I've never worked as a waiter, waitress, hostess, manager or chef, but I like to think I can recognize when a customer is being an asshole. I'm betting you probably can too.
We've all seen the guy who chooses to yell at the top of his lungs on a cell phone in a small, crowded restaurant or the parents who let their children run wild and bother other diners while they enjoy a pleasant meal. I really think we all know how to behave in a restaurant. The problem is we don't all put this knowledge to practice.
In the spirit of happy diners and good food, here's a list full of quick reminders about how to be a good restaurant customer, from attire to tipping and all the important stuff in between.
Oh, and don't worry. There will also be a list of waiter etiquette coming soon.
10. Know how to dress for the restaurant at which you're eating There is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing gym clothes out to eat -- if you're eating at Taco Cabana. If, however, you're dining at a fancy steakhouse, step it up a little. Forget jeans and t-shirts. Try to avoid tennis shoes. Throw on a nice blazer or some heels. If you're unsure about what to wear, go online and see if you can find photos from the restaurant. Even if there aren't photos of people dining, shots of the interior space should give you an idea of how dressy or casual the restaurant is. Also look at the menu prices. Generally, a more expensive menu will call for dressing up a little more. If there's a specific dress code, the restaurant's website should detail exactly what that is. But here's a rule that applies at any restaurant (I'm looking at you, ladies): Keep the girls tucked into your shirt, pull up your low rise jeans and pull down the labia-skimming shorts. I don't care if you're eating at McDonald's or The French Laundry. Nobody wants to see that much skin on anything but a roasted chicken.
9. Make reservations If a restaurant clearly states that reservations are required, don't act like you're some sort of royalty who can waltz in whenever and be seated without a reservation. If you're not sure if reservations are needed, call and ask. Never show up late and expect to be seated immediately just because you reserved a table. If you're even ten minutes late to a busy restaurant, the host or hostess is completely justified in giving away your table. That said, if you have a reservation, and you still have to wait more than 30 minutes to be seated, you had better be dining at a restaurant helmed by one of the top chefs in the world. Waiting that long for a reserved table at Red Lobster is not OK, and you have my permission to complain about that sort of service on Yelp as many times as you want.
8. Don't show up 10 minutes before close Yes, a restaurant may be open until 10 p.m., but that doesn't mean you should show up at 10 p.m. and expect a full meal. Bars solve this problem of needing to get people out and close up by having last call. Some bars have last call up to 45 minutes before the bar actually closes. Just assume that restaurants are the same, even if the hostess doesn't run out into the street and shout, "LAST CALL!" to people driving by. Restaurant employees typically stay at least an hour after close to finish cleaning and prepping for the next day. The sooner you leave, the sooner they can get home to their families or their tequila. Unless you're dining somewhere fancy (which probably won't allow you to make a reservation for after a certain time anyway) assume that your meal will take about 45 minutes. Don't arrive at a restaurant any later than 45 minutes before they close.
7. Turn the cell phone OFF As soon as you arrive at a restaurant (or even before), turn off your phone. Unless you're a world leader, I highly doubt anything is going to happen during your meal that cannot wait until you're finished. If you must check your phone, step outside. But never answer a call during a meal, no matter how comfortable you are with your dining companion, and never leave your phone out on the table. Look, I'll admit it, I do this all the time. It does seem like young people don't really care, and we're all big fans of Instagramming our food, but it's a habit I'm trying to break. If you must photograph your food with your phone, by all means, do so. Then put the phone back in your purse or pocket. Show respect to the person you're dining with by indicating that he or she is more important than a text.
6. Know when to leave the kids at home, and when to just leave I'm a little biased because kids aren't really my thing at the moment (where are all the cat-friendly restaurants?) but there is a time and a place for kids at restaurants. You should be able to tell by examining a restaurant's website whether it's a proper place for children. You should also know your kids. Are they hyperactive and prone to temper tantrums in public? I beg of you: Leave them at home. I know babysitters are expensive, but please consider the fact that your fellow diners might have hired a babysitter in order to get a night out away from the kids. And then you show up with your crazy offspring and totally kill the mood. Not cool. I also get that sometimes, kids randomly freak out about nothing. You may have a super well-behaved child who happens to have an off night and starts wailing at the table. Take the kid outside. Saying to your fellow diners, "I'm sorry, he never does this!" and remaining seated will not repair their eardrums or make them less inclined to discipline the child themselves (and most parents I know hate that). If your child doesn't stop crying after a nice walk outside, it's time to get a to-go box and head home. Also, if a restaurant manager asks you and your screaming child to leave, that is totally fine. A manager's job is to look out for all the diners and ensure that everyone has a pleasant experience. Instead of being offended, realize that your precious angel isn't precious to everyone and bow out gracefully.
