New York has its share of unofficial maxims that can make it and its residents seem especially quirky to visitors. To New Yorkers, for example, jaywalking is simply walking, and woe to the newcomer who pronounces Houston Street like the city in Texas, instead of HOWston. The same goes for New York City dining rules and rituals: even if you’re a lifelong restaurant-goer elsewhere, you may be surprised at some of the established rules of the scene. To fit in while eating out, follow these 10 tips for the best New York City dining experience.
Check the Payment Policy
If you don’t want to end up washing dishes in exchange for your meal, then it’s a good idea to check a restaurant’s payment policy before you go. Some popular spots, such as Brooklyn‘s Peter Luger, have cash-only policies, and ATMs aren’t always nearby. And you may even run into restaurants, such as the Commerce in the West Village, with cashless policies, meaning they only accept credit cards.
Show Up On Time
Running 15 minutes late for your reservation? You might go hungry, as it’s standard policy for restaurants to give your table away after a quarter hour has passed (call if you’re going to be late). Do your best to show up on time, and tell your friends the same, as it’s also likely the restaurant won’t seat your party until everyone has arrived. There is a reason for the rule: “More times than not, the number in the reservation decreases, and the restaurant will be in a situation that is very difficult to start breaking up tables and re-seating,” explains Edwin Bellanco, chef/owner of Vitae in Midtown.
Know Space is at a Premium
In order to make their high monthly rents, New York City restaurants will cram as many bodies into one space as possible. This means that in the name of maximizing space, restrooms are likely to be unisex, a neighboring table may be an elbow away and your purse or coat is not welcome at the vacant chair next to you.
Don’t Be Bullied into Bottled Water
Even seasoned New Yorkers have been known to buckle under pressure when the “bottled, sparkling or [insert raised eyebrow] tap?” question is posed by a domineering waiter, but you shouldn’t feel cheap if you opt for tap water instead of the designer bottled variety. “People refer to New York City police officers as ‘New York’s Finest,’ but the same term could be used for our tap water, which flows to the city from the Catskill Mountains and is one of the tastiest municipal water supplies on earth,” Bret Thorn, Senior Food Editor at Nation’s Restaurant News (nrn.com) points out. “Sometimes I refer to it as ‘Chateau Bloomberg,’ crisp and light-bodied with medium minerality.”
Put the Phone Away
You might be able to get away with a visible phone at a casual joint or a loud, clattering New York restaurant, but once the white tablecloths and fine china come out, you’re breaching etiquette and drawing stares by making the phone your table centerpiece. “The cell phone should not be placed atop the table as if it’s a utensil or piece of dinnerware. It’s a gadget—not a plate,” says Thomas P. Farley, aka Mister Manners, an etiquette expert and workshop leader (whatmannersmost.com). He recommends stowing your phone out of sight so you won’t be tempted to sneak a peek. “Unless you’re waiting on news the magnitude of the birth of a baby, don’t ever take a call while you’re at the table.” The same goes for checking email or texting; if you must do it, Farley says to excuse yourself to the restroom. And he warns that trying to hide your behavior is just as bad. “Don’t think the fact that you’re texting under the table makes it okay,” he cautions.
Don’t Be a Flasher
Nothing will irritate the New Yorkers around you faster than the constant flash of a camera or phone, whether you’re photographing your dining companions or your dinner. That said, “taking photos of your food while dining—particularly if you’re a food blogger—is OK providing you’re quick and discreet about it, and don’t begin staging an Annie Leibovitz-worthy photo shoot moving plates, centerpieces and people to accommodate your shot,” Farley of Mister Manners says. If you just can’t resist documenting your meal, “save the photos for the truly special dishes, and not the dinner rolls,” he advises. And turn the flash off!
Avoid Tourist Traps
There are certain telltale signs of tourist traps, and these spots should be avoided at all costs so that you leave full, happy and with your wallet largely intact. Beware of restaurants employing aggressive street hawkers, menus with pictures of the food (we know what chicken parm looks like, thank you), and, above all, “rude staff,” according to Thorn of Nation’s Restaurant News. “Contrary to popular belief, New Yorkers are friendly people who greet guests with warmth and hospitality. If you have a different experience than that when walking into a restaurant, turn right around and walk out. It’s either a tourist trap, a bad restaurant or both” he says.
Ask the Locals
Save the Olive Garden for home. Real New Yorkers don’t eat in chains. For the best dining experiences, ask the locals where to eat. “Every New York neighborhood has great little restaurants that don’t make it into guidebooks and are mostly frequented by people who live within a few blocks of it,” says Thorn. “Ask local shopkeepers if they live nearby, and get recommendations from them.”
Tip 20 Percent
Enjoyed your service? Tip accordingly. Anything less intimates that the service was subpar. Even better, tip in cash. “Because our servers make a distinct wage below the regular minimum, customers are contributing to their wage in a real way when tipping,” says Alexandra Raij, chef/owner of restaurants Txikito, El Quinto Pino and La Vara. “Diners are free to base the tip on a level of service that they receive, but when someone leaves no tip, I feel it really is a pity, and it usually isn’t because the staff member didn’t provide good service. It is because the customer did not understand how tipping works in New York.”
Restaurants in any city rely on turning tables in order to make their margins, but in New York with those sky-high rents it’s doubly true. If you’re done eating, don’t linger, as you’re putting the restaurant at risk of losing business and inconveniencing other customers. “The New York restaurant scene is fast-paced, yet many restaurants give you more time than you need to enjoy, especially in fine dining restaurants,” says Top Chef Masters contender Carmen Gonzalez, (chefcarmengonzalez.com). “People should respect that because the party waiting at the bar is likely waiting for your table, so why not have that after-dinner drink at the bar, so you can keep enjoying and not inconvenience the restaurant and extend a courtesy to other guests?” Plus, it’s good karma. Next time, you might be the ones waiting.