Dining Tips and Tidbits
Night of the Week
Savvy diners have always known to do their dining on Wednesday or Thursday nights. Waitstaffs are re-energized, the back-of-the house staff has recovered from their day off, and walk-ins are fully stocked with fresh meats, fish, and produce. The worst nights? As Anthony Bourdain informed us all in Kitchen Confidential, Sunday is traditionally the chef’s night off and weekend nights are corrupted by the presence of too many diners. This is the conventional wisdom anyway, but it ignores the realities of seven-days-a-week deliveries, modern refrigeration, and restaurant idiosyncrasies. We’d like to make a case for Monday nights—this is absolutely the night, for instance, to try out Bicycle, when that fast-paced restaurant slows down to a leisurely glide. The lower-level bar at the Brewer’s Art, deafening and virtually impassible even on Thursday nights, is far more serene on Mondays (with great discounts on house brews), making it ideal for previewing items on the upstairs dining-room menu. Jerry Pellegrino’s Corks is another stellar restaurant that keeps Monday hours, and its staff will have more time to indulge your most ignorant wine questions. The best reason to go dining on a Monday, in fact, is to get to know the staff, a strategy that will pay off when you do go back on a Saturday night and find yourself being treated like one of the family.
Having It Your Way
A good restaurant will accommodate the whims and phobias of diners, but much depends on how you ask. Remember, the waiter is your advocate in the kitchen, and he’ll ask more sweetly on your behalf if he wants the answer to be “yes.” Capriciousness for its own sake, a movie-star mentality on being treated specially, is frowned upon, and so are stripping a chef’s creation to a plain broiled chicken breast and naked attempts at whittling down the bill. Study the menu, see what sauces are in play, and do some dabbling. If the puttanesca sauce you’re craving is offered only a pasta dish, go ahead and request it for your halibut. Three Mount Vernon restaurants leap to mind as being particularly accommodating. City Café loves to please its patrons, and it’s especially respectful of its customers’ health concerns; Sascha’s 527 revels in the just the kind of mix-and-match playfulness that frisky eaters enjoy; and the constantly improving French bistro Limoges likes to delight diners with off-the-menu items, too. Obviously, messing with the menu isn’t appreciated when the restaurant is crowded, especially at brunch, when the kitchen has to proceed with assembly-line precision.
The Wine List
Get your wine education outside of restaurants. The more you know going in, the better off you’ll be. When you start enjoying wine bought from trusted stores (get to know Hampden’s Wine Source) or sipped at wine bars (get to love Belvedere Square’s Grand Cru), you’ll benefit two ways. You’ll have advanced your tastes beyond Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet, typically the subjects of the greatest mark-ups in restaurants (because people will order them indiscriminately) and you’ll have a better grasp of retail prices—a wine list’s doubling of that price is acceptable; quadrupling is not. Eschew the “house wine,” and look for well-written wine lists that span a good price range and comfortably mix the familiar with the boutique. The restaurants owned by Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf—Charleston, Pazo, Petit Louis—boast model lists, each tailored to the individual locale. Master tip: Ask your waiter about a specific wine in your price range; it’s a subtle way of letting him or her know your budget.
There’s a downside to orchestrating your dining life around the weekly specials offered by restaurants. Diners are often viewed as the enemy on these busy budget nights, so try your best to tip on what would have been your dinner’s full price (especially when entrées are discounted). Here are some of our favorite weekly specials, all of which are subject to change:
Sundays: Kisling’s Tavern—10 wings for $5.
Mondays: City Café—half-price burger night; Mick O’Shea’s—burger, fries, and a 16-ounce draft for $5.99; One-Eyed Mike’s—$15 steak dinner with garlic-smashed potatoes, string beans, and a side Caesar salad; Wine Market—20 percent off entrées and 30 wines for under $15.
Tuesday: Canton’s Pearls—two meals for $22 includes an entree and appetizer´; Gertrude’s—$10 entrées (reservations a must); Kooper’s Tavern—half-price burgers all day and night.
