People over 50 are part of an age bracket that spends more than $4,000 a year on dining out, according to the Pew Research Center.
Yet, as you get older, what you want in a restaurant changes. Before you have kids, you’ll put up with waiting for a table, especially if the restaurant is the hottest place in town.
Then, for families, there’s a long stretch of finding kid-friendly restaurants, followed by places where everyone can find something they like, whether it’s vegetarian or carnivore.
At mid-life, your priorities change again. Dim restaurants might seem romantic if you’re dating, but the menu can be hard to see even with reading glasses.
The same music that you groove to in spinning class can be too loud for a decent conversation. And, you might not want to put up with the frustration of landing a reservation at a trendy place.
All you want, really, is a comfortable spot where you like the food, and will be treated well.
How do you find it? Well, it helps if the restaurant is already a welcoming place for people in their 50s and up.
Diners 50 and older preferred
That’s especially true in New Orleans, where Mary and Greg Sonnier re-opened their restaurant Gabrielle in 2017, after being closed for a dozen years following Hurricane Katrina.
Diners age 50 and up are important, Mary Sonnier says, because ‘that age group remembers when we were around years ago, before Katrina.”
“Diners over 50 were at the core of my business,” adds Ina Pinkney, whose Chicago restaurant, Ina’s, was a popular breakfast spot for 22 years until it closed in 2013. (The story of its final weeks was told in the 2015 documentary, Breakfast At Ina’s.)
“So many (customers) aged with us,” she says. “That speaks to the comfort they found when they were younger and never left.”
Build a routine
Barry Sorkin, a co-owner of Smoque BBQ in Chicago, says diners age 50 and up are some of his most frequent customers.
‘Whereas the younger crowd tends to want to try every new restaurant or hotspot, we find that our older customers prefer to build a routine,” Sorkin says.
“We have a couple that comes every Thursday night; another that makes a point to stop every time they come into the city to babysit their grandkids. We have customers with theater subscriptions and they stop in before every show.”
Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor, Mich., emphasizes that every age group matters at the Zingerman’s restaurants.
“I really value every single customer,” Weinzweig says.
These restaurant owners say firmly that it’s not the diner’s responsibility to make sure the restaurant treats them well. Says Pinkney, now a breakfast columnist for the Chicago Tribune, “Customers shouldn’t have to DO anything” to earn a warm welcome.
That said, diners can stand out to the restaurant if they’ll follow a few steps.
“We endear ourselves to customers who are genuine and polite,” says Mary Sonnier.
Adds Sorkin, “Restaurant work is extremely difficult and stressful. And I think restaurant employees really appreciate when people make a point be nice to them. Very little goes a long way.”
Often, restaurant patrons walk up to a podium, give their names to the host or hostess, and then retreat to a waiting area until their name is called.
But, that’s actually a perfect time to introduce yourself and find out something about who’s running the front of the house, as the dining room is known in the restaurant trade.
Likewise, if servers introduce themselves at the table, it’s fine to give them your name, too. Sometimes, the server already knows it, depending on how the restaurant communicates its reservation data with staff.
Says Sorkin, “When people treat restaurant staff with respect, kindness, and warmth, they find that the hospitality they receive is more organic, authentic, and enjoyable.”
There’s a reason why regulars get special treatment. They come often enough to be recognized. How often is often?
At sit-down restaurants, once a week for a few weeks should be enough to be recognized. If you want to get extra special treatment faster than that, try going every couple of days for a week or so.
It also helps if you order the same thing, so that the staff can match you your face and your favorite dish.
During a Cape Cod holiday in Osterville, Mass., I found a coffee place I liked in nearby Falmouth. I went in three days in a row.
On the fourth day, I overheard a barista say, “Oh, she’s one of our regulars” as she whipped up my decaf cappuccino.
In many parts of the country, the standard gratuity in sit-down restaurants is around 20 percent. “”Of course, a good tip always helps!” says Sonnier.
The restaurant business has never been under greater scrutiny, thanks to movies, television shows and documentary series on streaming. But unless you’ve worked in one, it’s hard to appreciate what actually goes into serving customers.
“Be patient and understanding,” advises Weinzweig. “The number of human touches that take place to get a single plate of cooked restaurant food to a table is quite remarkable.”
For each bowl of macaroni and cheese served at the Roadhouse, “probably 20 people on our end have to do their work well,” he says. And that doesn’t include the company that makes the macaroni or the dairy that produces the cheese.
Shun bad service
Sometimes, you can try all these things, and you still feel overlooked. In that case, go somewhere else, Sorkin says. “A restaurant that doesn’t make you feel welcome or treat you hospitably doesn’t deserve your business,” he says.
So, what do the professionals look for when they go out to eat?
Mary Sonnier’s wish list sounds like a place anyone would enjoy.
“I like a restaurant that is the same, genuine; not contrived or with too much fuss about it,” she says. “Good food is a must!”
Pinkney insists on quiet surroundings, while Sorkin tries to avoided the rehearsed feel that he’s noticed in so many places.
“As soon as it seems scripted, it is no longer welcoming to me. I want to feel like I’m talking to an actual person who happens to be nice,” he says.
Sorkin adds, “I don’t care if they know my name or recognize me as a regular, but we’re all entitled to feel important when we go out to eat. Because as a restaurant owner, I can say with absolute certainty that every customer is.”