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Getting Good Service: The Experts Explain

These days, hardly anyone balks when busboys start clearing plates before everyone is finished. Maître d's keep patrons waiting for an hour, even when reservations have been made. Waiters appear to favor some tables, ignoring others entirely. How can you become one of those preferred customers, which industry insiders call service magnets?We asked around

Be Up-front Make requests—for a quiet table, a birthday celebration—when reserving. Then, says restaurant consultant Susur Lee, "Ask who'll greet you. When you arrive, say, 'Hello, Katrina. George told me you'd be making the arrangements for my table.' It gets you known from the moment you enter."

Use Wait Lists If you're trying to book for a busy night, put your name on a list; be sure to follow up. Many restaurants, says Danny Meyer of New York's Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, put a star next to the name of someone who calls back—and move the name to the top of the list.

Dress the Part Karen Waltuck of Chanterelle, also in New York, advises that being well groomed shows you took a little trouble, and people will treat you with respect. Many insiders pointed out a more mercenary correlation: if your appearance indicates that you're well-heeled, servers see potential for a big tip. And the better the tip the server expects, the better the service.

Make a Connection Engage hosts, maître d's, captains, and waiters with eye contact and friendly banter. Ron Zemke of Performance Research Associates, which does service audits, suggests phrases like "Are you having a good evening?" or "I've been looking forward to being here all day." It's trite, sure, but the idea is to break their rhythm and get them to notice you. Jean-Claude Vrinat, of Paris's Taillevent, distills the technique: "Smile. That is all."

Read the Room Watch the server working the station you're being seated in. If she looks harried, suggests Waltuck, say to the host, "She seems to be having a rough night. Could we please be seated in a slower section?" If you're told that's impossible, at least the host knows you care.

Stop, Look, Listen "When the server comes to your table," says Dennis Lapuyade, maître d' at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, "put conversation on hold and give him your rapt attention." Not only will this allow him to tell you the specials, but it will reinforce the connection you made earlier.

Become a Regular "In your apartment building," says Stan Frankenthaler, chef-owner of Salamander in Cambridge, Massachusetts, "you'd hold the door for anybody carrying packages. But if it were someone you knew well, you'd offer to carry a package or two, right?" Danny Meyer says it takes only three visits to become recognized, especially if you eat at the bar and chat with the bartender and the host.

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