WALLA WALLA TABLE - Dining out: What works and doesn't

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When I envisioned this column my idea was to create a place to talk about food in Walla Walla. What we are doing here that is good and what is not. Things that are worth your time, effort and money and those that are not.

This week we are going to be looking into some restaurant etiquette and protocol both from the front of the house, back of the house and from the diner's side. When our local restaurants can see what they are doing well and what they can do better, it makes the dining out experience better for all of us.

This past weekend my family and I went out for lunch/brunch/late breakfast, whatever you want to call it, to a local downtown restaurant. When we arrived, the place was very busy with like-minded people, although the wait was less than five minutes to get seated with a party of six, including two children. Once seated our waiter brought menus, and some crayons and activity pages for the kids - a nice touch.

I felt like having a Bloody Mary, but alas one was not to be had, just beer and wine. Here is my first criticism, our waiter should have pointed out to me the "bloody beer" option, which I found on my own. It fills the same purpose. I opted for a Corona instead of a light beer mixed with tomato juice, and was not disappointed at all.

Note to wait staff: Suggest options that might easily be missed by patrons. Make suggestions, don't sell. "You MUST try the hag fish croquettes, they are to DIE for!" How many times have you heard something like that and been disappointed? Sometimes those things are really as good as they say; sometimes they are just trying to push menu items that are slow movers.

Service proceeded from there very well. Our waiter brought drinks quickly. I also ordered an iced tea, which was refreshingly strong and fresh, the perfect counterpoint to bloody beer. Orders were taken without any issues. Even with the buzz in the restaurant conversation was easy and not loud, nor was the music. Someone is paying close attention to details. No one had to shout at the waiter or ask him to speak up.

Now, here is where things really start to succeed or fail for most restaurants. Our food arrived quickly, like under 10 minutes, and this with the restaurant mostly packed. Impressive. Everything was cooked as ordered and arrived without flourish. Plates were not too hot to handle, a sure sign that people are actually COOKING in the kitchen and not just sticking things in the micro. Bravo.

Something often overlooked in many restaurants is that when people are dining together they usually appreciate actually EATING together - as in don't bring half or some of the plates then wait 10 minutes to bring the rest. Also, wait staff that fail to check orders BEFORE they leave the kitchen need to understand that if something is wrong the plate will be coming back. That will cause delays in getting other orders out.

From the diner's side of the counter, we should expect wait times to be longer and we should be patient if the restaurant is packed or we order a substitute or something off-menu.

Portion size at the restaurant also was perfect. One of my other issues is that most breakfast spots usually either go too big or too small. Serving too much food forces patrons to be wasteful and leave a lot uneaten, or ask for doggie bags - again a wasteful because containers are usually landfill-bound plastic foam. Serving too tiny portions, on the other hand, leaves you hungry after still paying a lot for "spa" food. No thanks.

Another item: Tipping. This is an uncomfortable issue for both sides of the counter. Twenty percent is considered toward the norm if you really enjoyed your meal and service, 18 percent if you enjoyed the meal and everything was as it should be. Fifteen percent is considered your base, and if there was something wrong 10 percent lets your server and kitchen staff know that all was not as it should have been. Anything less is telling them something else.

Tipping is not just for the tableside service. Most wait staff share tips with the kitchen, usually 20 percent of each "cover."

Finally, remember that the kitchen does not serve your food and your waiter does not cook your food, so please be kind to those who deserve it, even if you order at a counter.

Cheers.

Damon Burke, who with his wife Colby own the Salumiere Cesario gourmet grocery in downtown Walla Walla, can be reached at wallawallatable@gmail.com.

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