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Dining Out

With nearly $700 billion in expected revenue this year, the restaurant industry is looking at another year of consistent growth . This means as a nation, America spends around $2250 per person on dining out a year. So more than likely, if you’re an American, you’re going to be dining out at least a few times a year: taking those out of town friends to dinner, going to a birthday party at a restaurant for that annoying little nephew of yours, hunger striking during that ridiculous road trip to who knows where, and of course date nights.

First things first, before heading out to eat, you have to know where you’re going to eat. Sometimes it’s as easy as going to a place that’s nearby that you’ve been to before; and other times you have no choice because it’s the only place for food in a 20 mile radius. Once in a while though, you’ll want to venture out and try something new or you’ll have a craving for something that you’re not sure if there is a place nearby for. In these cases, some simple research really helps.

Here are some things to consider before going to a restaurant:

Cost

Many times, this will be the most important consideration. After all, most of us have budgets that we need to stick to. Let’s say that you have $80 for four people for dinner. Going to a place like The Melting Pot or Benihana where the entrée’s start at over $25 a person clearly won’t work. But let’s say that you know of a place that has a 2 for $30 special, perfect right? Maybe or maybe not. If you decide not to get any drinks (besides tap water), then you’ll very likely be okay. But each person getting a drink at $2.50 each may push you out of budget. Because in addition to drinks, you need to remember about tax and tips. In this example, let’s say that tax is 5% and tip is 15% since your server did a good job of making your meal very enjoyable. With drinks, this works out $60 (for the entrées) + $10 (for the drinks) + $3.50 (for tax) + $10.50 (for tip) = $84. This pushes you out of budget. Even if you were fortunate enough to not have to consider tax (let’s say you live in one of the five states that don’t charge sales tax, or the meal already included taxes), you’d still be just out of budget at $80.50. Now if you didn’t get any drinks, then you’d be okay well within budget as your cost would now be $60 (for the entrées) + $3 (for tax) + 9 (for tip) = $72.

You may be saying, why not eschew the tip, or give a lower tip? The issue here is that the restaurant service industry in America is tip-based. So even though it’s usually okay to give a lower tip for poor service (drop a few percentage points, so instead of 15%, give 10-12%), not giving any tip at all is quite a mean thing to do and is generally frowned upon.

For dining out, a simple rule of thumb is the 2:1 rule where food accounts for 2/3 of a meal and drinks, tax and tip accounts for 1/3 of a meal. Obviously, this calculation is easier if you don’t have to account for drinks, but sometimes not having a drink takes away from the entire experience of a meal. For this example, you should aim for around $53 in food and $27 in drink and tip. Naturally, several factors affect this calculation including the type of drinks ordered (alcoholic drinks cost substantially more than non-alcoholic beverages), the amount of drinks ordered, whether you decide to get appetizers and desserts, whether you received poor, adequate, or excellent service, and the amount of tax added to the meal. In general, the 2:1 rule works for most places.

Cuisine and Styles

Dining out has evolved many times over within the last 15-20 years. While there are still many places that serve classic fare, more and more places serving newer, more unique and out of the box cuisine are also popping up. America with its diversity is also now shining through with the diversity of food choices in many places throughout the country. Whether you’re craving a big old honking steak, stick to your ribs comfort food, balanced and refined sushi, a bowl of nice warm pho, or ethnically unique Moroccan food, there is enough diversity to accommodate just about everyone’s tastes and to satisfy nearly every craving. With the way the food industry has evolved, it’s now just as easy to find a new adventurous restaurant as it is to find a traditional and familiar restaurant.

Alongside with the way various cuisines have permeated restaurants, so have new styles and ways of serving food. Not that long ago (around 20 years ago), most places stuck with the design of serving food in a more traditional manner, in sit-down restaurants, in a more calm and refined manner. But the boom of the food industry has spun that paradigm completely around. More and more experimentation is occurring which has led to many new and fascinating food crazes. You no longer have to go to a fancy restaurant to get amazing food with the plethora of food carts/trucks that are around. And there are more and more sit-down restaurants that have turned the process of eating food into a more entertaining and interactive spectacle: restaurants that have open views into the kitchen, sitting table side watching a chef prepare your food, playing around with various types of dips and sauces, unusual types of room set ups and seating, and even eating in the dark.

With that said, it should be no problem to go out and find something that you’ll really enjoy. Of course though, things get trickier if you’re going out with friends. And although it very unlikely that you’ll find a place serving Chinese Pork Buns and Linguine with Clams side by side, more and more places are incorporating multiple menus and cuisines with greater and greater success (I’ve been to a place that serves both awesome fried chicken and awesome sushi). That being said, once in a while, somebody in a group will have to relent.

