happen. Herewith, five other very important things you can do to become a very important person.
As in, both yours and theirs. Restaurants have customer-tracking software these days, and if you're trying to become a Regular but not regularly using your name, you might as well be six shoes in at the $100 minimum table having not even pulled your Players' card. Moreover, you need to know the staff — a little personal attention from you goes a long way toward getting "VIP" next to your name in the computer. Take advantage of the system and they'll know you like your Caesar without the anchovies without you having to say it twice.
2. Make a good exit
Restaurants may be the only place on earth where the last impression is the most important. Admit it: Your opinion can be swayed, or at least rescued, by excellent desserts. Similarly, it's true for the house, and if you make a strong exit, they'll remember you next time on the way in. So, in addition to the aforementioned good tip, this means a few things: When you sense the restaurant wants the table back, give it to them (once you're a Regular, you'll have the corner booth for as long as you need it). Thank your server by name if he or she is in earshot when you get up to leave. And also thank — and tip ($20 minimum) — the maître'd or manager. Let us emphasize here, you're doing this on the way out. And do tell him or her what you liked and what you didn't — feedback at this point is always appreciated. Finally, the best time to book a table for next time is on the way out, in person. If you're coming back, make it known before you walk out the door.
3. Lubricate the staff
If you've been treated well or had an exceptional meal — or both — send a round of drinks to the kitchen. Procedurally, this is as easy as saying to your server, "Hey, I thought the food tonight was exceptional. I'd like to buy the kitchen a round." Also, if you've ordered a bottle of wine, make sure you offer your server a taste of it if she asks if you like it. Always offer a taste of any bottle over $80 to the sommelier. If you're finishing your meal after 10 p.m., offer to buy your server a round. To kick this move up a notch and consider yourself an advanced would-be Regular: At a new restaurant, bringing in a congratulatory bottle of good, hard liquor will always be appreciated. Remember that chefs tend to like the brown stuff — rye, whiskey, bourbon, Scotch, or the like.
4. Have a good memory
Or, if you don't, write things down. (A tip, for the serious: Create contacts in your BlackBerry for your favorite restaurants and use the notes field.) Remember the number of a table you like, so you can put in a gentle request for it next time. Remember the names of the staffers you met — the front men, especially. Remember a dish you liked, and, when you order it again, you might mention how much you enjoyed it last time.
5. Be a local
The smaller the restaurant, the more this holds true. Restaurants — any one worth becoming a Regular at, anyhow — reward their local customers above all others. If you live in the area, make sure the house knows (something you can casually mention to the maître'd on the way out); if you eat out in the area consistently, that's good to mention, too: "It's been a long time since the West Village had a steak tartare this good," for example. The house knows that after the place cools down and the restaurant hunters move on, you're the key to their longevity.