Monday, August 27, 2007

Irrational Restaurant Behavior?

Imagine that you're getting ready to go out to a restaurant with friends, and you're trying to decide whether to eat Mexican food or Thai food. To help make your decision, would you ever think of calling a phone number at random and asking a complete stranger for his or her advice on Mexican vs. Thai food? Probably not.

But once they get to a restaurant and are deciding on what to eat, why do many people frequently do almost the same thing: ask a complete stranger (the waiter or waitress) for his/her advice on what YOU should eat?

I have several good friends who can NEVER make a decision at a restaurant without asking a complete stranger (waiter or waitress) for help. Sometimes they will ask for general advice - "what's good here?" and other times they will narrow it down to Entree A and Entree B, and ask the server "which one do you recommend - A or B?"

This behavior seems completely irrational to me - why would you think that a complete stranger would have any relevant information about whether YOU would like walleye that evening instead of a steak? What you are really asking is what the SERVER would select if they were ordering their own meal, but why would you order something just because a complete stranger would order it? Just because a stranger prefers walleye over steak on a given evening doesn't mean that you will too.

Perhaps not quite so irrational is a line of questioning that goes something like this: "What entrees do people order the most of here?" " What feedback have you gotten from other customer on Entree X?" "Have you gotten any bad reports on Seafood Entree A tonight?" At least in those cases, you are trying to get feedback from a sample size of potentially many current and past diners, and not feedback from a sample size of N=1 (the server).

My thinking is that if I'm having a hard time deciding on what to eat, knowing intimately my subjective taste patterns, my likes and dislikes, my food choices over the last week that might affect my current choice of cuisine, etc., there is no information of value that I can get from a complete stranger that will help me order my food.

It is true that waiters and waitresses might have some inside information on some occassions that might help me decide, but I strongly object to irrational behavior (in my opinion) of people who constantly put value on the opinions of complete strangers when ordering food. In general, if you wouldn't pick a random name from the phone book and ask for advice on what you should eat or where you should eat, you should't ask a server for his or her advice on your food choice.

Possible Solutions: 1) Ask you friends or spouse for food advice, they have more relevant information than a complete stranger, or 2) flip a coin to decide between Entree A and B, or 3) order a number of dishes to share, this works especially well at a Thai restaurant.

Comments welcome.


At 8/27/2007 10:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think you are considering the potential wealth of inside information.

Sometimes it's a matter of what not to eat. I often make up my mind then ask what the waitperson thinks. Many many times I have them say they would never eat the _____ because ______. The people who work in a restaurant know how old the food is and who is cooking the food, so often it is not just a matter of personal preference. Anyone who eats food after being warned only has themselves to blame if they end up sick! In a perfect and rational world, all food would be good and questionable food would be tossed out, but that’s not reality.

It never hurts to ask, and it might even help.

At 8/27/2007 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These are the people who lead us to a nanny state where complete strangers run all aspects of our lives.

At 8/27/2007 1:10 PM, Blogger Chris said...

I'm will frequently ask similar questions in new restaurants. When I do, I am looking for something off the beaten path and the strangers advice is certainly better than a coin flip.

At 8/27/2007 6:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The waiter is a potentially valuable source of information.

He knows whether the shrimp is stringy, whether the cooks systematically overcook the baked potatoes, and why the broccoli casserole is on special that night.

At 8/27/2007 9:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having been a waiter at one time, I will vouch that the wait staff can have very valuable information. While they may not know your preferences, they will often know that the chef is proud of his feijoada and so makes sure that it get particular attention, or that the chef couldn't make a good moqueca to save his life.

I often ask the staff what to try and what to avoid, especially when I am not particularly familiar with the cuisine. Knowing the quality of the food can be just as important as knowing the specific type of dishes one prefers. I would rather have a good moqueca than a bad feijoada any day, and vice-versa.

At 8/28/2007 1:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Professor Perry, you probably lack the experience of ever having worked in the food service area. A chef in a first class restaurant tutors the wait staff daily, sometimes hourly, concerning what is happening in the kitchen. This includes what to "sell", or, what is especially good or special at any given time. Economic value for the dollar spent is your goal. The value is in establishing a relationship with the server, and in asking for their educated advice. What is prepared perfectly one day might be most unpalatable another day. Conditions are in flux. ASK. It is NOT irrational.

At 8/28/2007 1:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The mango might not be ripe!!!

At 8/28/2007 1:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I worked in a restaurant a long time ago, we never ate the fish. The fish was thawed in the sink, and the cooks washed their hands over it.

At 8/29/2007 12:18 AM, Blogger happyjuggler0 said...

As a once upon a time restaurant employee, I can tell you that you couldn't be more wrong here.

The waitstaff can help you out tremedously, or they can occasionally steer you wrong (on purpose!).

If your waiter (male or female) tries to steer you away from a dish or drink, listen! They get paid on tip and some customers vary their tips based on just such help, or lack thereof, therefore waitstaff are usually on the side of the customer, not their employer.

On the other hand it can be iffy if they try to steer you towards something. One possibility is they steer you to the most expensive of your potential choices, noting that people usually tip as set percentage of the check. Another possible bum steer is if the chef asks the waitstaff "to sell ____". This could be fish on its last legs, or something like that. On the other hand it could be a special that the chef is proud of, but simply needs to get rid of while it is still nicely fresh.

My recommendation is to ask your waiter "why?" when they try to steer you to something, and to always listen when you get an inkling that maybe they are hinting for you not to order something.

That said, even without sinister motives implied, waitstaff can be quite helpful in steering you between a dish that is a 6 on a scale of 1-10 and a dish that is a 10 on a scale of 1-10.

If all else fails, ask "what is popular here?". Locals and regulars are more likely to keep ordering the better dishes.

At 8/29/2007 4:12 AM, Blogger Ray Titus said...

Dr. Perry,

I have added a post regarding the same issue at -

At 9/17/2007 4:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As most of the other comments say... having worked in the food service industry, the waiting staff (if they are not total morons) will be privvy to informaion that may be very helpful in selecting a good meal!


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