Diner's Bill of Rights

. . . to accompany your bill of fare.

IT SEEMED INNOCUOUS—like one of those high-minded pledges posted in a car-repair shop guaranteeing conscientious service, managerial obsequiousness, and customer satisfaction ber alles. But the foie gras hit the air conditioning in New York this summer when restaurateurs grokked the fine print in the "Diner's Bill of Rights" set out by Tim and Nina Zagat, publishers of the ubiquitous maroon Zagat restaurant guide. "The revolution in the training of chefs in the last 20 years," the Zagats said, "hasn't reached the front of many restaurants. Sixty-two percent of all complaints relate to service. "These rights are self-evident," they continued. "They don't need to be written down." Restaurateurs, meanwhile, worried that New Yorkers, already a noisy and fussy bunch, would be turned into dining-room police if made aware of their "rights." One told the New York Observer, "Everyone will be a critic armed with a tear-out diploma from the Zagat school of fine dining—they'll walk into restaurants saying, 'You met nine out of the 10. I want compensation for the rest.'" Another sniffed, "You'll never get more people on your side than by telling a complete idiot that his opinion counts." Before these tenets, restaurant customers had never been granted rights—except perhaps presumptive ones like "If you go to dinner with someone, then you have the right to sleep with that person." Some of the Zagats' rights are no-brainers, like 1) The right to courteous, hospitable, informative service that starts with reservations handling. Who'd argue with that? Nobody should be shuffled, ignored, or made to endure rudeness or contempt because they're "nobody" or the restaurant has a sense of entitlement because it's successful or expensive. "That just makes good sense," says Seattle's Tom Douglas, whose Dahlia Lounge, Etta's Seafood, and Palace Kitchen are all successful and expensive. "If a restaurant has its head on straight, they have to remember who's paying the bills." Thornier is 2) The right to be seated within 10 minutes of reservation, given that later seatings are dependent upon customers showing up on time for the earlier seatings. Victor Rosellini, 84, whose legendary restaurants dominated fine dining in Seattle for 45 years, speaks of "the balancing act" that restaurants undertake every day to make their customers happy. "We always tried for 15 minutes," he says, "but sometimes there are nights when life conspires against you." Still, reservations have to mean something. If you're made to wait, you should be tended to—informed of the time remaining or handed a nosh (since state law prevents giving away alcohol). Moving on, 3) The right to clean, sanitary facilities and fresh, healthful food is one that hopefully won't provoke an argument, but 4) The right to make special dietary requests poses a problem to one industry professional, who asks: "Does that mean I can go to El Gaucho and demand an entire roast suckling pig?" In Seattle, in this age of health obsession and lunch righteousness, that right doesn't seem to be an issue. Dave Caserio, headwaiter at Lake Union's Rock Salt Steakhouse, deals with vegetarians even in the meaty environs of a steakhouse. "We'll do anything they ask within our capabilities and what's on hand," he says, echoing policies in nice joints all over town. As for 5) The right to send back any unsatisfactory food or beverage without charge, "I like the idea of demystifying the restaurant experience so that the customer isn't intimidated into a crappy experience," says chef Mario Batali, co-owner of New York's Babbo and P�e fears, however, that if this right were posted, more customers would scam free dinners or try on food like they do shoes. Seattleites, known for nice, are more likely to go home and write a letter than be confrontational. This has spawned Pollyannaish restaurant strategies like the "Yes! Policy" at Bridges. "We automatically don't charge for food that's unsatisfactory for any reason," says manager Shelaine Holmes, "even if the customer's eaten every bite." IN SEATTLE, 6) The right to smoke-free and cellular phone-free seating is, well, complicated. Smoke-free dining is a done deal these days, but we lead the nation in cell phone use, so cell phone rage is not exactly universal here. Still, it's an issue whose time is probably coming. "We've had no problems yet," says Douglas. "It's a little buzz now, kind of like smoking was 10 years ago. Once people sit back and get over themselves, common courtesy will prevail." While 7) The right to bring your own wine, subject to a reasonable corkage fee, is widely respected, not everyone is enthusiastic about it. "I don't know how you can make a living doing that," says Rosellini, but most upscale joints in town will serve wine brought in, charging around $10. Interestingly, 8) The right to complain to the manager and 9) The right not to tip if dissatisfied with the service are not often exercised in Seattle dining. Even though you can get a bad meal at any time in any restaurant, Seattleites are loath to complain directly; instead, they passive-aggressively stiff the waitroid without explanation. Explaining that a lowered tip is for bad service "is very rare," says Dave Caserio. Restaurants actually hope customers will exercise right number 8. "I believe it should be the responsibility of the manager or owner to handle problems." says Rosellini. "Good restaurants want to know what's wrong." Adds Douglas: "People should have the nerve to say something and give us a chance to make it right." The Zagats declared their document to be "a draft . . . more Articles of Confederation than Constitution," and purposely left room for more rights. Here are some suggestions for further rights, compiled after informally polling local eaters: 10) Men and women must be treated equally. A dirty little secret is that women—especially those dining alone—are routinely given poor service and tables near the john because servers consider them bad tippers. 11) If you go to dinner with someone, then you get to sleep with that person. The gender of the person paying may be up for grabs, but the demand for this right hasn't changed. And finally, 12) No diner should ever have to hear the following questions: "Who gets the spaghetti?", "Are you still working on that?", or "How was your experience?" Seattle is a nice town serving nice people nicely in nice restaurants. Will Seattle diners throw down their chains of oppression and demand their rights? If they do, you can bet they'll be chased out to the parking lot by a perky server calling out, "Hey folks, you forgot your chains!"

 
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