So, where am I supposed to sit? Navigating the $10 Challenge

Questions roll through my head like a CNN ticker when I go to a new restaurant for the $10 Challenge.

Do I seat myself? Where’s a menu? Do I pay the server or go to the counter? What’s the best thing to order?

Eating locally isn’t like going to Olive Garden – every place has its own way of doing things. Each restaurant’s protocol adds a unique flavor to the atmosphere, but can make newcomers like me insecure about their eating experience. And the anxiety gets in the way of focusing on what’s really important – the food.

Here are some tips for folks like me who might be intimidated at a new-to-you local place where chain restaurant norms don’t apply.

  • Do your research.

I treat each $10 Challenge like a homework assignment. I visit restaurant websites before eating out to study up on the menu, which cuts back on the time you spend making a decision in the restaurant and, therefore, gets your food to your table faster. Urbanspoon is a great resource that allows users to detail their own experiences at restaurant and provide helpful hints to other foodies. For example, I decided to try the avocado smoothie at Vietnam Kitchen based on Urbanspoon user comments about the drink. I’m glad I took their advice.


  • Ask for a to-go menu.

It’s surprising how many places keep a stack of inexpensive paper to-go menus on hand. This menu is a helpful tool if you’re at a busy place where you order at a counter, but you’re not sure what to get. God forbid you’re in a hurry and end up behind the person who has all the time in the world to mull over his lunch choice at the register. You can help the cashier and your fellow diners tremendously if you ask for a to-go menu, step aside and decide what you want before you get in line.  I often end up taking to-go menus home so I can decide my order for future visits. If restaurant doesn’t have a to-go menu or you have to strain your eyes to look at a menu on a wall, ask for a regular menu to review. This method worked well during a lunchtime visit to Hillbilly Tea.


  • If you don’t see a host stand, seat yourself.

Small restaurants often mean there’s a tiny staff. These employees act as host, server and cashier (and sometimes cook), so they probably don’t have time to seat you. It’s usually a good bet that it’s OK to grab a table whereever you like tf there isn’t a host stand or a sign at the door that asks you to wait to be seated. I learned this lesson at Mrs. Potter’s Coffee Lounge and Cafe, where everyone (myself included) stood awkwardly at the door waiting for some interaction from one of the two harried waitresses.


  • If you don’t know, just ask.

Some places cater to a regular clientele, but then newbies like me come in and have no idea what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It helps if you tell the employee that this is your first time at the restaurant. On my trip to Dizzy Whizz, the waitress asked if I knew what I wanted before I had even seen a menu because “Dizzy Whizz assumes you’ve been there before,” Rob said. But I told her I needed some time, she handed over a menu and gave me some extra time to decide.


  • Be nice.

If you’re still confused, don’t get in a huff. Never be rude to a person who handles your food. And always ask your server for food suggestions. Since most employees have to try everything the restaurant offers in order to give suggestions, they often know what they’re talking about.

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