June 16, 2006 -- From the moment you make the reservations, the ritual is meant to be relaxing: nothing to cook, no dishes to wash, no stress about anything. The restaurant is your refuge, right?
Celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain exposed the greasy underbelly of many kitchens in his books "Kitchen Confidential" and "The Nasty Bits."
"A lot of us work in kitchens for the very reason that we really can't and shouldn't make it in the outside world. A lot of us would be in jail if we weren't cooking," he explained.
And that's only in the kitchen. What about the men and women waiting on you. Are they plotting against you ?
John Collins and Nigel Pickhardt, who met 15 years ago waiting tables in New Orleans, have drawn on their experience to warn diners and restaurant owners about the dangers lurking beneath the tablecloth.
"I've seen people walk out of a restaurant every night of the week with $500 in illicit money, sometimes more," Collins said.
Their self-published little handbook -- "How to Burn Down the House" from Promethean Books -- is a virtual how-to for waiters and bartenders interested in fleecing the customer, and an eye-opener for the hundred million of us who eat out every day. It starts with their own version of profiling.
"You're looking for a man on a date. You're looking for business people with clients. You're looking for people in a rush. You're looking for people who are drunk," Collins said.
"The big spender that's loud and rambunctious and throws his credit card around and grabs the check," said Pickhardt.
Actually, they prefer no plastic at all. When you're going for the quick, dishonest buck, cash is what counts.
Pickhardt says waiters "encourage" diners to pay cash through a trick called "putting them on ice."
Pickhardt walked "20/20" through the tactic: "Ma'am, I'm afraid our credit card's been actin' a little funny today. " This might take 15 or 20 minutes. At that point, of course, I disappear, and I go smoke a cigarette, eat my lunch or whatever, come back. And then I'd be like: " Ma'am, I hate to say it …"
Finally, because it will be quicker, the patron will forget about the credit card.
And once they have me -- or you -- paying cash, they use elaborate schemes, like reusing or neglecting to turn in your check, so the money goes into their pocket rather than the till. You can't track dollar bills.
"Cash is the currency of scam, there's no doubt about that. But credit cards aren't impervious," Pickhardt said.
Tipping is another area where patrons can be prime targets of conniving waiters, particularly when service is already included.
Pickhardt explains: "Say your check's $40. I've included a $6 gratuity. And put it all on the top line. So then you get the check and pay $6.90 or $9 or however much on top of that."
The lesson here -- you should ask if service is included.
"If you're afraid to speak up, you're going to be exploited for it. That's what they're looking for -- timidity and meekness, people who are would rather get beat out of $5 than make a stink about it," Collins said.
So there's a whole science of getting double tips, what we call the "thank you and thank you again." For instance, I stamp the check and smear it a little bit so you can't read that it's 15 percent gratuity. Or you might write on [the bill]'have a great trip' right over the total," Pickhardt explained.
He said sometimes unscrupulous waiters will simply write "an arbitrary total on the back that's $5 or $10 more than the actual check, and put a couple of mints on it."
The tricks are even smoother when you move over to the bar, because things happen faster there, according to Pickhardt and Collins.
"See, the bartender, he's the ground zero of scam," Collins said. "He may give you three quarters of a shot, instead of a shot and a quarter. You don't know the difference, because you didn't watch him"
"Or he might come back with a bottle of his own and fill up the top shelves with some cheap stuff that he picked up at the store," said Pickhardt.
"You make the strawberry daiquiri but you don't put any alcohol in it. You just pour a little bit of the strong stuff down the straw. They take that first whopping sip and whoa! This is a strong daiquiri. Psychologically, again, they think they got a great deal and a strong drink when in fact they got a fraction of a shot, freeing up the rest of that shot to be scammed by the bartender," said Collins.
You may also be getting shortchanged on your plate. Call it restaurant recycling.
According to Collins, some eateries will reuse bread. "The half eaten goes in the bread pudding or the stuffing box and the other loaf goes in the next person's dinner," he said.
"Or they make croutons. Everything is -- can be reusable. Nothing is thrown away in a restaurant at all, ever," said Collins.
"I would never eat salsa because I've seen buckets of salsa ... you have your salsa on the table and you dump it back in the pot and, and constantly reused," Collins.
Restaurants also reuse butter, the authors say.
And that butter, according to Bourdain, can turn up in your appetizer.
"Many restaurants save up their table butter, used table butter in a big crock of softened butter that they take out of your little, you know, butter dishes at the table. They'll heat it up, strain out the cigarette butts and the bread crumbs and use that for the hollandaise. Gross, but not unhealthy. I mean, they bring it up to a boil so it's OK," Bourdain said.
Don't Send Your Food Back -- If You Plan to Continue Eating
So, if your meal messes up your bon appetit should you complain? Collins said definitely not.
"One word of advice to the consumer out there: Don't ever, ever send anything back and then eat it afterward. Don't ever, ever aggravate, humiliate or in any way demean your waiter before you've gotten your food. That's a big mistake," he said. Pickhardt said he's seen all sorts of gastronomical revenge by waiters serving picky patrons --including spitting in meals.
Brian Matzkow, who owns SAPA, a trendy restaurant in Manhattan's Chelsea district, disagreed. He said he wants to hear diners' complaints so he can make amends.
"What kills me is the quiet guest. Speak up. Tell the management. Tell the owner. They want to know if things are not right, so they can fix it. So they can make your experience enjoyable," he said.
Matzkow said the scams we learned about just don't happen here . He believes these scams have become less common because of good technology, camera systems and surveillance. And that's true at plenty other eateries too.
Both Pickhardt and Collins admit that SAPA is an unlikely spot for scamsters, and that the schemes described in their book are over-the-top, intentionally provocative, and not necessarily autobiographical.
Bottom line: Take what they say with a grain of salt, but look closely at your check; and make sure the numbers add up. Chew on their information -- with your mouth closed, of course, but your eyes wide open.