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Be a Smarter Diner: 6 Restaurant Tips from Critic Robert Sietsema

Robert Sietsema has been a New York City food critic—a vociferous and opinionated one, at that—for 20 years. In May of last year, he was laid off from his position at The Village Voice, drawing sharp criticism from many fans.

Nowadays Sietsema writes regularly for Eater, and has just inked a deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to write a cookbook about New York’s 13 most classic dishes, from pizza to cuy (an Ecuadorian specialty of guinea pig that, as a friend, we've so far declined; pizza we're into).

Here are his six top tips for today’s diner.

1. Give it the sniff test. “Go to the front door and take a deep inhalation, and if it smells right, great. But I swear, like, half of the restaurants don’t smell that good.”

2. Make sure people are clearing their plates. “I look at all the people around me to see if they’re enjoying their food. If plates are half full, if people are not clearing their plates and enjoying their food, I’ll turn around and go away.”

3. The waiter is not your buddy. “I have a very advanced upsell detector. I [expletive] hate the current practice of training waiters to upsell, and judging their performance on whether they’re able to parlay you into another bottle of wine. Anytime the waiter introduces himself you’re headed for trouble. The whole idea of waiting is not that the waiter be your pal; [it’s that] the waiter, for a minute, treats you like you’re the boss. How weird that you look like a big dollar sign to him? In a million years I would never ask the waiter for a recommendation on the menu. You have no idea one, what his taste in food is, number two what his motive is—whether he’s trying to move that moldy old veal chop that’s been sitting in the freezer for three weeks.”

4. Specials aren’t necessarily special. “Specials are a mixed bag. Are they there to move extraneous and rapidly decaying ingredients?

The typical diner kind of wants to eat the same thing over and over again. I’ve eaten the chili guajillo enchiladas at Downtown Bakery probably 20 times. The idea that you always have to be searching for novelty, screw that. Familiarity is one of the most wonderful things about food.”

5. Eat out early. “I dine very early, at 5:30 or 6 p.m. To me when a restaurant is a quarter full, when a hush falls over the restaurant, when the servers are not tearing their hair out, when the cooks are spending some time on your food—I [love to] go when the place is kind of empty.

6. There’s only one person on staff you can totally trust. “If I could afford it, I would trust the sommelier. If you ask them for something that’s $50, they’ll give you something that’s $50. They’re actually working on your behalf.”