A Dining Critic’s Secrets for Nabbing Top-Notch Service

Things every diner should know about timing, tables, ambience and more.

Wine glasses, plate and white napkin on a restaurant tabletop
Photo: Shutterstock/Andrey Bayda

I’ve learned a lot from 21 years on the restaurant-review beat, including 17 for New Jersey Monthly. For me (and for NJM’s other food-loving critics), hope springs eternal: Garden State restaurants are capable of greatness, and we celebrate those occasions often.

Still, I never leave my meal experiences to chance. I make it my mission to shape my (anonymous) visits and give restaurants every chance to perform well. This takes some conscious behavior. My fundamental advice to you, dear diner: Take charge. Passive dining allows for mediocrity. Here’s how I pave the way to an enjoyable meal.

[RELATED: How to Order a Restaurant’s Best Meal]

Avoid what Anthony Bourdain called “amateur night.”

Saturday evening, from 6 to 9 pm, is when a restaurant becomes a madhouse. The place is at its most stressed, with an overstretched kitchen and overburdened servers—meaning you’ll get far from the best of either. Your dishes may not come out hot, or as ordered, or in a timely or coordinated fashion. Your server is likely to be struggling to maintain the pace, attention and courtesy you deserve. Not to mention, the joint will be loud.

But don’t fret: There’s no need to abandon your Saturday-night ritual altogether. The pro’s solution? Go before the crowds do. Most New Jersey restaurants, whether laid-back or luxurious, open around 4, 4:30 or 5 pm every day. At this hour, even on Saturdays, the vibe will be mellow; the kitchen and waitstaff relaxed and focused; the food at its freshest. By the time the dining room is full at 6:30, you’ll already have been able to serenely savor most of your meal—and, if you wish, still experience the social buzz over dessert!

Be choosy about the kind of seating you want.

It’s best to reserve by phone, making a firm and detailed request for a table or booth that aligns with your preferred vibe, whether that’s quiet and secluded or in the center of all the action. If you reserve online, confirm your seating choice in a subsequent phone call to the restaurant. (I find that seating requests made online seldom make it to the hostess desk.)

How to ensure you get a “good” table? First, you probably won’t want to sit in a secondary dining room (typically upstairs) that’s open on weekends; it’s usually—though not always—full of big, noisy parties. The main dining room will mix good tables with bad ones. Good tables offer a feeling, if even a hint, of privacy and comfort. They’re in the corner, or by the window, or booths. But even a seemingly prime spot can end up being problematically positioned: beneath a strangely eye-searing light; catching every conversation in the whole room; too close to the kitchen (cue the falling-silverware soundtrack); under a full-blast AC unit; along a busy bathroom runway; or beside a waiters’ station where loosely managed staffers are yukking it up. Depending on the night, it may also end up beside an unpredictable toddler (beware the stroller!) or a preschooler playing screechy iPad games. I categorically decline sitting beside large parties, who tend to shout across their oversized tables and louden as the wine continues to flow.

When you arrive, mention your previous request(s) when you’re greeted.

If you’re led to a table that’s not what you had in mind, ask to see other available tables—you won’t be refused. If, upon entering, you take a little tour of the restaurant (which you can do unescorted), check out the tables by the bar; they’re often pleasantly cozy, especially in small restaurants. If you spot a perfect table that’s empty, inquire about it. Or if a lovely table has a check on it, or its party is finishing dessert, volunteer to wait for it.

Once you’re seated at your ideal table, address any annoyances.

Don’t refrain from making reasonable requests to a manager or your server regarding off-kilter ambience issues. If the room is frigid or the music ridiculously loud, or your table is lit up like a police interrogation room, ask sweetly if the house can make adjustments.

Don’t settle for being rushed.

When your waiter brings you menus and recites the daily specials, take the opportunity to say you’re looking forward to a leisurely, unrushed meal, if indeed you are. The server will know you’re a diner who won’t be hustled by management looking to “turn the table.” And, on the other hand, if you need to leave by a certain time, pipe up about that, too.

And there you have it! You should be fully comfortable the next time you dine out.

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