Myth busting: A Wined Up guide to restaurant etiquette

So, all four of us here at Wined Up have spent time in the hospitality industry. To be honest, it is a contributing factor as to why we got into wine. Lily and I both met in a job unrelated to wine but we both had come from restaurant backgrounds.

Lily had previously worked in various restaurants and cafes in the UK and Australia and I had just left working for Merchants Tavern, which was a fantastic experience, (which I credit with really making me start to take wine seriously, read here). Hannah currently works for Honey & Co who encouraged and financed her WSET education (she just passed level three with distinction) and trusted her expertise when curating their impressive wine list. Finally, Drew. Drew and I met last year at Luckett Vineyards. I don’t think he will take any offence to this when I say that he was a fully fledged rookie when he entered the wine industry and it was actually by chance that he ended up working in wine. For a university project he had to speak to a person of influence in business and he reached out to Pete Luckett. Next thing, Pete had given him a role in the administration side of things, then the next season Pete promoted him to manage the tasting bar, a big jump which required Drew to really up his game and acted as a huge catalyst in developing his inter-personal skills and wine knowledge. When Drew and I worked together he always claimed that he used to be quite introverted and to be honest I just had to take his word for it as I never saw those traits. He bossed the tasting bar and gave 110%. Actually I should rephrase that. He still bosses the tasting bar as he still works at Luckett’s.

Anyway, we all have restaurant or service backgrounds. Restaurants can be the best basis for enhancing your wine knowledge if you wish to. If you have a management team who cares then they should be investing time into giving you at least the basics in terms of the wine list. After all, a wine list can be the most profitable part of a restaurant’s offering.

Having said this, the wine list is often a very neglected part of a restaurant. I am about to embark on my next role, which will see me go back to running a conventional restaurant. With everything I have learned over the years I thought it’d be a good idea to take the time to document some dos, don’ts and bust some myths when it comes to restaurants and wine lists.

Shared Frustrations:

I guess one of the biggest frustrations for both customers and restaurant staff is the understanding of ‘The Bouchon Test’. This is the bit of a meal that a lot of customers hate. It is when a server/sommelier pours you a little taste of the wine for you to try. I’ve seen it dozens of times when customers kind of argue over who is going to do ‘the honours’ and try it. All of them look awkward and a bit out sorts because, well it can be intimidating, especially if you don’t know why you are smelling/tasting it.

A common assumption is that the waiter is pouring you the sample to see whether you like it or not. This is in fact not true. The reason a server will pour you a taste is so that you can smell if the bottle is corked or not. If you are thinking “How on earth am I supposed to know?” well here’s a couple of cheats.

When smelling the wine, if it smells slightly dull, damp or like ‘wet-dog’ then the chances are that it is ‘corked’. Corked means that too much of a natural chemical called Trichloroanisole (TCA) has been present in the cork and has penetrated the wine, compromising the taste and smell (read more about it here). This exchange has always been the most awkward part of my job because it is hard to explain to people the purpose of tasting wine without sounding condescending or pompous, however when explained right, it is a really worthwhile thing to know.

I once had a customer who ordered a bottle of Rioja and upon pouring a sample he said ‘Just pour it, you can’t get a bad Rioja’. He was one of those larger than life characters, commanding his group with loud, out of date jokes that belonged in ‘The Phoenix Club’. I politely explained that you can get bad Rioja, and it may not reflect on the winemaker but if the wine has the unfortunate fate of suffering cork taint then the test is to see if there is a problem with it before you drink half of the bottle. I described it as kind of like insurance for both parties. Now you may think “James, why didn’t you just leave it?” and to be honest, it did cross my mind but I could tell that this gentleman, despite being a bit of a loudmouth would actually appreciate the knowledge and insight, because the next time he went out he would probably insist on smelling the wine and going through the whole test.

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Not a whiff of cork taint there!

What to expect from servers:

I’ve had a lot of customers who ask me to just pour the wine for them rather than go through the whole scenario and that is fine, as it is their prerogative but for me, I think it is a service basic to open the wine and offer them a sample. I remember once going ballistic at a member guy who I had been tasked with mentoring because he simply put a bottle of Merlot down on the table. It was a screw cap and he didn’t even take it off. He just slammed it down on the table and walked off. I made him go back and pour it for everyone. This wasn’t me being on my high horse or shouting for the sake of it, but more just trying to instil a level of care and diligence.

The screw cap myth:

 Another common myth is that of screw cap wine. People say you don’t need to taste test it because it can’t be corked. While this is technically true, it’s also false. Screw cap wine won’t suffer from high amounts of TCA/cork taint but it can suffer from high amounts of Tibromoanisole (TBA), which presents the same unpleasant musty and mouldy aromas as a corked wine.

If you are a customer and feel put on the spot by all this then just relax. Embrace the process and if you are unsure, just remember that a server is there to help you. I recall once, about five years ago, when I briefly worked with veteran high end restaurant consultant & manager Thomas Blyth, a couple ordered a bottle of wine and after the first taste they said it was ok. Five minutes later they beckoned me over and asked me to taste it myself as they’d had second thoughts on it. I smelled it, wasn’t too sure and went to Thomas to try it. He took one smell of it and went “Oooooh that’s corked!” so I went back to my table, took the glasses away and changed the bottle over for them. This was a great example of customers doing the right thing. As intimidating as it can be to complain, these guys just owned it. They explained that they didn’t know much about wine but it just didn’t seem right to them, and if we were to determine that it was just the way this particular wine was meant to be like then they’d accept it, still drink it and know that in future this particular style wasn’t to their taste, however they were completely right and absolutely ploughed through the replacement bottle.

