Diners stand up for their rights

Cellular-phone-free eating is one demand considered

Your dinner reservations are for 7:30. You fight your way through traffic to the hottest restaurant in town. You arrive on time, then sit around for over an hour waiting to be seated.

That happened to Earl Kirn of New Paltz, N.Y. His experience is not as unusual as it should be, according to Tim Zagat, who with his wife, Nina, publishes restaurant surveys of cities around the world. He notes that about 60 percent of the complaints his company gets are about service, not food quality.

In an effort to combat indifferent restaurant service, the Zagats are developing a "Diner's Bill of Rights," which lists what customers should expect from a restaurant. "Our feeling is that constructively it would be helpful for people on both sides of the restaurant business to know what's fair," says Mr. Zagat.

The items include no-brainer basics like the right to clean facilities, as well as issues such as the right to smoke-free and cellular-phone-free seating; the right not to tip if dissatisfied with the service; and the right to bring your own beverage, subject to a reasonable handling fee.

Last month, at a meeting of about 30 top restaurateurs, the Zagats heard complaints that their proposed bill of rights would be unnecessarily divisive, pitting customers against restaurant owners.

"I'm for anything that encourages constructive dialogue between diners and restaurants, but I worry that this may just put distance between them," says Danny Meyer, owner of several restaurants known for excellent food and service.

So, the plan has been revised, with the bill of rights part of a broader effort to improve communication between restaurant owners and customers.

It could use some improving, says Zagat. Some speculate that service problems in some restaurants may be the result of emphasis on well-trained cooking staff versus service staff. "I think the dining revolution in this country was definitely driven by chefs," says Mr. Meyer.

"When chefs like Wolfgang Puck became household names, that became a compelling reason for an intelligent young person to go into the cooking profession. There have been no waiters who have turned into household names. The service and hospitality aspects have clearly lagged behind the kitchen." Meyer does think, however, that restaurant service has improved overall in recent decades.

"I think the industry needs more training for the front [of the restaurant] as well as back," says Zagat.

Several restaurantgoers who were interviewed agreed that problems are the exception, not the rule. But all cited experiences when restaurants didn't measure up.

Ixchill Tolentino, for example, a Jersey City, N.J., woman who works in Manhattan, has ordered specials only to learn when the bill came that they were more expensive than regular items. "When they're reading off the specials to you, they should really tell you the price," she says. She adds that she's seen some "horrendous" bathrooms in nice restaurants.

The Zagat effort might best provide guidance for restaurants and their customers on some of the more debatable questions of service: For example, how long should people be willing to wait to be seated after the time of their reservation before expecting a discounted meal? (Zagat's answer: 10 minutes.) Or what should the restaurant do if a dish is served as it is described on the menu, but the customer doesn't like it? (Zagats' answer: take it back at no charge.)

Some, though, question how much a "Diner's Bill of Rights" will help.

"The real diner's bill of rights is that we vote every day with our dollars and reservations," says Ruth Reichl, former New York Times restaurant critic who now edits Gourmet magazine. "Restaurateurs aren't trying to be rude to people."

But, says Zagat, "the whole idea is to make this into a dialogue." He hopes to achieve that by presenting restaurant owners with comments from diners. "There's plenty of room to argue about the elements of this."

*For further information check the Zagat Web site: www.zagat.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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