At Your Service: Top 10 Etiquette Tips for Restaurant Servers
Waiting tables is no longer the venerable position that it once was in America before World War II. It's still a fairly prestigious job in much of Europe, but even in the United States, waiters used to pay for the right to work at good restaurants. If a head waiter position opened up at a fancy, well-known restaurant, a person might have to get a financial backer in order to bid on the position. The financier would then receive a portion of the waiter's tips after he got the job.
Today, waiting tables is more of a punchline. Most waitstaff don't even make minimum wage. They rely solely on tips to pay their bills, and many members of the public see waiters as people who have to serve because they can't get any other job. You know, all those unemployed actors and singers and high school drop-outs.
While this is definitely not always the case in America, waiting tables is a largely thankless job. Because it's not always a job that people seek out anymore, and because the pay is fickle, some servers have lost a sense of propriety that should come with any service job. Most waiters I've encountered in Houston are great, but some could use a reminder about a few specific etiquette tips. I've talked to waiters around town to get their impressions about how to behave properly at work, and this list reflects their suggestions.
In my last post on diner etiquette, I gave the impression that I'd never worked in the business, when what I should have said was I've never been employed by a restaurant. I have family in the industry, and I've volunteered in restaurants on more than one occasion, taking a turn in the kitchen or on the floor to see what the job is all about. And it's hard. So be nice to your server, and chances are your server will be good to you as well.
10. Don't touch me I know that sounds like a super rude way to start an etiquette post, but seriously, there is no need for you to touch me. I'm not one of those people who's weird about strangers touching her, but I'd rather you didn't place your hand on my back to guide me to my seat or pat my napkin in my lap. If you want to shake hands as I'm leaving, that's fine. But any other touching is unnecessary and, frankly, kind of weird.
9. Don't touch yourself It's somewhat gross to watch a waitress play with her hair and pick at her zits then grab your dinner plate and silverware to bring them to the table. You could be a very clean person, and you probably are, but I don't want your germs on my food. And I definitely don't want your hair on my food. Please refrain from rubbing your eyes, nose, mouth or other orifices while on the job, and if you must, go to the bathroom to do so, and then wash your hands. It's not just a matter of politeness, it's a matter of cleanliness.
8. Don't sit at the table I want you to feel comfortable around me and my fellow diners. I want you to feel like we respect you, because we totally do. I don't really want you to feel like you're out eating with me though. Don't sit at my table or booth while you take my order, and please don't squat down and look up at me like you're super chill and we're all best buds. Let's have a little decorum here. I understand that you get tired, and I'm often an easy customer to talk to, so I understand that I might give off the impression that it's OK for you to take a load off at my table for a sec. But I don't really want you to do that. I might be talking about something personal with a friend or enjoying a date with someone new. Later, maybe you and I can hit the town. But tonight, you're working.
7. Don't speak ill of others If you do happen to decide we're chummy, please don't take that as a sign that you can bitch to me about the other waitress over there who always gets bigger tips than you do because she flirts with her customers 'cause she's such a freaking floozy. And then there's your manager who yells at everyone and is a total jerk, and that one customer who always grabs your ass like it's something that's suddenly socially acceptable. Ugh. You hate them all. I get it. And I sympathize. But it's not very professional to tell me all about it, especially because I might know someone you're talking about. Aside from that, it makes you seem rude, and I wonder what you might say about me when I leave. If you must vent, wait until you get home and tell your cat all about it.
6. Tell us the specials and how much they cost Even if there's a big 'ol sign listing the specials, it would be great if you could go over them with my friends and me. I am notorious for neglecting to look at those special signs and missing out on good food because of it. I'm just not always that observant. So tell me about it. And when you're reciting the specials, please please tell me how much they cost. My parents once ate at a semi-fancy restaurant in Corpus where no single item on the menu was over $40. They ordered a special (and not something with truffles or caviar or lobster) and it was twice as much as any non-special item. They were shocked because the waiter hadn't given any indication that it was such an expensive special. They were also pissed and never went back. Unless I'm dining at a restaurant where I'm already expecting to be paying well over $100 for my meal alone, I'd like to know how much everything costs. It might seem gauche, but it's also helpful to those of us on a budget.
5. Know the menu You don't have to have eaten everything on the menu, but you should have a good idea of what ingredients are in every dish and what other people say about it, and you should be able to answer my questions about it. If you don't know the answer to a question, I would much prefer you ask someone instead of making something up. No joke, I've caught waiters doing this. Just try to have a general knowledge of how big a portion size is, whether a dish is spicy and any hidden ingredients that might cause allergies. Be willing to give a recommendation, but for the love of God, don't tell me everything on the menu is a masterpiece.
4. Don't make a scene in front of diners This is a rare occurrence, but I have seen waiters get in verbal arguments with one another while on the job, and it's super awkward. I mean, sometimes it can be entertaining, but it feels more voyeuristic than theatrical, and that makes most people uncomfortable. Similarly, if you must ask a customer to leave for whatever reason, try not to make a big deal out of it. The customer will probably be pretty unhappy, but you can take charge of the situation by being calm and collected. If you feel it's necessary, go ahead and apologize to the other diners once the unruly guest is gone, but never antagonize him further. Remember what happened to that couple on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares several months ago? Yeah, don't be like them.
Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives
3. Don't act impatient When restaurants have a high turnover, and you need to make rent this month, it can be tempting to get diners in and out quickly in order to make more tips. But it's kind of rude. I've written previously that diners need to leave in a timely manner once their meal and drinks are finished, but don't start clearing the table if they're still munching on dessert. Subtly placing the check on the table once you're sure no one is ordering anything else is fine, and I like having the check ready instead of being forced to ask for it multiple times. It's fine to want to get rid of me; just don't show that you want to get rid of me.
2. Don't eat or drink leftovers OK, this is something I probably wouldn't ever see you do, but my dad told me he used to do it all the time when he was a poor, starving waiter, and just thinking about it totally grosses me out. "This guy would order a steak, eat two bites and then say he was done and leave," my dad explains. "So we'd cut off the part he bit into and eat the rest. You can't let good steak go to waste!" I don't know, Dad, I really think sometimes you can. It's not that I don't want to share my food or anything. And honestly, it doesn't affect my life one way or the other if you eat my leftovers. It's just kind of gross. And I doubt any decent manager would approve. So just befriend a chef in the kitchen and get yourself some good leftovers. Please.
1. Smile and be polite This should be obvious, but it's amazing how many surly servers I've encountered out there. Like I said before, I know it's often a thankless job. Customers treat you like crap. You don't make as much money as you should. But part of the job is customer service, and it's difficult to give good service if you seem like you're in a foul mood. I have many friends from theater who wait tables (cliché, I know), and they've perfected acting like they're in a good mood, even when they're not. So put on a smile! Act happy! Sometimes, pretending to be happy actually improves your mood. And I promise it'll improve your tips.
Now I have an etiquette question for you: How do you feel about the terms waiter versus waitress? Is it necessary to differentiate by gender? Should everyone be called a waiter? Should everyone be called a server? What do you think it the proper terminology?
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.