Note: Those of you from other metropolitan cities similar to Manhattan might find some of these tips to be obvious or common sense, but you'd be surprised how many people aren't familiar with this type of area and really just have no idea what to do. So we're here to help!
So here's our third installment of The ESC's Guide to NYC:
Dining and Drinking
We've already covered a lot of information on tipping at a bar or restaurant in our "Tipping" guide. To summarize: Yes, you have to tip and 15%-20% is standard. But there are a lot of little details that can affect who, when, how, and how much you should tip, particularly at a bar or restaurant, so we recommend that you definitely read that one before coming to New York. In fact, you should probably read that first (check it out here) and come back. We'll wait.
At the bar
Sometimes, when a bar is crowded, it can be downright frustrating trying to get a drink from the bartender. And New York City bars can get very crowded, very quickly. However, there are actually a few things you can do to minimize the time you spend waiting. (And then there are a few things you shouldn't do, or you'll end up on the bad side of your bartender or your fellow bar patrons.)
Sometimes there will be a menu you can peruse beforehand or a list of drinks up on the wall above the bar. You can also usually see a row of beer bottles and liquor bottles, indicating what they have available. You should already have your money or credit card in your hand. The faster you can make the whole thing go, the better... and the less annoyed your bartender will be with you. Annoying your bartender is a surefire way to not get a lot of attention when it comes time to order your next round.
- Getting over to the bar
The first daunting task can be getting over the bar in the first place. You're just going to have to work your way through the crowd little-by-little, until you reach the bar. Look for a hole at the bar, even if it's too small to fit through... If you can reach your hand through to touch the bar, then you're halfway there! Hold onto your spot and eventually someone on either side of you will get their drink and move away, and that's when you squeeze your way completely in. It's okay to ask someone who seems to be just "hanging" out (i.e., not ordering) if you can just squeeze by to order your drink and then you'll be on your way. But do this nicely (even flirt a little). Don't give them any kind of attitude.
If there is more than one bartender, your best bet on getting served sooner, is to find a spot in the middle of the bar, somewhere between both of their "territories". If you're on one end of the bar (in one bartender's "territory" you have no choice but to wait for him or her to notice you and come over), but if you're between the two bartenders, they may try to get to you first (before their co-worker does) in order to secure those tips.
Wherever you are, just be patient. If it's busy, it's busy and it can't be helped.
- Ordering your drinks
Catch the bartender's eye as soon as possible and smile a little or give a quick nod to acknowledge that you're waiting to order. They will get to you when they get to you, but at least now they know you're waiting. You should have your money in your hand, visible to the bartender. (But do not wave it around to get the bartender's attention.) Don't yell "bartender" or "I'm next" or anything like that. You should never speak to the bartender in a condescending way and you definitely shouldn't speak about the bartender in a condescending way to your other patrons who are waiting. The goal is to not be the obnoxious asshole that no one wants to deal with.
Give your order loudly and clearly and don't waste time. Be as specific as possible. That is, don't say "Rum and Coke" or "Vodka and Cranberry" unless you don't care what kind of rum or vodka you get. If you want a specific brand of liquor, ask for it from the start. (This saves the bartender the time of having to ask you what kind you want. And it saves you from having to drink a cocktail that might kind of suck, because you didn't specify.) There can be quite a difference between Bacardi, Captain Morgan, and Malibu; or Absolut, Stoli, and Grey Goose. Ask for what you want. Although it's a good rule of thumb to look above the bar to see if they carry the brand you want before you ask. Otherwise you're just wasting more time.
Obviously you can order whatever you want, but we think anything that comes in a martini glass is just a stupid move in a crowded bar. You're just asking for a spill. If you have your heart set on a martini or Cosmo (or even a flavored "martini") we recommend asking for it in a rocks glass instead of a martini glass. So maybe you won't get to feel like a character out of Sex and the City, but at least your clothes will stay dry. Personally, when a bar is really packed, we order a beer because it's quicker than any mixed drink and doesn't require much thought on the bartender's part, but obviously not everyone is a beer drinker and that's okay.
Your drink may not be made immediately after you order, but they will get to it eventually. They may check in with you again before they make it and confirm what you ordered. Don't roll your eyes or complain if they made an error. It's okay to refuse a drink that isn't what you ordered, but you're not allowed to be visibly annoyed at this because remember the bar is crowded, the bartender is busy, it's loud and noisy. Mistakes happen.
- Paying for your drinks and tipping
Like we said above, be prepared to pay when you order. Have your money out (or at least very easily accessible). Don't wait until the drinks are made to take out your wallet. It wastes the bartender's time (and those around you also waiting for the bartender's attention). Don't complain about how expensive it is. The bartender doesn't set the prices and this is New York.
Whenever possible pay (and tip) in cash - but no coins. This makes the transaction faster. If you have to pay with a credit card, please only do so when you're making a larger order. (That is, don't use your card to buy one, single $5 drink.) Reserve the plastic for when you're paying for an entire tab at the end of the night and even then, if you can tip in cash, that's better. Tip $1-2 per drink or 15%-20% of the total tab. If you receive anything for free or discounted ("open bar", discount coupons, free appetizer) tip for what the total would have been.Always drink responsibly. Don't leave your drink unattended! Don't get fall-down drunk! New York State has no law against being intoxicated from alcohol in public (but if you're being disorderly or putting yourself or someone else in danger, that's a whole other story). Don't drink and drive! The maximum blood alcohol level for driving in New York is 0.08% although a lesser charge (DWAI) may apply when a driver's blood alcohol content exceeds 0.05%. If you are visibly intoxicated, your bartender may be required to stop serving you. If they do so, don't get an attitude. They're just doing their job, protecting the bar from lawsuit, and protecting you from potentially killing yourself. Don't pick a fight with anyone, especially not someone that works at the bar. Don't assume that a bartender or other bar staff member has drugs, sells drugs, or knows where to buy drugs. It is illegal to have an open container of alcohol on a public sidewalk, road or park.
