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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 9, 2006

Tips for eating out from the expert

By Candy Sagon
Washington Post

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From chef to restaurant critic to best-selling author to ... sitcom subject?

Apparently so. Gourmet magazine editor in chief Ruth Reichl is working with HBO on a sitcom based on her life as a food writer-turned-restaurant critic.

"Garlic and Sapphires" chronicles Reichl's six years as res-taurant critic for The New York Times, where she frequently donned elaborate disguises including wigs and professionally applied makeup to remain anonymous.

From her office at Gourmet in Manhattan, Reichl talked about her new TV project, the "war" between chefs and customers, and what to do if your dining companion is a cheap tipper.

Q. You've observed the restaurant business as a critic, chef, customer and waitress. Tell me why do I always get seated near the bathroom?

A. Once, when I was in disguise, I went to a new restaurant, and they seated me not by the bathroom but at a table so that every time the kitchen door opened, I was staring straight into the kitchen. I went up to the maitre d' and said, 'I can't sit here.' He just sighed and said, 'Somebody has to sit here.' And I said, 'Well, it isn't going to be me.' And they moved me.

A restaurant will try and seat everybody in Siberia. It is your right to ask for another table.

Q. You dressed up in disguises that used wigs, clothing, jewelry, even nail polish to look a certain way. Often your appearance affected how you were treated in some restaurants. How can customers be sure they're treated well, no matter how they look?

A. If you just want to be your schlumpy self, go a couple of times and tip ostentatiously. The next time you come, they'll say, 'I don't care what she's wearing she sure tips well.' In fact, I think if you like a restaurant, you should make yourself a regular. Go three nights in a row and leave a good tip. On Night 4, they will remember you.

Q. What are your rules about tipping?

A. I am a former waitress, and that really figures into my tipping strategy. I tend to be forgiving of things customers complain about. First of all, often the things people complain about aren't the waiter's fault. In restaurants, there's a war going on between the kitchen and customer, and the waiter's role is to mediate. If he's doing a good job, the customer won't even know it. I say leave the standard 20 percent tip unless the waiter is unforgivably rude.

Q. What if you're out to eat with someone who pays for the meal but skimps on the tip? Is it OK to add to the tip amount?

A. It's rude to leave extra money on the table after your host has left a tip. You can be embarrassed about it, but it's incredibly disrespectful to suddenly throw more money on the table. If it's really upsetting to you, the next day send a note with a $10 bill and say you were at table X and the service was really nice.

Q. Here's another issue: You go with a group and people order different things. When the check comes, should you split the check evenly or should everyone calculate exactly what they owe?

A. Do you really want to ruin the end of an evening arguing over who spent $3 more than someone else? You should split the check evenly. If you're not willing to do that, then don't get into that situation.

Q. You're on a book tour and eating out around the country. What seems to be the big trend in restaurants?

A. Little plates. It seems to be the end of the three-course meal. I've seen tapas of every kind Japanese, Chinese, lots of menus that actually have lists that say "little plates." Of course, restaurants are worried that you're going to order only a few small plates and not a higher-priced entree, so they're jacking up the prices on all those little plates.