It recently occurred to me that I’m eating out more than I’m eating in. I’m not certain when I crossed the midway point—probably when my wife started working full-time, leaving me to fix my own lunch. If the trend continues, which I’m betting it will, I’ll be eating out every meal in a few years. Once you start eating your meals in a restaurant, there is seldom a reversal. Dining out is just too easy. People used to make their own clothes, but no one does that anymore except for the Amish. Eating is going the way of clothing. You’re not likely to give up the luxury of dining out unless you run out of money.
As near as I can figure, I’ve eaten out at least 10,000 times. That’s a conservative estimate; it might be 15,000. By the time you’ve done something that many times, you’re an expert on the topic.
When I was a kid, there were three dining spots in our town—Burger Chef, Waffle House, and Coffee Cup on the square. For a brief period, there was a fourth restaurant, The Westwood Inn, next to Plez Lilly’s Citgo gas station. I only mention it because it’s my earliest memory of eating out. I won second place in the Danville Optimists’ Bicycle Safety Rodeo and was awarded $15 and a Salisbury steak dinner at The Westwood Inn. I can’t remember what I spent the money on, but do remember what I ate, which means it was good. I forget bad meals just as soon as I’ve eaten them. Our town has nearly tripled in size since then, but there are six times as many restaurants as there used to be, 19, which means I’m not the only one eating out more. I won’t mention the best of the lot, because I’m friends with all of the owners. I will say it isn’t the McDonald’s, Hardee’s, Burger King, or Pizza Hut—but then, you probably already knew that.
When you eat out as much as I do, you learn what you like and don’t like, and feel an obligation to share your hard-won insight with others. I’ll start with some praise, then make a few constructive suggestions, and end with a compliment so restaurant people won’t be discouraged. First, let me say how much I appreciate the effort you restaurant people make. Some mornings, it’s all I can do to pour myself a bowl of Rice Chex. I don’t know how you muster the enthusiasm to serve hundreds of meals a day. You can’t hear it, but I’m applauding now.
Isn’t it nice to have your efforts recognized? But praise is a poor teacher, so let’s talk about some things you can do to make my dining experience even better. First, pay attention to how you address the customer. I don’t like it when I take my wife, who is clearly a woman, to a place where we’re addressed as “you guys.” My wife is not a guy. I checked fairly early in our relationship just to be sure. She’s a woman—trust me. If I asked you to not call my wife a guy, you would smile and apologize, as you’ve been trained to do. But back in the kitchen, you would hock up a loogie and spit it in my food. We know you do it, because that’s what we would do, were we in your shoes. But you’re professionals and should know better, so let’s stop hocking loogies into people’s food and calling everyone “guys.”
It isn’t easy to hear criticism, but this is your old buddy Phil talking. I’m in your corner. So when you wait on me, and I ask how you’re doing, I don’t want to be taken on a guided tour of your current miseries. If you’re having troubles with your boyfriend or girlfriend, post it on your Facebook page. That’s what it’s there for, to tell perfect strangers the most intimate details of your life. If you want counseling, call me, and we’ll make an appointment. But eating out is kind of like break time, so please don’t make me put on my ministerial hat and clock in.
Can we talk about your music? When I eat out, I don’t want to hear it. I like music. Sometimes I even enjoy loud music. But not while I’m talking with my dinner companions. Why do I have the feeling that as soon as the boss left, you changed the station on the radio and turned it up? You did, didn’t you? I thought so. I might even agree with you that Lil Wayne is a nice guy, but I don’t want to hear him when I’m eating. A little Frank Sinatra, turned very low, is a nice touch, but let’s keep the racket down.
When you wait on me and I ask how you’re doing, I don’t want to be taken on a guided tour of your current miseries.
Now, a word about tipping. We all know tipping is the worst system ever devised for reimbursement. No one should have to depend upon the fickle nature of human generosity to earn a living. If you do a reasonably good job waiting on me, I’ll give you 20 percent, maybe more. But tell your boss not to write at the bottom of the receipt the suggested amount for a tip. It’s tacky. You and I were having such a nice time together, our exchanges pleasant and professional, but then your boss had to tell me how much I should tip you, and it spoiled the mood. Since your boss seems worried about your income, I’m going to suggest that he give you a raise. If I have to pay a dollar more for an entree so you can have a living wage, I’m happy to do that. I’m not happy being told how financially grateful I must be for service I might not have liked.
As long as I’m suggesting improvements, can we do something about the temperature in the restaurant? I know it gets hot back there in the kitchen, but that’s no reason to freeze us out up front. A friend of mine said you crank down the thermostat so I won’t hang around sipping coffee and hogging a table all night. You wouldn’t do that to me, would you? Not after eating 10,000 meals together. You wouldn’t make me miserable just so I’ll make room for another paying customer. Surely my friend is mistaken.
I’d like to end on a positive note, so I’ll mention something you do well. I’ve noticed more of you are serving sweet potatoes in your restaurants, which ranks as one of the greatest improvements in the past 50 years. A good sweet potato, with a little melted butter and a sprinkle of cinnamon, is the bomb. Every evening after work, when God sits down for supper, I bet God eats sweet potatoes. I commend you for popularizing this tasty little treat and am confident the world will someday recognize your achievements and give you a Nobel Prize or whatever it is we award to restaurant people.
A lot of you read this magazine, so I suspect the next time we see one another you will have taken my suggestions to heart, and our time together will be more pleasant for all involved. No need to thank me. I was happy to help.
Illustration by Ryan Snook