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I was excited to go to one of my favorite upscale eateries recently. I was full of happy smiles until I sat down at our table and picked up a menu, ready to peruse its tasty delights.

D’oh!

Thanks to an overhead light that blasted down from behind my head like an airport runway beacon, much of our table was bathed in harsh light. But that light was placed above and  behind me so everything in front of me was lost in dark shadow. 

It was hard to read the menu. It was a struggle to see the food on my plate. And it was really tough to get Instagrammable photos of my food.

I’m not naming or shaming the restaurant. Everything else was great. And I’m pretty sure the bad lighting came from a previous occupant.

So why am I bothering to complain about something so small? That, my friends, is the point of today’s dissertation. When we go out to dine, our expectations are high. An unpleasant surprise – even a relatively trivial one – ramps up the disappointment.

Or maybe I was just being a pill. 

To get a reality check, I sought the advice of the social-media hive mind. How do others feel about minor annoyances that spoil the restaurant mood? What little things harsh your dining mellow?”

Much of our table during a recent dinner was bathed in harsh light. But that light was placed above and behind me so everything in front of me was lost in dark shadow.

More than 200 replies later I had my answer: It’s not just me. Let’s talk about this.

Let there be light, but not too much

Let’s begin with lighting annoyances, since that’s what set me off. My usual heartburn starts when a romantically dim eatery is so dim that I can’t make out the menu. Extra penalty points if the menu is in tiny print. More still if it’s printed in non-contrasting colors.

What? I can’t heeeeaaarrr you!

I get more complaints about restaurant noise than just about any other issue. Of course nobody wants to eat in a place that’s as silent as a tomb. But when a happy buzz escalates into a roar so loud that you can’t hear your table mates, it’s no fun. The esthetic trend of hard surfaces with no soft fabrics makes this even worse.

Do we even need to mention over-loud music, loud telephone conversations, boisterous “over-served” neighbors, children or babies crying, or clattering dishes and silverware? I didn’t think so.

The rest of our senses

Feeling too hot or too cold? That’s no fun. If your chair is too high or too low for you to reach your plate comfortably, that’s a problem. So is a chair so heavy that it’s hard to move.

The good aromas of food and wine are delicious. A heavy scent of perfume or cologne or leftover tobacco smoke, not so much.

I get more complaints about restaurant noise than just about any other issue. That’s why I include a noise report with every review, including readings from the iPhone app Decibel X.

All together now: Eeeuuuwww!

Things get serious when apparent sanitation issues make one wonder what the health inspector might have missed. Utensils with dishwater spots may not be dirty, but they sure look dirty. Worse still is the random rogue utensil or plate that actually is dirty.

Employees vacuuming, mopping or sweeping around your table is an absolute no-no. And wildlife in your food or near your table, dead or alive, will stimulate just about anyone’s gag reflex. 

It’s about time

 A leisurely meal can be a good thing, but when the leisure is enforced, not so much. An unreasonable wait for a table in a restaurant that doesn’t appear full can be frustrating. So can a long wait for a server’s attention, or a long, unexplained, wiat for food or drinks.

A lot of people get upset if plates or finished dishes are left on a crowded table, but slower diners feel shamed if everyone else’s empty plates are gone. The server can’t win on this one.

Meals coming out at different times can be frustrating, but so can one dinner getting cold or overcooked while the kitchen works on another plate. Timing can be challenging for the kitchen and servers, but it’s worth a try.

Miss? Sir? Anybody?

Another challenge: Servers who check in too often or too dramatically can be annoying, and it’s good to read the table and sense their mood before being overly chatty or pushy. It’s tough for a server who just wants to get it right, though. Some diners want pampering. Others want to be left alone.

But for Escoffier’s sake, don’t interrupt conversations! “What is the point of ‘how was the meal?’” asked one friend. “Do I get a discount if I didn’t like it?”

Pushing drinks as soon as a party sits down can feel pushy, too, although I get that some thirsty diners might appreciate this. More dubious is the practice of pouring repeated wine refills, perhaps in the hope of selling a second bottle. 

Dinnertime! What could possibly go wrong?

I could devote a full column to food-related annoyances, ranging from bringing out the wrong order or discovering that the menu description doesn’t fit the reality.  Food that’s supposed to be hot-and-spicy but comes out mild is irritating. Food that’s not billed as spicy but packs an actual burn can be even more annoying. 

Then there’s my frequent complaint about polyester napkins that don’t absorb … because they’re so slick that they also slide right off your lap. Cotton, linen, even high-tone damask are good, but cost is an issue.  In addition, said a friend in restaurant management, “I wouldn’t be too hard on management because of linens. They typically come from a linen service and you are quite often at the mercy of what’s delivered.”

Wrapping it up

Here’s the takeaway: When we’re paying good money for a good experience, it’s reasonable to feel disappointed or even angry over avoidable issues that detract from that experience.

But let’s not let a little buzzkill take away all that’s good from our restaurant  joy. Relax, keep our perspective, and get over being crabby before it’s time to calculate a generous tip.

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