Food Critics' Secrets

Make the most of dining out with these tips from seasoned restaurant reviewers.

Americans eat 54 billion meals away from home each year. Whether you're dining in a strip-mall hole-in-the-wall or a five-star restaurant, use these tips to ensure a pleasant dining experience.

1. Become a regular. Pick a restaurant you enjoy, learn the maitre d's name, and tip 20 percent for good service, suggests Martin Booe, a food writer in Los Angeles. Having a guaranteed "go-to" restaurant where you're well known is invaluable for last-minute dinners with clients or a significant other.

2. Know when to call for last-minute reservations. When reservations are scarce at a popular restaurant, try calling between 2 and 4 p.m. on the day you wish to dine. That's when most cancellations occur.

3. Ask questions. It's not enough to ask if the seafood is fresh -- ask when it was delivered, suggests Jennifer Merin, a nationally syndicated columnist. Says Merin: "Many restaurants order their seafood early in the week, so Tuesday is traditionally good for fish. Each restaurant varies, however, so don't be afraid to ask."

4. Choose whole foods. Order foods that are prepared whole rather than in parts, Merin recommends. For example, to satisfy a crab craving, order a whole crab rather than crab cakes. Odds are, the whole crab is fresher than the crab remnants used to make the crab cakes.

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