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Restaurant Guest Etiquette

Updated on January 8, 2016

Why Is This Guide Needed?

You need this guide, unless you have worked in the restaurant industry for any substantial length of time.

This guide will assist you in making the correct decisions before you get to the table, at the table, and before you exit the restaurant.

Unfortunately, guests walk into restaurants aimlessly, disregarding the basics of restaurant etiquette. Every word any restaurant staff speaks to you is some form of predisposed commentary that does effect your dining outcome. Restaurant staffs are trained, and re-trained, and re-trained yet again on everything from the basics to the new offerings. They are coached to not only speak to guests in a certain way, but to respond to guests in a certain way. You don't believe this? Walk with me, through the mysterious other side of the table.

Timing is Everything

Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner? Depending on when you decide to venture out, restaurants do have KEY HOURS. Breakfast is usually open until 11am, Lunch is usually 11am to 2pm, and Dinner from 5pm to 8pm. Why do you care? Well, you should. During the key hours, the restaurant is staffed up. Plenty of servers and other crew to attend to you. However, keep in mind that during normal restaurant SLOW days of Monday through Thursday, staffing is on the lean side. Hence, on these days, your experience may hit a patch of slowness.

If you decide to dine between 2pm and 5pm, heed this warning: Be prepared to wait some time to get your food. During off-peak hours, such as this, many restaurants run with a skeleton crew, to save labor hours, and in plain words, just because it's normally not busy. After all, who in their right minds eats at 3 or 4pm? If the restaurant is reasonably busy, and with two servers on duty, a Manager playing the role of busser and bartender, and maybe 2 cooks, expect to wait on your meal.

Most restaurants are not Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner places. Restaurants usually fall into two categories, Breakfast, or Lunch/Dinner. If you do find your way into a Breakfast/Lunch restaurant, the transition from breakfast to lunch will be a tricky one. Lunch begins at 11am, but breakfast ends at 11am. So, be prepared to see a crew that is running around more than average, and more on edge. I steer clear of these places, knowing what I'm up against, unless I will be dining some time before or after the transition.

Late dining is another area of concern. If the restaurant you want to visit for late dinner closes at 9pm, DO NOT walk in at 8:30pm or 8:45pm and expect stellar service or food. Why would you do this? The staff has been on all evening, worked through a busy dinner period, and now you grace the restaurant with your presence and expect a great experience? I laugh at you. Again, why do this? The kitchen starts closing down, around 8pm. The dining room and other areas of the front of the house are being cleaned for the next business day. If you must dine at a restaurant, be there at the latest, two hours before closing, no sooner to closing. Otherwise, go to a 24-hour joint, or wait until the next day and eat at a more humane hour.

ETIQUETTE TIP 1 - Know what to expect depending on the day, and time of day you will be dining.

ETIQUETTE TIP 2 - Avoid dining between 2 and 5pm, and please do not dine near closing time.

Welcome to "My Restaurant" !!!

Of course, My Restaurant can be the name of the restaurant you are about to enter. You may have the door opened for you by the host or hostess, maybe not.

Hosts and hostesses are a great part of the crew. Look at them as the conductors, or the directors. At their Host stand, there is a seating chart that most likely displays sections and table numbers, along with servers on duty, and their corresponding stations. What's a station, you ask? In most restaurants, during KEY HOURS, servers have 4 table stations. Elite servers may have 5 table stations, weaker servers have 3 or fewer table stations. Therefore, to make it easy to understand, during KEY HOURS, generally, servers have the responsibility of your table and three others. These stations are in the same vicinity for each server. Remember each server's four tables are in close proximity of each other. It makes it easier for the server to respond to multiple requests at the same time.

Ok, let's get back to your friendly hostess. If he or she asks you if you would like EITHER a table or booth, there is good reason. The station you are being taken to, has both available. How do they pick the station? How do they pick the table? It's all about rotation. Basically, servers are set in rotation to alleviate the possibility of over-seating. To put this in simple terms, servers do best one table at a time. They can give all the service that is desired and requested. When servers get set back-to-back tables, stress ensues. Expect slower service. When servers are triple set, it gets even worse. Yes, servers do have all 4 tables dining simultaneously, but probably in different steps of the meal. They can handle multiple tables staggered, but not all at once. Now you say, don't let it happen! Easier said then done.

As you are walking to the table, that has been selected by the hostess, refrain from asking to be seated somewhere else. For example, your hostess is walking you to a table near the front of the restaurant, and you ask to be seated in a booth you see open, near the back of the restaurant. Bad decision. The hostess will oblige, because the customer is always right. Unfortunately, you asked for it. The following scenarios may be playing out.

  • The section you sat in is over-sat. You will not get good service. The server is notified, and his response is something to the effect that he already has 4 tables, etc. Now the server is more stressed out. Good service is a distant thought. If you sat where your hostess was directing you, the experience would have been extremely more pleasing.
  • Another scenario is that the table you sat in, is in a closed section. Therefore, a server has to be made aware of running between his/her section to run to you and back and forth. Stress is rising for the server. Service will diminish. But, you asked for it.

Let's go back in time. Let's say you tell the hostess that you have a party of 18. The hostess may inquire if you have a reservation. Of course not! So, let's see what happens next!

