Remember when the Parker family had to go out to eat at the Chinese restaurant because the neighbors’ dogs ruined their holiday feast in “A Christmas Story?” Aside from the uncomfortably stereotypical singing of “Deck the Halls” by their Chinese hosts, what was funny about that situation was that it was once unimaginable to eat a holiday dinner out.
Times have changed, however, and increasingly people—from single diners to large families and groups of friends—are opting to leave the cooking (and cleaning) to others. Last year, my wife and I took advantage of the Christmas Eve seating at Cascades, the sumptuous dining room at Estes Park’s Stanley Hotel, where we had a decadent and lovely time. Yet we couldn’t help, with our 20-plus years of combined restaurant service experience, feeling a ittle guilty. Were we perpetuating the ervitude of these people, who would presumably be happier at home with their loved ones?
How should we feel about dining out on the holidays?
In order to address this thorny question, the answer to which probably changes from restaurant to restaurant and the context of the situation, I have compiled a list of holiday etiquette that should get you in good with your server, even if you are part of the reason they’re working.
1. Be welcoming.
Service staff feed off the energy of their tables. If you are out for a nice holiday meal, don’t be afraid to be a little more gracious than you might normally be. For many of us, the people we wait on remind us of our friends and family back home, and your good time can often be an impetus toward a feeling on our part of loneliness or alienation. Take your time and invite your server to do the same (within reason), have fun, and remember that the holiday spirit extends to those outside your immediate circle.
2. Make a night (or day) of it.
One of the reasons that working on holidays is bearable for many service professionals is that, as special occasions, holidays often encourage diners to treat themselves and spend a little money. This of course results in a greater tip total at the end of the shift. Sure, we’re all on a budget, but just this once go ahead start with some cocktails and appetizers, go for that sexy bottle of wine, indulge in that ridiculous dessert. You will feel well taken care of in the end, and your server’s sales will help take the sting out of working. Servers, by the way, don’t get double-time for working holidays. Which brings me to…
3. Tip well.
If you already feel that you tip well, tip better than usual. It’s just a nice thing to do. We give tips to our newspaper delivery people during the holidays, and (nothing against them, but) I don’t even know why. Your server is working, in most cases, for hourly wages that couldn’t even make eastern Europeans jealous, so be generous to the degree that you can.
4. Bring a gift.
If you’re dining somewhere you know well, bring in a little something for your favorite staff members. For many service professionals, their co-workers and regulars are a second family. If you think you’ll see that server, bartender or chef that’s been particularly good to you this year, don’t be afraid to make a little gesture. It will mean a lot.
5. Mind your surroundings.
If you walk into an empty restaurant ’round about closing time, you have two choices: Turn around and find something busier, or sit down and be hated. I’m not saying it’s right; it’s just how it is. Save for the odd exceptional case, you will be the object of derision and your service and experience will suffer. If you’ve been seated for some time, keep an eye on the rest of the dining room. If you’re the last party, don’t rush, but don’t linger, either. In both of these cases, you’re the last thing standing between staff members and their holiday shift drink. Think of that as standing between a mother bear and her cub.
6. Make a reservation and honor it.
This will reduce the chances of you eing the bad guy in the scenario above and help facilitate a smooth experience or all concerned.
With these hints in mind, go ahead and rock that Thanksgiving steak or Christmas burrito. Happy Holidays!