I can't pretend to be the most elegant of men. My manners, as you would expect of any zealot, are half feral at best. But I understand what is expected of me in a restaurant, and you can too. It's tricky; today's top restaurants are strenuously casual, and yet exactingly demanding of how they want people to act. Like a temperamental, high-maintenance date who tells you that "whatever you want is fine," you can be sure that their submission is a dagger aimed at your solar plexus, a slight waiting to happen. How did this all get so tricky? Once upon a time, the lines were easily drawn: it was the slob vs. the snobs, with downscale eateries on one hand, and fine-dining restaurants on the other. In the former, a friendly waitress with her name on a tag poured you coffee and called you "hon"; in the latter, an unctuous, tuxedoed retainer shuffled around you for hours before presenting you with an enormous bill. At least that's how I perceived it in my youth, thanks largely to watching too many situation comedies.
The protocol was never that clear. Upscale restaurants frequently postured at a casualness they didn't really embrace. (Gotham Bar and Grill was an impeccably chic restaurant overseen by the most meticulous of chef-owners.) And any number of small bistros, like Prune in New York City or Zuni Café in San Francisco, were way better than a glance from the street might suggest. Now, of course, stuffy restaurants of the Chez Whitey type are all but gone, and every restaurant looks like Prune. In fact, some restaurants, like Momofuku Ko or Schwa, look worse than Prune and are world-famous and impossible to get into. So how are you supposed to behave in them? It's a tricky business, akin to a first date, where you have to be studiously easy in your deportment while remaining as watchful and canny as a sea captain. Here's my advice:
You Are Not a Guest
Guests are people who come to your home. Diners at restaurants are customers. They pay for food and service. They therefore have certain unalienable rights, including but not limited to: the right to take pictures of the food with their cell phones, particularly if they can do so without a flash; the right to text all the way through the meal, whether the staff or chef likes it or not; the right to drink the cheapest wine on the menu or to just have iced tea; the right to take home food they don't finish; and the right to pay for their dinner with a credit card. Is there anything worse than being told, at the end of a big meal, that the place doesn't take plastic and that you have to slink to an ATM? Restaurants like cash because it allows them to cheat the IRS, but that's not your problem. If a restaurant wants to pull that move, they need to tell everyone up front when they sit down. You're right to hate them if they don't. And if they send a food runner who doesn't speak fluent English and you can't figure out what he's saying, you have a right to ask your waiter to come over and explain it himself, which should have happened to begin with. You do not, however, have the right to be a jerk, to be inconsiderate or to harass the waiter with dopey questions or requests. (Just to be clear here.)
"Casual" Isn't Really Casual
Restaurants where the waiters wear T-shirts and rock music blares from the speakers aren't casual in the sense that you can take it easy there. Get that out of your mind right now. You still can't put your feet up, relax at the table for 45 minutes after you get the check or talk on your phone. They hate you just as much for that stuff as they would at Chez Whitey; they're just more passive-aggressive about how they show it. You are expected to sit up straight, keep your voice down (or as down as you can while screaming over Daft Punk) and order the way the menu implies. If you don't, the understaffed kitchen will be thrown for a loop and bug out, and the other diners, many of whom are on dates or are paying babysitters or both for their one night out, will hate you.
The Waiter Is Not Your Friend
This is especially tricky, since so many waiters are so grotesquely unprofessional in the way they talk to you, and then get offended if you want them to shut up and go away. Just as the disappearance of formal dance steps has reduced every man to a writhing nincompoop on the dance floor, the absence of waiterly artifice causes social stress where there should be only ease. Reply to queries with friendly but short answers. If you are subjected to a pedantic lecture on the terroir of your mind, express impatience by looking away, saying "O.K.," "Oh," and so on, and if that doesn't work, say, "Thanks a lot." Due to the evil of tip pooling, there's no way to punish the person for ruining your meal, but the key is to be firm but friendly, as you would with a young person importuning you to sign a petition.