But I Come Here Often

Dear Helena,

Maybe three times a month, I go to this great French bistro with my wife. We always order a big meal with a nice bottle of wine and leave a generous tip. But staff members give no sign of recognizing us, and we have to wait for a table with the other walk-ins.

Maybe I’m expecting too much, but I feel that we should be rewarded for being such loyal patrons. We should get a table when we want one, we shouldn’t have to remind them that my wife prefers sparkling water to still, and a free glass of wine once in a while wouldn’t hurt either. Am I wrong? What special treatment should regulars get, if any? —Make Me Feel at Home

Dear Make Me Feel at Home,

As a regular, you shouldn’t expect to be treated like a visiting celebrity. But most restaurants make their money from repeat customers, so it’s good business sense for them to give you a little extra attention.

You deserve a warm, personal greeting. It’s also nice if the owner, manager, or head waiter stops by your table to ask if everything’s OK. That makes you feel important, and doesn’t cost the restaurant anything. And staff should remember your likes and dislikes. Anne Stoll, co-owner of Delfina, a top San Francisco restaurant, says that this is the chief privilege her regulars expect: “They want you to remember the wine they like or that they only eat the ends of the bread. ... Or one only likes table 11B, which is a corner table where two people sit adjacent, instead of across from one another.”

Nowadays, there’s no excuse for a restaurant to forget your wife’s name or your wheat allergy, since software such as OpenTable or GuestBridge makes it easy to record this information. When the host looks at your reservation, he or she can also see details such as when you last visited, how long you stayed, and whether or not you liked the bouillabaisse.

So while you should expect the staff to remember your favorite table, you shouldn’t expect that you’ll always get that table, or any table. Only movie stars and presidential candidates can get any table, anytime. As Chowhounds have pointed out, it’s unfair to give regulars a table before others waiting in line. And no self-respecting Chowhound could enjoy dinner knowing he or she had jumped the queue.

However, restaurants do sometimes set aside a few tables for regulars who walk in off the street. That way, they can accommodate loyal customers (as well as drop-in VIPs) without extending other people’s wait. Stoll says: “Sometimes we even keep these tables open throughout the night, so we have padding, or we hold one or two tables open in the middle part of the night at the most desirable time.”

Depending on how busy the kitchen is, regulars might also be able to order something not on the menu. Ronald Gorodesky, president of Restaurant Advisory Services, says: “If the place is half full and it’s a weeknight, yes, but on a packed Saturday night you probably shouldn’t expect a lot of special accommodation.” No matter how often you go there, you can’t treat the cook like your private chef.

Finally, the restaurant is not obliged to dish out freebies to regulars. But you may get one occasionally, whether it’s dessert or a snifter of the chef’s homemade nocino. Sometimes restaurants formalize the process of rewarding regulars by offering frequent-diner programs or loyalty cards. But, as Gorodesky points out, it’s better to keep the process informal, so the freebie feels like a gift: “If once in a while I give you a dessert or a drink, it’s a surprise and a privilege, and it’s not expected.”

A restaurant shouldn’t overdo it, though. My husband and I used to get a free limoncello or ricotta cheesecake every time we went to our neighborhood Italian place. After a while, we stopped going because we couldn’t consume it all (and it seemed rude not to do so). There is such a thing as treating regulars too well.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.