Des Moines author, columnist and blogger Wini Moranville recently wrote about “What to Look for Before You Splurge in a Restaurant,” which gave me some food for thought.

After I read her piece, I’ve pondered the little things that make a dining experience extra special or extra annoying. Of course, I notice different details depending on the restaurant’s price range, but here’s what’s generally on my list:

Annoyances

  • Serving asparagus with the tough, woody stalks. This especially bothers me if I’m at a more expensive restaurant. If Rachel Ray can remember to snap off the tough ends of her asparagus each time she prepares them on 30-Minute Meals, you can too.

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  • Serving wilted or rusting lettuce: This is just so lazy. Especially if the lettuce is part of a salad or hamburger garnish, where I know someone actually placed the blemished produce on my plate by hand.

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  • Not providing salt on the tables: I maintain my viewpoint that withholding salt is arrogant, no matter the chef’s talent. I wrote a whole post on this topic earlier this year.
  • Telling not-technically lies: Phrases like “freshly-baked,” and “hand-rolled,” lead customers to assume a product is house-made, but can often mean that the restaurant receives frozen dough or pastries that they thaw and bake or form in the store. It’s not that I won’t eat these foods, I just think restaurants should call it like it is.

Thrills

  • Offering prices on specials: I appreciate when a restaurant lists the prices of their daily specials and/or encourages servers to automatically state the price of the specials. That being said, the burden is still on the customer. ALWAYS ask for the price of a daily special and never make assumptions. I’ve gotten burned by assuming that a special would be affordable or feeling too embarrassed to ask for the price in fear that I’d be considered “cheap.” I’ll never forget how I felt upon discovering that my waterlogged, baked catfish fillet special cost $30. Don’t be bashful.
  • Making customers genuinely feel like family: The restaurants that truly make you feel like you are apart of their family are special, whether lowbrow or highbrow. Sincere hospitality fosters loyalty and regulars. For example, Jake and I visit a Mexican restaurant in town where the bartender always remembers who we are and what we typically order. For all we know, there’s a different Mexican restaurant in town with better food, but we’ll be darned if we cheat on our favorite staff.
  • Offering creative-non alcoholic drinks: I realize alcohol is a huge revenue generator at restaurants, but I appreciate the places that offer creative, non-alcoholic options. Not everyone can drink or wants to drink for a thousand different reasons. People who choose not to drink alcohol deserve to have nice things to drink beyond soda, coffee, O’Douls, Shirley Temples, and Roy Rogers. There are evenings that I might pay a premium price for a high quality, non-alcoholic beverage. Mezzaluna in Fargo, ND comes to mind because the bartenders are happy to whip up the most beautiful non-alcoholic drink if you’d like one.
  • Honoring requests for extra spicy: This is just a personal preference, but since Jake and I like spicy food, we are thrilled when a restaurant will actually make food extra spicy. This is especially challenging to find in the Midwest, outside of a larger metropolitan area. We’ve begged for our orders to be extra extra spicy to no avail. Our theory is that restaurants might be hesitant to add heat, because enough people who requested extra-spicy had ended up sending back the dish for being too spicy. I’ve finally seemed to crack the code by adding the phrase, “You can’t hurt me. I promise.” Two for two, ya’ll!
  • Automatically providing tap water: I’m always appreciative when a server automatically provides tap water when we first arrive at a restaurant. Oftentimes, customers need to ask for a glass of water, while others seem to assume that a customer doesn’t want a glass of water if he or she orders a drink. I’m not sure about the reasoning behind how a restaurant decides whether or not to automatically offer guests water, but it feels welcoming to receive water without asking.

What irks you about a dining experience or makes it extra special? Do you think I’m completely off base with any of these points? I’d love to hear your thoughts!