We know that the pandemic was brutal for restaurants, and that inflation is pummeling many of them. At least 10% of restaurants in the U.S. have closed since 2020, researchers say. Those that remain cite one key reason for their survival: the loyalty of their regulars.
At the same time, new spots are opening up everywhere, allowing diners to keep up with new trends in emerging neighborhoods and get away from the continuous takeout they ate at home the past few years. In the face of so much variety, why commit yourself to one or two places? Wouldn’t you rather sample the freshest ideas all around town?
I’m here to encourage you to become a regular somewhere. I’ve reaped significant perks in the numerous cities where I’ve lived, from Phoenix and Boston to Chicago, Ann Arbor, and now, New Orleans. It isn’t just because I’ve written about these places, either (in fact, some of them never knew I had a byline).
Becoming a restaurant regular is the closest thing to being a VIP that many people will ever experience. And it’s easy enough to become one, whether your preferred spot has just opened or has been around for half a century.
What can regulars expect?
In a world where we can spend 90 minutes on hold to change a plane ticket, being a regular can get you at least a warm greeting, and often more. Yes, regulars can sometimes score tables even when a place is full, especially if you’ve met the owner.
I like to sit at the bar when I dine by myself, and I usually pick a spot at the end. It’s a perfect place to greet the front-of-house manager, who will swing by to chat, and to talk to servers, whether your own or the other people on the floor. A number of my favorite places, like Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor and Galit in Chicago, have seats overlooking the kitchen.
You can watch the cooks, wave at them, and, when they aren’t busy, take their photos for social media. These workhorses are often overlooked and they appreciate the notice that ordinarily goes to plates of food or friendly servers. Also, be sure to ask everyone’s name; don’t simply expect them to remember yours. I keep a list in the Notes app on my phone.
This is not a guarantee, of course, and you should never ask for freebies. Restaurants these days are inundated with “influencers” who want to be comped in return for a favorable post, and with food costs soaring, they simply can’t afford to be giving away their profits.
But by being a regular, I’ve received everything from side dishes to drink refills to desserts, lunches, and even a coffee cake. Jimmy Graziano at J.P. Graziano’s in Chicago has sent me an anniversary T-shirt and samples of his giardiniera spice. I’ve had dishes named after me at two places: the Mama Jama biscuits at Side Biscuit in Ann Arbor (my initials are MAM) and the lemon ricotta blueberry pancakes at Nick’s Original House of Pancakes.
You have to tip generously, though. You can’t just score and leave. If the restaurant picks up your check, do a mental calculation of what the meal would have cost and try to leave a tip that reflects that amount. Also, if someone has treated you particularly well, a thank you email to the restaurant is always appreciated.
I’ve had servers and bartenders introduce me to other regulars, which has led to some fascinating conversations. I’ve met other writers, professors, and business people who later became sources for stories.
Recently, I had lunch at Lil’ Dizzy’s in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, owned by the Baquet family. I was dining by myself, and since tables were first come first served, I invited a trio of other waiting diners to join me. The owner quickly jumped in to introduce us, and by the end of the meal, we had exchanged business cards and vowed to dine together again.
I’ve even gone out on a date, thanks to a bartender at my favorite Manhattan cafe who introduced me to another regular. The latter was an avid restaurant goer and invited me to try some of his favorites. There was no romance, but we visited some trendy places where I might not have scored a table by myself.
Regulars are often the first to get a heads up from a restaurant when it’s planning a special one-night event, or when it’s going to offer a specialty food, like the Duck Fest at Gabrielle Restaurant here in New Orleans.
Conversely, you’ll learn when the place will be closing for vacation or the holidays, which will allow you the opportunity to make other plans. Also, the owner and servers will let you know if the place is expecting a deluge of business. That often happens in Ann Arbor during football season and commencement weekend. While they might be able to fit you in, you also may not be able to expect the same service you’d get when they aren’t crushed.
Why do you hear so many stories about customers who leave generous surprise tips for their servers? It happened because the customer felt at home and liked the staff. That feeling is not something you necessarily get if you’re only ever visiting hot new restaurants.
When my mother was dying in 2015, I would visit her at her hospice residence, and then go to Zingerman’s Roadhouse for a late lunch. I wasn’t that hungry, but I needed to decompress and didn’t feel like going home. That habit turned me into a regular, and when I wrote my book on Zingerman’s, Satisfaction Guaranteed, I thanked many of the Roadies in the acknowledgements.
Everyone at your favorite place will understand if you want to change things up once in a while—after all, they are restaurant people, and they like to try new things, too. Still, there’s nothing quite like someone recognizing you and bringing your limeade and fizzy water as soon as you sit down.