5. Don't drink too much and be annoying It sounds obvious, but it's amazing to me how many people over 40 don't seem to know their limit. I guess it's amazing how many people make it past 25 without knowing how many drinks turn them into raving lunatics, but the world is a confusing place, my friends. Don't be that annoying drunk whose friends have to apologize to other patrons for her. Don't be that guy who has three drinks and starts picking fights with his girlfriend. Don't be unable to drive home at the end of a meal (but if you are, ask the manager to call you a cab). Being a drunk idiot is far more forgivable at a bar than a restaurant. I realize that many places are both bars and restaurants, but still. Know your limits. Show your appreciation for the food by not getting so hammered that you wouldn't know the difference between coq au vin and KFC.
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4. Ask for a to-go box This tip isn't a don't; it's a do. Even fancy restaurants should have no problem boxing up your leftovers to go. It may be gauche in Europe, but this is America. We do doggy bags. Granted, a chef might be a little offended if you want to take something home that clearly won't keep well, but that's his problem. Portions in this country (and this city, specifically) are way too big. It is completely acceptable to want to get your money's worth out of a meal by eating the rest of it the next day. Restaurants that don't do doggy bags are lame. Yes, the sanctity of the food, blah blah blah...Don't serve such big portions!
3. Leave within 15 minutes of finishing your food and drinks This is similar to the "don't show up right before closing rule," only it's about leaving, not arriving. If you and your party have paid the bill, you'd better be out within 15 minutes. Still finishing your drinks? Finish them faster. Enjoying a great conversation? Take it somewhere else or order more drinks. The restaurant needs time to clear and re-set the table for the next round of diners. Don't be a table hog, especially if you can see that the place is busy. And as I said before, the staff have places to go at the end of the night too. Maybe they aren't welcoming any more diners for the evening, but that doesn't give you the right to stay longer than necessary. If you're leaving at the same time as the waiters, you've stayed too long.
2. Tip well I don't know how to emphasize this enough, but five or 10 percent is no longer acceptable. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that under-tipping is a generational thing. My grandparents don't tip well, but my poor 24-year-old friends are great tippers. Maybe it's because many young people have recently waited tables, but it just seems that they're better tippers. So, grandma, stop being stingy. Twenty percent is the norm. If your waiter was exceptional, add a bit more. If he or she was lousy, go with 15 percent. Most waiters aren't paid a decent hourly wage because they expect to make up for it with tips. If you're feeling like a Scrooge, your waiter might be unable to pay his bills. If paying a 20 percent tip seems like a restaurant is bleeding you dry, maybe you should go to a less expensive place next time. Chances are that restaurant doesn't need your patronage, but that server sure as heck needs your tips.
1. Be nice I know, that sounds like the stupidest, most obvious etiquette lesson ever, but I've encountered a lot of people who seem to need reminding. Waiters and waitresses have long shifts. Many chefs have even longer shifts. They're at a restaurant for a long damn time. They get tired. They get distracted. They're human. But so are you, so act like it. Say "please" and "thank you" to your waiter. Look a waitress in the eye when she's speaking or when you're speaking to her. If you need something, ask, but don't be overly demanding. If there's a problem with your food, don't take it out on the server. The issue probably originated with the kitchen or management. If you want to speak to a manager, go right ahead, but continue to do so politely. There is really no excuse for being an asshole at a restaurant. Dining out is supposed to be a fun experience. Don't make it less fun for your waiter or yourself by making unnecessary demands, raising your voice or acting like a server isn't even there. Unless you're doing something highly illegal (and way outdated), your server is not your slave. Be respectful to your server, and I guarantee, he or she will be respectful to you. And if you're super nice, you may get a free drink or a complimentary dessert. But really, that shouldn't be your goal. Your goal should be to have a great meal and go home happy and well-fed. It's a team effort. Do your part.