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Turning the Tables: Restaurants From the Inside Out
By Steven A. Shaw
HarperCollins Publishers, 2005
ISBN 0060737808
Review By William I. Lengeman III

Don't feel comfortable taking dining advice from a skinny guy? You're in luck. In Turning the Tables, Steven Shaw, a.k.a. "The Fat Guy," has given us an entertaining and informative look at that behemoth known as the restaurant industry.

Shaw has written for a number of well-known magazines but is best known as founder of eGullet, a popular Web site for all things food related. Though he does much of his dining in New York City and leans toward writing about upscale eateries, this is nonetheless a work that should appeal to diners and readers at all "levels."

After an introduction in which Shaw recounts Why I Love Restaurants, he moves on to the first chapter - Getting What You Want. Focusing primarily on how to get a "hot" table and how to conduct yourself after you've done so, Shaw summarizes by throwing out a few simple admonitions - "never fight strength with strength" and be polite, but persistent.

Shaw does a fair amount of participatory journalism here, including a stint as an assistant manager at the tony Eleven Madison Park and a shift in the kitchen in Gramercy Tavern. He also goes behind the scenes at Sandor's, a Florida restaurant whose kitchen is truly a one-man show.

Other eateries that come in for scrutiny include Manhattan's popular Tavern on the Green; a pair of pizzerias; a Connecticut hot dog stand; Starwich, a new chain of upscale sandwich shops; a North Carolina "pig bar" and the Union Square Hospitality Group, an entity which runs five of the top restaurants in New York City.

On the supplier front, Shaw visits with a cheese maker, a clam farmer and a winemaker, among others. Among the other topics he holds forth on are sushi; raw milk cheese; the effectiveness of ratings systems such as Zagat and Michelin; the entry of PR flaks into the industry and the ins and outs and ups and downs of tipping.

This one's well worth a look, even if you're just going to read it for the hell of it and have no interest in using it as an instruction manual. In other words, great for armchair diners.

Freelance food writer William I. Lengeman III maintains Tea Guy Speaks, a Web site devoted to the appreciation of tea.

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