How to Behave in a Restaurant: A Step-By-Step Guide

This may seem really basic, but unfortunately, it’s not. While I understand that people in this world are, in general, benevolent souls who want only the best for their fellow beings, during my time as a server I didn’t encounter them that often. A lot of our patrons seemed to have not gotten past lessons such as, “Don’t throw your spaghetti on the floor.” (And some people never even got the hang of that.)

I’ll shed some light on the behind-the-scenes of how a restaurant works. Let’s talk basic etiquette!

Walking In

Hopefully, this restaurant has staffed plenty of hostesses, so you will not be kept one unnecessary second from your plate of linguine alfredo. If not, remember that no one is neglecting you on purpose, and wait patiently. But it’s also perfectly acceptable to ask anyone passing by (politely and graciously) if it would be possible to obtain a table. Even if they are not a host, chances are they’ll be able to seat you or at least send the hostess over.

Being Seated

Most restaurants have a rotation system, where hosts seat guests in rotating server sections so that every waiter serves the same number of tables. This way, one server doesn’t get overwhelmed, leaving the rest with nothing to do, and everyone makes about the same amount of money.

Keep this in mind when you request a different table. If it’s a matter of comfort (because of sunlight, booth size, etc.), then absolutely request a different table. If it’s your 50th anniversary and there’s a romantic window view, they will try to accommodate you (but be patient if they can’t: everyone wants the damn window tables). But if you’re having lunch with a blind date, or coworkers, or anything else where placement isn’t essential, try to be happy with the table you’re given.

Waiting to be Greeted

If a server is well-trained, they will do their best to greet you within a minute or two of you sitting. However, even the best servers get busy sometimes. If it seems like a long wait for your server to approach you, it’s ok to ask another server to send someone over, as long as you are (again) polite and gracious.

When the server (probably breathlessly) arrives and greets you, be nice to the poor wretch. You want to have a good time, right? Don’t ruin what could be a perfectly pleasant dining experience just because you had to wait a couple extra minutes for your precious Arnold Palmer.

Ordering

If you say you’re ready to order, make sure it’s true. Read the menu carefully and know what comes on or with the dish. Speak slowly and clearly so they have a chance to note everything. And if you have a super-duper-special order, don’t be embarrassed; just let the server know before you start ordering so they make enough room to write everything down.

If there’s a special order you want, and they can’t do it, let it go. If it’s really important, go ahead and ask your server to check with the chef. Most restaurant employees are happy to do everything they can for you. Have a backup order ready just in case though, don’t make them stand there for five minutes straight while you go “Ummmmmmmmm…” and the patrons at their six other tables are staring holes into the server’s back.

If you decide to change your order, please oh please track down your server to let them know as soon as possible. It’s ideal to catch them before your order is being made so they can rush to the kitchen and inform them so the cooks don’t get backed up. Plus the server has to run and track down a manager to change the check so you don’t get charged for two entrees. The sooner you let them know, the sooner you’ll get the entrée you really want.

Waiting For Your Food

It’s perfectly ok to ask about the status of your order if it seems like it’s taking a long time. However, keep in mind that 90% of the time when the food takes a while it’s because the kitchen is either backed up or you ordered something well-done. Those things are totally out of the server’s hands, so please don’t blame them. Enjoy your drink. Get another round if you want. Breathe.

Eating

As you eat, you may discover you need paper napkins, more water, ranch dressing, whatever. Try to think of all of them at once. Nothing slows a server down more than a group that needs a new thing every time the server walks by. The more efficient a server can be, the better service they can give you.

For the love of all things holy, don’t snap your fingers to get the server’s attention. Servers are not dogs. “Excuse me,” “sir,” “miss,” or a simple index finger in the air are all preferable to snapping, whistling, or (believe it or not) “sweet cheeks,” “honey,” and “beautiful.” Respect goes a long way toward getting a server to like you, and when a server likes you, it can pay off; they are far more willing to go the extra mile for you if you treat them decently.

Speaking of respect: guys, don’t hit on your waitress. Just don’t do it. If you want to be nice, or funny, or charming, go for it. Hey, who knows, she might like you. Anything can happen. But don’t ask for her number, tell her how sexy she looks in her khakis and baggy company t-shirt, or attempt any lame pickup lines. If you continually behave that way, she’s gonna avoid you like you have fleas. Which you actually might.