Types of Restaurants

In the restaurant industry, there are four categories of restaurants broken down by service level :

  • Quick Service: These restaurants are categorized with essentially no table service where usually you’ll order at a counter and then pick up your food when ready. Usually though, these restaurants provide seating for your meal although you’ll have to bus your own table (but employees will wipe down tables every so often, but not necessarily after every customer). These restaurants offer items that are quick to prepare or will have food ready-to-go at very reasonable prices (almost all individual menu items are less than $6 and many are usually much less than that). Many quick service restaurants serve “fast-food” but some places like cheaper food carts and cafeterias also fall under the category of quick service.
  • Fast Casual: These restaurants are similar to quick service but usually provide a more upscale experience. Normally the food is of a higher quality, and the ambiance and décor is in line with the higher quality items served. Like quick service restaurants, there is no table service and you will have to bus your own table after eating. Usually the price of items at these places average around $7 to $10 but may offer a selection of items out of that range. Most food carts, specialty café’s, and walk up bistros fall under into the fast casual category along with the more upscale “fast-food” restaurants.
  • Casual Dining: These restaurants offer full table service and like fast casual restaurants are geared to a wide variety of clientele. Many are family-friendly, and offer a variety of options for food. They usually don’t require reservations, but some will accept reservations in advanced. The most common type of casual dining restaurants are national chain restaurants such as Olive Garden, but many cheaper local sit-down restaurants also fall into this category. Staff at these places usually experienced but the feel and attitude at these places is not as formal. Entrées at these places usually average around $10-$15 with some items in the lower $20 range.
  • Fine Dining: These are usually the top tier of restaurants are staffed with highly knowledgeable people and many times are geared towards a more specific set of clientele. Some are family-friendly, but most are geared towards adults. Most of the time it is a good idea to make reservations for these kinds of places in advanced as many fine dining establishments are popular or will need prior preparations. Menus at fine dining restaurants are normally much more limited than casual dining restaurants and may have menu items that are changed out regularly alongside with new specials every day. Fine dining establishments usually have a fairly formal ambiance and servers will be highly professional. Entrées at fine dining restaurants usually start in the $20 range and prices can vary widely depending on a wide variety of factors such as food, preparation, credentials of the location/chef. These places are usually wonderful experiences and because of that, usually come with a hefty price tag.

Food Quality

Just as is there are different levels of service, there are also different levels of food quality. And there aren’t only comparisons between the different service levels, there can also be significant differences within the same level.

In general, the higher the level of service at a restaurant, the better the quality of food there will be. However, there are some key exceptions to this rule. More often than not, national restaurant chains are usually not up to the same caliber as a local restaurant chain because of food chain supplies. Another thing to be wary about is that sit-down service restaurants won’t necessarily have better food than fast casual places. A lot of the time, food carts have just as good, or even better food than casual restaurants for significantly cheaper.

Another factor that affects food quality is the experience of the cook/chef preparing the food. And it’s where many national chain restaurants fall short of other competitors. Because of higher turnover, the experience of the line cooks aren’t as strong as those running food carts or those working for a smaller scale restaurant. Because of these things, the execution of food may not be as crisp; or there are more types of items that are premade which also affects the quality of food. Many times, because of turnover, and to ensure consistency, many items that are served at national chains are shipped to the restaurant par-cooked and only need to be heated up at the location in heating trays and microwaves.

One last factor that affects food quality (in particular for higher-end establishments) is where the food is sourced from. But without intimate knowledge of the industry, it’s hard to determine which farms are better than others. However, many times, the differences are fairly subtle (but noticeable for very discerning diners).

Ambiance

Dining out should be an enjoyable experience as much as possible. So you want to make sure the restaurant you go to matches what you are looking for. You wouldn’t want to go to a loud, frantic restaurant where you could be seated by a noisy family with crying babies if you want to have a relaxing meal where you can enjoy a nice conversation with an old friend you hadn’t seen in a long time. Likewise, you don’t want to go to a quiet restaurant without TVs if you wanted to get some food and watch that big game that you’ve been pumped up for the entire week. This is why knowing what the ambiance of the restaurant you’re going to is important.

Here are some factors to consider when it comes to ambiance: Décor (Formal or casual, color schemes, natural touches, architectural notes), Lighting (bright/dim, natural, warm lights, non-natural light colors), Theme (Sports Bar, Urban, Cozy, Eclectic), Feel (do you want it to feel warm/cold, busy/calm), arrangement (facing other customers, stools with a table facing outside, dividers between tables), Openness (one large room, multiple sections, nooks that give privacy), Space (spacing between tables, amount of table space)

Reservations

Another consideration to make is whether you need to make reservations or not. Essentially, this only applies to establishments with table service (Casual or Fine Dining). There are four different categories of restaurants regarding reservations:

  • No Reservations: Several restaurants are either not equipped for reservations or don’t use reservations because of their popularity or business model. Because of this, they do not accept reservations. As an example, places that have long lines of people waiting to get in won’t usually accept reservations because it clashes with the business model that makes them popular. If they did, they’d lose both the allure due to the long line, and they would cause friction among the clientele that had dedicated time waiting in line to frequent the establishment. Another example is for places that are just too large to reasonably have a succinct reservation system or for places that get enough traffic where implementing a reservation system would require just enough additional work/systems to negatively affect their revenue flow.
  • Reservations Not Required: A lot of larger establishments and chain restaurants usually fall under this category. Usually they aren’t too busy and it there should be no issues with walking in and getting a table without reservations. The only catch is that sometimes, if the place is busy and there are already a few people waiting, you may have to wait for a while. These busy periods are usually on the weekends during their lunch peak and during dinner, and on the weekdays during dinner. There may also be other busy periods, such after a major game where everyone is finding a place to eat, or if there is an influx of visitors to a particular area. If you happen to know when these busy periods are and you are planning on going during a busy period it’s a good idea to make a reservation to save yourself up to 30 minutes.
  • Reservations Preferred: These mostly encompass fine dining establishments and places that tend to commonly become busy for extended periods such as an hour before and after the usual dinner peak. Some places also switch to this policy during busy times of the year including the holidays and graduation season. When a restaurant has a reservations preferred policy, it really means that you should make a reservation because if you walk in, there is no guarantee that you will able to get a table. You may have to depend on a cancelled reservation, or for a table to finish significantly earlier than anticipated. Otherwise, you could end up waiting for several hours and never getting seated.
  • Reservations Only: Finally, there are some restaurants that have strict policies requiring reservations because they need to staff accordingly, or because of the limited size of the restaurant in contrast to the possible number of patrons. For these places, you will absolutely not be able to walk in and get a table, so don’t bother.

Party Size Restrictions

How many people going with you will also affect where you can go. There are usually some considerations to make if you go in a large enough group. What defines a large group depends on the restaurant. On one end, some places consider more than 4 people a large group, and on the other end a large group is considered to be 10 to 12 people and more.

If you’re going with a large group, ensure that the place is good for groups. If you’re going with a large party, it’s best to make a reservation if the restaurant accepts them. Walking in with a large group of people can be tricky because seating needs to be arranged. If you are unable to make reservations or if the restaurant has a walk in policy, ask how long the wait will be for seating your party. It’s common for larger groups to be passed on by in favor of smaller groups. Also it’s good to inquire if they have special seating for large parties or even a separate dining area. If they do ask how much it costs to use the separate area. Usually, they don’t charge extra because by default a lot of places automatically charge tip and gratuity if the party size exceeds a certain number, but this isn’t always the case.

Time Restrictions

Sometimes, diners just want to get a quick meal to satisfy a craving; other times, we want to sit back, relax, and be pampered and entertained while enjoying a multi-course meal. There are restaurants specifically made for these two extremes and nearly everything in between. And naturally the first extreme can be as quick as 30 minutes whereas the other extreme could take several hours. So when you choose a place to eat kind in mind how long the average meal would take. In general, quick service and fast casual restaurants take only a matter of minutes to get your food and you can take your time eating your food. As for casual dining and fine dining restaurants, the amount of time depends on a variety of factors. If you only get an entrée the meal can be as quick as 45 minutes to an hour. On the other hand, if it’s a restaurant that has a set menu, it can take as long as 3 or even 4 hours.

If you’re looking for a place to eat two hours before you go to your niece’s dance recital, you probably don’t want to go to a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Likewise, if you want to enjoy a nice long meal where you can relax and enjoy the company of whom you are with, that meal at TGI Friday’s might not be the best way to go.

Food Restrictions

Another thing to consider is whether there are any dietary restrictions to consider. For some restaurants, substitutions are difficult to accommodate especially if the restaurant serves a set menu. Additionally, if a restaurant is able to accommodate different restrictions, they may not allow substitutions on certain menu items. Usually though, most restaurants have a menu options to accommodate people with specific diets such as vegan/vegetarian, gluten-free, low-carb, low-fat, and so forth. And sometimes, chefs are willing to work with a customer to make a special version of a menu item; some restaurants are willing to swap out a meat item like chicken with tofu or some other non-meat substitution. Most of the time, it ends up being restaurant or chef-specifc.

Allergic/religious concerns are another consideration to make. Unfortunately these are harder to accommodate because of how many kitchens are set up, because of the frequency certain items are used, or simply because of the cuisine used in the restaurant. But there are some restaurants that are able to accommodate these types of concerns. In general, it is best to inquire with the restaurant beforehand if there are any aversions or dietary restrictions to consider, and many times, especially for fine dining restaurants, they will be willing to make adjustments to meet most accommodations.

After-Meal Activities

Finally, one last thing to consider is what you are doing afterwards. Are you going to do a lot of walking or activity? Are you going in the middle of the day and have a party to go to in the evening? Are you going to watch a show or movie? Or are you going home and calling it a night? If you plan on having a full day or night of activity after your meal, you may want to stick with some place that isn’t going to have such heavy and greasy food. If you aren’t going home for a while or don’t have a place to store leftovers, don’t go to a place that serves huge portions or gives parting items. If you are going back to your date’s place after a meal, think carefully before you go to a place that serves items that make you gassy or smelly.


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