First of all, "normal" sized restaurant parties are considered 4 guests and below. Many restaurant table designs are based on seating up to 4 individuals. More than 4 often requires some magic to happen. So, the hostess has you wait and she scrambles to find a server section, or any section of the restaurant that can accommodate your request. She finds a spot in the backroom, slides tables together, puts menus out and silverware and prepares the "lucky" server.

Because you decided to be rude, in plain words, and bring a party of 18 in without reservations, madness and stress ensues. Here's why.

  • A table of 18 requires the full attention of one server, sometimes two. Therefore, that server has to juggle his/her existing section for you. In plain words, that server has to basically abandon his existing tables to serve you. But, it get's better!

As you are being waited on, your happy party of 18, your servers original tables finish, and head out. Those tables are cleaned and left unattended. What's the big deal, you ask? Well, because or your selfishness, those tables remain unseated. Let's say the restaurant is busy and eventually a wait is forming. A wait is when hostesses take names and informs guests how long the wait will be. The problem is that the wait is now classified as a FALSE WAIT. What does that mean? Read on...

A false wait occurs when there are OPEN tables in a restaurant but, there is a waiting list to be seated. And, you know why, right? Yes, because selfish you walked in with a request for 18. That server had to abandon his section to take care of you. Now, other guests are inquiring why there is a wait with open tables. They get pissed off. They complain to the manager. It gets ugly. But, thanks for your patronage!

Now, let's forget the horrors of walking in unannounced with a party of 18. Let's say it's just two. As you walk to the table with the hostess, do NOT ask to sit at a larger table with, say, a place setting for four. Many restaurants have table built strictly for two (or one) so please don't be obnoxious and ask to be sat at a larger table. If you do this, you are hurting the server because he or she can no longer seat a party of four, thanks to your obnoxiousness. Fewer guests in a server section equals smaller tips. Remember, most server across the country work for 2 dollars an hour.

ETIQUETTE TIP 3 - Allow the host/hostesses to do their job. Let them seat you. It is in your best interest. Do not ask for another table or booth. Trust them!

ETIQUETTE TIP 4 - If you plan on dining with a large party, MAKE A RESERVATION or call ahead. Therefore, management can have another server on duty to take care of you.

Finally Tableside

Now you see what is entailed before you even get to your table. It's not brain surgery, but as you read, there are some fine details going on.

At the table, the pressure is off you. You wisely rejected your ambition to ask for a different table, you left 16 family members at home, and now you dine at the table seated you by your hostess.

The server will approach and greet you and perhaps suggest a drink or appetizer. Rarely are these suggestions their "personal favorite." Servers are instructed to say these things. Of course, they may actually enjoy that meal, but usually not. I do lecture my servers to make a sale. They are salespeople out there, they are trying to inflate your check so their tip is higher. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, be sure to get most of your information from the menu. This information is based on experience from casual full-service eateries. True high-end restaurants, the 4 and 5 star restaurant servers, are a breed apart.

If you brought along the "little ones" seated in high chairs or boosters, do not allow them to make that area their personal area of destruction. So many times I see parents, and I use that term loosely, allowing their offspring to trash the table area. Throwing sugar packets, crayons, crumbs, food, even drinks to the floor. You are in a public venue! Show some discipline. As you leave your filthy table, your poor server has the job to start cleaning up your mess. And, since it's a crime scene now, the busser will take longer to clean that area up. You know what that means, right? Your server has to wait longer to get another table, to make more tips. Remember, $2.00 per hour.

You got through the seating process unscathed and now it is time to dine. Believe it or not, when your server approaches you a few minutes after you have begun to eat, tell them something is wrong if that is the case. Remember, servers are doing their job to make you happy, so they can make some money. Unhappy guests = small tips or no tips. Allow the server to fix your meal and make you happy. That is what they are in this for. It's all about service.

Lastly, we need to look at TIPPING. Recall how we discussed how much servers make? How they race back and forth to get your every desire? How they fix your meal when it is not to your liking? How they race from the front of the restaurant to the back where you wanted to be seated? TIP THEM!

Twenty percent is the standard. I have tipped my servers my own cash when idiotic guests get their 74.00 check and tip their server 2.00. If you can't understand that it's ALL ABOUT THE TIPS with servers, then go THROUGH A DRIVE-THRU because you don't belong in a full-service restaurant. If you had poor service, and yes, this happens, think why. I gave you many clues as to why service can be poor. The odds are it is one of those situations. So, tip regardless. TWENTY PERCENT. If your service and food were outstanding, tip more.

ETIQUETTE TIP 5 - Servers are very low paid. Be kind and tip them well. Remember the scenarios that YOU may have caused, may make your dining experience less than memorable. Don't blame everything on the server.

In Conclusion

The restaurant industry and its associated employment positions are stepping stones for many workers. However, there are servers out there making great money and living a very nice lifestyle. These service employees, are there to serve you. To greet you, to make you smile, to bring your food and beverages, to thank you for coming in. Treat them fairly when tipping is concerned. If you need to zero tip, or tip 10 percent or less, you should ask for the manager to get an explanation as to what happened. Most likely, you may have played a role in a poor dining experience without even knowing it. That is precisely why I wrote this. I want to give all of you a new perspective on the operation of the Front of the House and some intricacies.

The next time you dine at a full service restaurant, I guarantee a better experience just by reading this!

Bon Appetit !

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