Wednesday: Helen’s Garden—selected $12 entrées (notoriously packed); Sascha’s 527—$15 comfort-food dinner including wine and chocolate mousse.
Thursday: Buddy’s Elliott Street Bar and Grill—$11.95 rib-eye steak with fries; Looney’s Pub—$10.95 lobster dinner.
Restaurant Litmus Tests
Avoid (non-Italian) restaurants where the menu places too much emphasis on scampi and Alfredo sauces. They are geared for complacent and sloppy dining.
Careful attention to lighting and music bodes well. A well-tempered dining room suggests that someone on the premises is paying attention to the details, an asset that often but unfortunately not always carries through to the kitchen and the service.
When asked whether you have reservations for what appears to be an empty dining room, there might be a good reason—you may have arrived just before a crush is expected, or the host might simply be respecting the efforts you made in making a reservation. But extended awkwardness around getting seated is a bad sign.
Never agree to hold a reservation with a credit card. That’s crazy. Patronize restaurants that can manage busy dining rooms without implying threats.
Being told to wait for “your entire party” to arrive before you are seated is not completely unreasonable—restaurants are often burned by straggling or even nonshowing phantom guests. But asking three people to wait while a fourth is parking the car betrays a callous disregard for guests’ comfort.
Once you’ve waited a (real, not imagined) half-hour beyond your reservation time, expect, but don’t ask for, something free from the maitre d’—either an appetizer or cocktail. (Tip for them, though.) If nothing’s offered, start calling around to other restaurants.
Taking a Seat
If you’re dining alone or as a couple and can tolerate the cigarette smoke, and especially if you smoke yourself, sit at the bar whenever you can. The owner might be nearby to offer suggestions (and the occasional freebie), and you’ll never feel rushed. At Henninger’s friendly bar diners can order the $10 TV dinner that’s unavailable in the dining room. Red Fish’s bar has half-price appetizers. At the kitchen-side counter at Ethel and Ramone’s orphaned wines find their way into your glass. The jumping scene at Holy Frijoles’ bar makes the food taste better. And the freaking gorgeous bar at newly opened Oceanaire oozes sex appeal.
The upstairs dining rooms at most Baltimore restaurants that have been carved out of former rowhouses are shabby afterthoughts, but there are three notable exceptions: The upper rooms at the Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point are cushily sweet and a vast improvement over the scene below. Likewise, its Thames Street neighbor Slainte offers upper-level dining in beautifully romantic digs. And Mama’s on the Half Shell’s upstairs fireplace dining room is a welcome escape from the continuous din downstairs.
Good old Sabatino’s has different rooms for different moods. Ask for 905-main if you want to see and be seen, cozy 903-main if you want some more privacy, and 901-main if you’d like to avoid cross traffic. The little-known basement dining room is a sweet place to meet your fellow diners. The numbers refer to the former addresses of what were adjoining rowhouses.
Big parties (up to 12) fit gorgeously around the big cherry wood table at Sascha’s 527. It also accommodates smaller groups and couples that don’t mind sharing. Amaze the staff by asking for it by name: Table 13.
And if you’re the one who holds the secret to securing an outdoor table at the Ambassador Dining Room, you’ve been keeping it extremely well.
Trends, Good and Bad
Identifying the origins of beef and poultry on the menu—as such relative newcomers as Taste, True, and Timothy Dean do—is more then just shrewd marketing. Good cooking matters, of course, but quality beef and chicken—grass-fed, organic, free-range—tastes better.
Listing menu prices in fractions is gratuitous cuteness. Not listing prices for specialty cocktails is insidiously conniving.
More and more, servers are being schooled to clear away dishes as each individual diner finishes. Surveys indicate that some diners prefer it this way, but it’s horribly unfair to slower eaters who will feel conspicuous as they finish their dinners alone. Speak up. Say, “Please wait until we’re all finished.” (You may have to say this twice.) Insist, likewise, that you be given time to fully enjoy your appetizers before the entrées arrive. This critical issue of timing isn’t an issue in really good restaurants.
The young century’s ugliest trend is arbitrarily referring to appetizers as small plates or tapas.
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