I shouldn't be doing this.
Telling stories about drunken guests, workplace hookups and even my own faux pas is one thing. But now here I go, explaining the best ways to get things for free.
May whoever is the patron saint of Philadelphia restaurants forgive me.
>> Have an inside man (or woman). There's no surer way to get hooked up with a free chocolate souffle or a round of beer than to have a friend on the inside. Whether your friend is a server who can scam free goodies from the kitchen, a manager with the power to comp items off your bill or a generous chef who'll send out food for free, nothing equals hookup like knowing someone.
>> Be a pleasure to serve. This is just common sense. Showing up with a huge group and no reservation, screeching at the hostess or demanding unreasonably special treatment--like the guy who changed tables three times, sent his steak back twice and then tried to haggle with me over his final check--isn't going to score you so much as a cappuccino. But if you're polite--particularly if you have to wait to be seated when you have a reservation, or there's something obviously wrong with your food such as a foreign object in your mashed potatoes, and you bring it to a manager's attention in a gracious way--I can almost guarantee you're on your way to a gratis cosmo or cheese plate.
>> Bang the bartender. Maybe it's a tad obvious, but free drinks always appear in front of the guy or gal the bartender's trying to keep around till last call--or later. After-hours activities might be optional, but as long as you're improving their quality of life behind the bar, or the view, or both, you're golden.
>> Become a regular. If there's a great spot in your neighborhood you visit frequently, be friendly with the staff. Try to remember the name of the hostess so when you need a table in a pinch, she remembers yours. If you've been in a few times, ask to be introduced to the manager, chef or owner. A few kind words about how much you love the place can go a long way toward finding special treats on your table during your next visit. This works best at smaller joints, but even big fish like Buddakan have their regulars.
There are, of course, a few tricks that almost never work. Don't pluck one of your own hairs and claim you found it in the food. We've all seen that trick before. Carrying bits of broken glass in a pill vial in your purse and spilling them into your pasta isn't likely to get you too far either. (Don't laugh--I've seen it happen.)
There's also a fine line between being a regular and a nuisance. The key in every case is to be polite and patient, and eventually all that good restaurant karma should bring some free tuna tartare or shots of tequila your way. Just don't tell anyone where you heard it.