Don't expect regular-strength coffee near closing time and if you're the least bit concerned about where your food has been and who's been touching it, steer clear of lemon slices or wedges in your drinks when you dine out.
That's the word from a survey of wait staff published in the December '09/January 10 issue of Reader's Digest.
The magazine asked two dozen waiters and waitresses what really goes on behind the kitchen door and what they really think of your unusual requests and questions.
What they were told included:
• "In most restaurants, after 8 p.m. or so, all the coffee is decaf because no one wants to clean two different coffeepots. I'll bring out a tray with 12 coffees on it and give some to the customers who ordered regular, others to the ones who ordered decaf. But they're all decaf."
• "Skim milk is almost never skim milk. Very few restaurants outside Starbucks carry whole milk, 2 percent milk, skim milk, and half-and-half; it's just not practical."
• "I never ask for lemon in a drink. Everybody touches them. Nobody washes them. We just peel the stickers off, cut them up, and throw them in your iced tea."
• "The single greatest way to get your waiter to hate you? Ask for hot tea. For some reason, an industry that's managed to streamline everything else hasn't been able to streamline that. You've got to get a pot, boil the water, get the lemons, get the honey, bring a cup and spoon. It's a lot of work for little reward."
Think you got bad service and feel like leaving a tiny tip to teach the waiter a lesson? Think twice, and maybe say something to the restaurant manager instead. Because wait staff want you to know that, "in many restaurants, the tips are pooled, so if you have a bad experience with the server, you're stiffing the bartender who made your drinks, the water boy who poured your water, sometimes the hostess, the food runners, and maybe the other waiters."
But it's not all bad news. If you like a restaurant and would like to get the special treatment reserved for regulars, make a habit of dining there on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays. It's easier for staff, as well as chefs and owners, to recognize you on these days. And "once you're recognized as a regular, good things start to happen. You'll find your wineglass gets filled without being put on your bill, or the chef might bring you a sample."
Are some of these revelations shocking? A little. But can you really blame the wait staff and restaurant operators for not using vegetable stock in their "vegetarian" dishes or sometimes not being fully stocked in skim milk? Such things won't kill you. Nothing that these waiters have said is truly awful -- with the exception of the national pizza chains that add sugar to their kids' meals and kids' pizzas so the youngsters will like them more -- (evil!) While foodies might romanticize restaurants, the real work is tough and the kitchens are often hot and loud, the staff are on their feet for hours on end and very often their restaurant or bar is everything to their owners and managers. So forgive them if they tell you hear them groan the next time you order hot tea and inquire whether your vegetarian dish had any exposure to meat or meat byproducts.
And be nice to the waitstaff. Because while they really don't spit in your food, if you treat them badly in front of others, they just may walk back to your table with your credit card and tell you it was declined -- even though it really wasn't. Doesn't matter though, because that will be what your tablemates talk about after the meal.