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The Definitive Ranking of Restaurant Perks
Who gets what perk, what perks matter most, and five dining etiquette tips that’ll help you hack your way up the restaurant status chain
Thanks in a large part to social media, we live in a status-obsessed culture. This truism isn’t a big secret — as W. David Marx concludes in his excellent book Status and Culture, “status structures provide the underlying conventions for each culture, which determine our behaviors, values, and perception of reality” — but it bears mentioning all the same. No, Zuckerberg and his ilk didn’t rewire humans to be any more susceptible to social rank than they were in pre-Internet days, but big tech did exacerbate our preoccupation with it. And yet, as these platforms have finally ushered in the era in which Warhol’s 15-minutes of fame prophecy could come true, the fruits of said status — aside for the select few — have diminished. Acknowledgement of our clout, our fine taste, our good humor, our unwavering loyalty, our unimpeachable social capital blah blah blah etc. etc. has been reduced to nothing more than likes, comments, and the occasional retweet. Dope.
This rule does not apply, however, to the world of restaurants. Regardless of what technology we use to secure a table, dining out remains an analogue, IRL experience. Meaning the perks earned by the business we bring and the vibe we exude continue to be tangible, taste-able, and — most importantly — feel good-able. To earn an unexpected gift from the kitchen or a free round from your bartender/new best friend releases a flood of endorphins, and this accompanying joy lasts long after you’ve consumed whatever’s been offered up before you. In fact, earn enough of these perks, and the goodwill will stay top of mind until the next time you make a reservation — you’ve been seen, you’ve been appreciated, maybe you’ve even been woven into the restaurant’s narrative (because, yes, everything in life has a narrative; all we do is tell stories upon stories), so why not go back to the same place instead of risking things at an establishment where you’re a nameless and faceless customer, thus rendering the meal merely transactional? Loyalty engenders perks, perks engender more loyalty. Win-win. In a sluggish economy where “it costs five times more to acquire new customers than it does to retain existing customers,” the importance of this self-fulfilling loyalty loop cannot be ignored.
Ok, so perks are nice. But how do they stack up? Which are more coveted than others? And how do you earn them? Below, Blackbird’s irrefutable gospel on what restaurant perks matter most and the best way to go about getting ‘em (hint: it requires some work, but the indulgent, boozy kind of work we like best).
We’ll begin with the obvious best because you can’t get any of the other perks without scoring this one first. As in, can you actually get into the place? Only the most regular of the regulars (or important of the importants) can make this happen, but it turns out there’s three unwritten tiers to access. They are as follows:
Tier 3: The restaurant recognizes your name — upon checkin — as one of their habitués and thus try to accommodate you.
Tier 2: They recognize you before you give your name and therefore move you up the list. Great, that’s huge, and well-earned.
Tier 1: You have the ability to call ahead — preferably via some sort of secret, unlisted number — to see if they can make room for you at a desired hour. This is reserved for only the super regulars — i.e. you’ve been coming here once a week for ages and you have a personal relationship with the staff.
Feeling like you’re part of the action begins with a little bit of recognition. Beyond knowing your name, and perhaps even your children’s names, some restaurants will go the extra mile for special occasions, like personalizing a menu with your name and then, once the meal has concluded, presenting it to you framed to commemorate the night. Lighter touches include the chef or manager to come by your table for a quick chat and thank you.
But our favorite personal touch by far is the off-menu item(s). If receiving a perk anoints you as a regular, than ordering an off-menu item is the self-actualizing lingua franca that allows one to immediately level up one’s status. Personalization, it could be noted, is a state of mind — of having acquired secret intel or moves only known to special people. At the iconic Four Season’s it was the plain baked potato with a side of olive oil. At the original P.J. Clarke’s it was ordering the home fries well-done.
3.) Something for Free
Ok, you’ve sat down, and lo and behold your server brings over a glass of something sparkling, a cocktail, or maybe some amuse bouche or other compliments of the kitchen (usually paired with a beverage). It’s unexpected and appreciated — you’re being taken care of. Tip for restaurateurs operating on a tight budget but still keen to give that little extra: make the gratis off-menu item an ingredient to something you regularly serve so that you’re not buying extra. Then again, the item could be big. Sometimes a super regular who everyone loves will swing by for a drink when they have reservations elsewhere, and not long after their martini arrives so does a steak au poivre.
Swag. Mech. Parting gifts. Call it what you will, but the end result remains the same: sweet, sweet sweetness. Whether it’s a corduroy ball cap, a signed cookbook, or a long sleeve T with your favorite pizzeria’s logo emblazoned on the back, it feels damn good getting some restaurant rarities for keeps.
There’s also ephemeral swag, as in food. Just because you’re too satiated for desert doesn’t mean you’ll turn down something sweet to nibble on later, or even the next day. Freshly baked pastries and house-made chocolate have long been the parting gifts of fine dining establishments. Here in New York, Eleven Madison Park used to send diners home with granola for the next morning’s breakfast.
No matter how many culinary TV shows we consume, there’s nothing like going behind the scenes at one of our favorite restaurants. Chefs might bring you back into the kitchen to see how it’s done. Maybe they’ll walk you through their charcuterie program or — in the case of Korean steakhouse Cote — take you downstairs to scope their dry-aging facility. At The NoMad, certain customers were ushered upstairs after dinner to the hotel’s roof deck, where candles, cigars, and a bar cart awaited, along with sweeping nocturnal views of the city.
We’re sure the above sounds nice, but how do you endear yourself to the staff in order to score such perks? Thankfully, the rules are relatively simple.
1.) Be Cool
That means be friendly. Be NICE. Be relaxed. Be enthusiastic. Sure, drink, but don’t get sloppy drunk. Never be impatient — it’s a popular place, and thus busy. Same goes for demanding attention — you’re not the only diner here, so don’t monopolize your server.
2.) Sit at the Bar
Do this often. You really want to be a regular at this joint? Go two times a week. The best way to get perks, after all, is to just keep going — be the ball, Danny. The beauty of the bar is that the bartender is always standing right there in front of you, meaning the conversation can just keep rolling and soon enough — voila — you two are fast friends.
3.) Know When to Engage
That said, bartenders are busy, so choose your time to strike up a conversation — and when to keep quiet — wisely. If they’re mixing seven martinis it’s probably a good moment to hit pause on whatever witty recollection you were no doubt regaling them with.
4.) Remember Names
Restaurateurs are known to keep a Notes file on their phone with names, physical descriptions, and other salient details of their best customers so that they never fail to engage them in a personal way. You should do the same. Yes, know the owner and manager’s names, but know everyone else’s too. Just because you want to climb your way up the customer social rank doesn’t mean you get to snub the folks working for tips. This is the hospitality industry and it goes both ways, so be hospitable.
5.) Tip Well
The best restaurant experiences should never feel transactional. That said, it doesn’t hurt to make it rain when you’re trying to ingratiate yourself to an establishment. Our rule of thumb: always tip in excess of 22 percent. You’ll consider it money well spent the next time you waltz through the front door of an impossible to get into restaurant and directly up to your unreserved table.
Incorporate the advice above into your restaurant repertoire and you’ll be treated like the oyster-slurping, Negroni-swilling habitué you’d always hoped to be. At Blackbird, we’re working hard on creating a platform and network that will reward operators and diners alike for such loyalty.
Blackbird Labs, Inc.