To protect my anonymity, I'm happy to do odd things to my hair and apply lipstick shades that no halfway-capable cosmetics counter staffer would ever endorse for me. But I can't ask the same of my review dinner guests.
On my first visit to The Coterie Room, the new Brian McCracken and Dana Tough production that's the subject of this week's review, one of my companions was recognized by the bartender. Seattle isn't a tiny town, but it's nearly impossible to find an enthusiastic eater here who doesn't know anyone in the restaurant industry. The trade-off for dining with guests who care about food as much as I do is the occasional awkward moment when a chef, manager or bartender approaches someone else at my table. While it's never before happened to me during an official review meal, I don't doubt it will happen again, despite my best efforts to recruit dinner guests who don't have any ties to the restaurant under review.
My companions were somewhat shaken by the identification, but I like to think - whether or not it's true - that my recognizable friends serve a diversionary function. While a hostess chatters with my guest, I'm free to bury my face in my Brussels sprouts. The other unintentional advantage of having a known diner at my table is it gives me the chance to see how a restaurant treats its most valued customers.
Since my eating schedule puts me in a different restaurant almost every night, I'll never earn the title of "regular customer" anywhere. Nor can I afford the bottles of wine that might grant me instant VIP status. So I'm pretty accustomed to the schlub treatment: At my birthday dinner last week, my husband and I were seated at a table wedged alongside an eight-top so boisterous we couldn't hear one another speak. After we asked to be relocated, our new server didn't take our order for nearly a half-hour. For me, that's a fairly typical evening out.
So it's fascinating for me to watch what happens when a restaurant is trying to impress. At The Coterie Room, our server swooped down on our table after being alerted to my friend's presence and whisked away the dessert menus. "You won't be needing those," he said. "We'll have something special for you." He returned with two of the four desserts on offer that evening. As it happened, we'd planned on ordering the other two.
Service was excellent at The Coterie Room, both before and after my guest was spotted. I don't want to fault the restaurant for failing to divine that I really wanted to try those cinnamon fritters. But the honey ice cream (which wasn't an ideal match for the last of our wine) raised the interesting question of what constitutes an appropriate thank-you treat. Is the restaurant better off serving sugar or alcohol? Should the restaurant take its cues from the diner - perhaps, in this case, comping a dessert of our choosing - or is it a more generous gesture when its staffers take control? Do diners feel more appreciated when they're gifted a very big dish that's already listed on the menu, or an amuse that the chef's crafted just for them? Since I pride myself on sidestepping special treatment, those aren't questions I often have occasion to consider.
Instead, I get to focus on whether ham cracklings are delicious and if the restaurant's lighting scheme works. At The Coterie Room, the answers are yes and yes - which is what incautious diners might find themselves saying repeatedly to the kitchen's extravagantly rich dishes.