What do you recommend?

In reading Frank Bruni’s article on patronizing restaurantspeak, I was reminded of my own little verbal dances with wait staffs across the country.

Unlike Mr. Bruni, I have no issue with company policy disguised as formal etiquette. The job of the wait staff is difficult enough without someone playing a game of semantics over the use of the word “enjoy” or parsing the phrase “pardon my reach”.

No, what waiters and waitresses around the country have feared from me is when I have asked the following question:

“What do you recommend?”

It’s a simple question, but it is often misinterpreted. When I ask the question, I’m not asking them to choose my food for me. I honestly want to hear their opinion about the menu, and making this inquiry may give me an insight into what is good, and what is on the menu as a placeholder.

The problem with this is that it forces the waiter or waitress to briefly leave the formality of the restauant/customer relationship, and puts them in a precarious position. Do they put a higher value on their opinion to that of the needs of the restaurant? Or do they side with the restaurant owners and upsell the dishes that have the widest profit margins, or the dishes that will get rid of the excessive product in the back?

From my role as a consumer, I want them to be on my side. I want them to tell me that a certain dish is an often over-looked treasure on the menu, and worthy of my attention.

I know that there are some places that require their staff to push a specific entrée, drink, or dessert. A restaurant is a business after all, and money must be made. But I’ve had folks answer my question of “What do you recommend?” with a disinterested “Anything from the specials.”

The best waiters and waitresses will upsell items without us common folk even knowing it. This past Saturday, Tara and I were out and about, and we found ourselves enjoying a meal at Blackbird. When the dessert menu came out, we asked our server “What do you recommend?”

She responded with “Oh my God! You have to try the Zucchini Bread!! It’s the dessert I love the most and I can’t seem to convince people that it’s better than the chocolate cake!”

For all I know, this is her scripted response way every time someone asks for a dessert recommendation. But her response sounded immediate and authentic. For that moment, both Tara and I believed that she loved this dessert. It sold us and we purchased the Zuchinni Bread.

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