One more thing: try not to get too drunk. ‘Nuff said.

When You’re Done

The best way to let a server know you’re finished is to put your napkin or other garbage on the plate. It is certainly not expected, although it can be nice, for you to stack your dishes for your server to pick up (although make sure they won’t topple over).

Ask for the proper number of take home boxes to increase efficiency and avoid box waste. (Note: I once worked for a place that had a policy to not send home any leftover happy-hour food. If a server informs you of a policy like that, please don’t blame the server. They’re not withholding boxes from you on purpose, and often there is nothing they can do.)

Ask for the check as soon as you know you won’t be ordering any more, and don’t expect the server to check up on you like they did when you were ordering or eating. The servers have other tables that actually need service. Pay your check promptly and sign the receipt as soon as you get it: your server may be at the end of their shift and your receipt could be what’s keeping them at work, and you don’t want your receipt to keep them overtime. It’s totally ok to enjoy and linger over your drinks or dessert after you’ve paid the check, but be mindful if it’s really busy, a server’s income depends on getting a table turned quickly.

Tipping

Let me tell you a secret: if you’re a good tipper, you will instantly be forgiven for breaking almost any of the other rules in this article. If you’re a pain in the butt and tip well at the end, you are effectively compensating that server for all the extra work they did to take care of your super-special needs. This is acknowledged and respected. If you become a regular who is also a good tipper and the servers at the establishment know this, chances are that you will be introduced to a whole new level of awesome restaurant experiences.

A 15% tip is generally considered pretty standard. That means that you got everything you needed in a relatively timely fashion, and you pretty much enjoyed everything. If there were a couple of little hiccups that didn’t affect your overall enjoyment of the evening, super-cool people will still tip this much.

A 10% tip used to be considered standard, but no longer. A 10% tip is a bare-minimum tip. Your server was…eh, ok, you never got that extra side of ranch even after reminding your server once, it took them a long time to greet you, but at least you got fed and didn’t get over-charged. A 10% tip should be considered a borderline “punishment” tip.

Anything less than 10% means bad times. Only tip this low if it’s justified. Your server was rude, and your order came out wrong and everyone else was done eating by the time they got you a new one. Everything went badly. If you’re really angry, don’t write a nasty note on the tip slip “to inform the server without getting them in trouble,” because the managers see those slips anyway. Go see the manager. If you’re concerned about disciplinary action, go ahead and let the manager know if you don’t feel it warrants any action and you only want to inform them of your experience; they’ll usually take that into account.

A 20% tip is a good tip. Servers will always be happy they served you if you give this. This is appropriate if you got everything you needed and were happy throughout the whole meal.  Anything over 20% is boss. This is appropriate if the server was freakin’ awesome and you want to let them know “Hey, thanks for being amazing even when it’s so busy. I know you were working really hard. Here’s an extra dollar or two to go buy yourself a….well, something that costs a dollar or two.”

If you can’t afford a decent tip, no matter how good the service, don’t go to a tipping establishment. There’s a magical place (called McDonald’s) where you can go instead.

This segment is longer than the other ones because it’s the most important. Sorry, romantics, but in the restaurant biz, money talks.

On Your Way Out

If you had a great experience, let the manager know. They’ll tell the server, and it’s nice to hear that in a world of complainers. (Hopefully after reading this article, none of you are one of those anymore!)

If you had a bad experience, go ahead and accept any free coupons/comps/etc. the manager may offer you, but do not insist on it. It will seem tacky, and you will probably rub the manager the wrong way and they will be less inclined to help you. Servers I know have had tables make up complaints just to get free food. They’re scam artists: don’t be one.

In General

I have always maintained the belief that there are two kinds of people who go out to eat. The first kind is out to have a good time, so they won’t let the little things get to them. They’ll try to enjoy themselves no matter what, and they are always pleasant and wonderful to serve. Then, there are people who go out to eat in order to feel superior. These people will complain over trifles and use restaurant staff as whipping boys for their frustrated lives.

Which one would you rather be?

Photo by Meaghan Morrison

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