The spitting in food myth:

A common myth for the service industry is that if you order just before the kitchen closes or if you complain about your food then the waiters and chefs will spit in your food. I have worked in so many places and have never seen and never partaken in spitting in a customer’s food.  I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but it just doesn’t happen as much as people make out.

The fact is, you’re not going to be the most popular person in the world if the kitchen closes at 10pm and you place an order at 9:55pm. In fact, you’d be positively the worst person in the world in the eyes of the staff, for the rest of the evening, however it doesn’t justify contaminating someone’s food. The chef will probably refer to you as a c*nt and the kitchen will scowl through the whole process but your food will be pretty safe.

Complaints. Nobody wants to complain and no one wants to be complained to. I hate it when I’m out and someone in my group of friends complains because I know what the waiter is thinking. They’re thinking, “I really don’t need this, can’t you see that my section is full, I have three tables being fired by the kitchen and a seven top just being sat down by the hostess”. They’re also thinking “Oh fuck, the chef is going to go ballistic at me” because, well you’ve heard the saying ‘shoot the messenger’. The thing is, if you are going to complain then it needs to be for a legit reason and done politely. I’ve seen a chef actually in a friendly but firmly way, confront a customer when she complained about her vegetarian option but he didn’t spit in her replacement dish.

In my opinion, a person who spits in a customer’s food is quite simply an unprofessional, disgusting arsehole.

Restaurant Hacks:

One thing I see a lot of is people studying the wine list, looking at the prices, not wanting to spend loads of money but also not wanting to look cheap so they order the second cheapest bottle on the menu. I’ve been guilty of plenty of times. The thing is, some restaurants have cottoned on to this and use this psychology as a way to bump up their GP (gross profit).

Basically what happens is… the second cheapest bottle on the menu is normally the bottle that has been bought in for the cheapest price, however it is marked up to more than the cheapest bottle of the menu because they know people don’t want to seem cheap so will most likely order the second cheapest bottle and by marking it up they will make more GP. This may only be a couple of pounds but believe me it can make a difference to the overall profit and loss of the business.

I’ve dealt with wine pricing before and to put things in to perspective, at a previous place that I worked, we would buy the second cheapest bottle for around £5 per bottle and then sell it for £18. It’s a well known fact that restaurants severely mark up the price of the wine they buy, It’s a necessity to staying in business but you may not have known this tactic.

Funny observations:

One thing I find absolutely hilarious is when you are serving someone else who works in the industry, you can spot them a mile away because they’re always so polite, like to the point when it gets annoying. Off duty servers who are out for dinner have a tendency at the end of the meal to collect everyone’s plates on the table so they’re all in a pile in front of them, just to make the life of the person that little bit easier and then will be ever so over the top in gratitude, “Thank you ever so much!” (My go to phrase) as if they’ve done us a massive favour, as opposed to just doing their job or if out for drinks we will make a point of taking all the empty glasses to the bar. I once worked with someone who at the end of a staff party wouldn’t let anyone leave until we helped the bartenders in cleaning the function room that we’d hired.

These things are like little nods of appreciation, almost like saying, “We know your struggle, we live your struggle”. Sometimes it can be too over the top and a bit cringeworthy, however it comes from a good place… It still makes me laugh though.

Disclaimer: I am guilty of all of the traits I’ve listed.

Restaurant etiquette

Everyone is different but one thing that we all have in common is the fact that we need to eat. Most people love dining out and will regularly go for food. I just spoke about the fact that you can spot a fellow hospitality worker as soon as they sit down because of over friendliness but you can also spot someone who has never worked in a service job before. This isn’t because they’re rude (well some people can be) but more that they have a slight lack of awareness to the difficulties a server can have when attending their table. Where a fellow server may literally hand you their plate in order to minimize the amount of awkward reaching you have to do, some people just are oblivious to it. A service standard in many places is to be able to clear a table in one go (if possible), a difficult task, especially if the table is at a weird angle, however we persevere and attempt it. There have been loads of times on which I’ve had an arm full of seven plates, attempting to get the final plate on the table and person whose plate it is hasn’t even registered my existence or even made any kind of gesture to help me reach the plate. That lack of awareness from some diners can be very frustrating.

Another one that makes me laugh is when you’ve just navigated your way through a busy dining room with four burning hot plates in your hand because that’s all you could carry at that point, you reach the table of five it is intended for, calmly smiling your way through the second degree burns you’ve endured, put the food down for everyone and before you can say that you’ll be back with the other plate and the sides they’ve ordered, someone bluntly says “Yeah we’re missing a pork shoulder, crushed potatoes and our buttered kale”… fuck off. This is when the server politely replies “Yeah, no problem. I’ll just go grab them for you” when really what they want to say is “oh are you?!?! I’m so sorry that I couldn’t bring all eight burning hot plates to your table with my two hands, life must be so tough for you that you have to wait a further 90 seconds for the rest of your order. Poor baby!”

Well there it is, just a few observations regarding wine, wine lists and restaurant etiquette. Let us know your thoughts and share some of your experiences with us!

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