- Be smart
At a restaurant
Many restaurants in New York City can get pretty crowded, so it's not a bad idea to make a reservation. Some places won't take reservations and some upscale places won't accept you without a reservation, but it's always a good idea to call first and ask. If they don't accept reservations, it is acceptable to ask whether there is usually a long wait for a table at the time you plan to go. If a long wait is expected, plan accordingly or go somewhere else.
Ordering your food
It is completely unacceptable to treat your server in a rude or condescending way. Just putting that out there ahead of time, because we see this way too often. It's not okay. It's not an easy job and they deserve as much respect as anyone else. So that means say "please" and "thank you". These people are handling your food - it's not a great idea to piss them off.
New York restaurants hate splitting checks. They just hate it. If there are two of you dining, it's okay to ask for two separate checks (although you should be prepared for them to say no) but really only do this if you have a real reason to do so. Like say, you're writing the meal off as a business expense and therefore each need a separate receipt. Never ask to split a check more than two ways, just don't do it. It won't happen and all you'll have done is irritate your server. (Seriously, can't you just do the math yourself? Most smart phones have a calculator app anyway.) If you are going to ask to have two separate checks, do this before you order. Not after. Otherwise it will be too late.
When your server comes to your table, be polite and friendly. Listen as they tell you the specials, etc. and don't interrupt them. Then they will probably take your drink order and come back later for your food order, so you have time to think and look at the menu.
When you're ready to order, close your menus. If you leave them open, the servers will assume you're still looking and not come over to take your order. It's perfectly acceptable to ask the server what they recommend. (You might get a snarky answer if you ask "what's good here?" because probably they'll say that everything is good. But it's a smart idea to ask what they personally like or would recommend.) The server might have a system for taking your order, so let them decide who orders first. That is, they will face the person they're expecting to hear from first. (This isn't a strict rule or anything, some servers will wait for one of you to speak up. But if they start with one of you, chances are it was for a reason.) Speak clearly and loud enough to be heard, but not shouting. Definitely don't all yell out what you want at the same time. If you're dining with young children, order for them.
If you have any questions about the food (especially one related to food allergies), now is the time to ask. Take notice of whether the menu specifies "no substitutions". You can still ask for your meal without something (like "no onions" or "dressing on the side") but you can't replace say, potatoes with rice. If you are going to ask for a substitution, do just that - ask. Don't say "I'll have the skirt steak with rice instead of potatoes." Ask, "can I have the skirt steak with rice instead of potatoes?" They will tell you if it is or isn't okay. Depending on what you're substituting, they may be a nominal fee. Sometimes a server will go check with the kitchen to see if it's okay. Don't be annoyed if they say it isn't. They tried.
Dining at a restaurant
If you have kids with you, keep them at the table at all times. A restaurant is not a place for kids to run freely and it can actually be dangerous for them to be roaming around. A server could not notice them and bump into them with a heavy or hot tray of food. There may be food or small pieces of broken glass or plate from an earlier mishap. Also, your children are expected to behave appropriate in a restaurant. They don't get a free pass for being kids. If they're prone to screaming, running around, or throwing food - don't bring them to a nice restaurant. If they have a surprise meltdown, take them outside to calm them down. Don't ruin everyone else's night while they cry it out. We don't believe that there are many truly "adult-only" venues (strip club maybe) so this isn't about kids not being allowed to eat in fancy restaurants. It's about every guest at that restaurant behaving according to the rules, regardless of age.
Your server will probably come over and check on you at least once more during your meal. If not, you can kindly gesture to him or her to get their attention. This doesn't mean you should wave your hand around or yell "yoohoo!" or anything rude or condescending. When you're ready for the check, simply ask for it. This is not the time to ask for separate checks. (Really, it's never the time for that. But don't dare try to do this at the end of the meal.)
- Paying for your meal and tipping
If your kids made a mess, tip a little extra because someone has to clean that up. If there's any portion of the mess that you can make slightly easier for them, please do so. Look around before you leave to make sure you didn't leave any of your personal belongings behind.
General Etiquette and Advice
- If you ask someone on the street "where's a good place to eat around here?" you're probably not going to get a straight answer. There are a million good places to eat. It's New York! Don't waste our time with questions like that. Plan ahead. You're better off asking "is there a good Italian restaurant nearby?" or "Do you know where I can get some Chinese food in this area?" (It is of course, totally acceptable to ask your hotel concierge, any locals you happen to already be talking to, frequent visitors, etc. But don't stop a random person with that question. Just don't.)
- Don't waste your time going to T.G.I.Friday's, Applebee's, the Olive Garden, or any other mass chain that you have at home. You're in New York where there are so many good restaurants (at all price levels)! Check out the Urban Spoon or Menu Pages apps for your smartphone to search for restaurants all over the city.
- Don't complain that everything is too expensive. It's New York! It's expensive. (And your bartender or waiter didn't set the prices.) There are plenty of cheaper options in the city, you just have to find them.
- Some restaurants and bars in Manhattan have dress codes. Call ahead and check if you're not sure. Don't get mad if they turn you away for being in violation of the dress code. They make the rules. If you don't like it, there are a ton of other places to go instead.
- A lot of bars have happy hour specials or other deals throughout the week. Check out their website to see what the deals are... but be advised that if you sit down to eat dinner at a bar/restaurant, the bar specials might not apply unless you're ordering drinks directly at the bar.
- There are apps for your smartphone that can help you find a happy hour near you! Happy Hours or Happy Hour Finder for both Android and iPhone. Also try Cocktail Compass.