Spend 500 or so meals a year eating away from home and you, too, might be compelled to pass along some golden rules for dining out. In essence, speak softly and commit to memory this schtick:
Show up on time. Yeah, yeah, the traffic is bad and so is the parking around Washington. So build probable delays into your travel time to dinner. Being late affects not only how much money the restaurant makes, but also how timely the party booked after yours is seated. The foursome cooling their heels at the bar because your posse was 30 minutes late? More than likely, the restaurant is buying them a round of drinks.
Think good thoughts. Head into a restaurant believing you’re going to have a good time and chances are, you will. Everyone has sour days. Don’t use your waiter as a punching bag or your busboy as, well, your whipping boy. It’s poor form, it’s unfair, your date is going to rethink her relationship with you and would you be rude like that to your doctor or lawyer? No other industry takes as much grief from its customers as the hospitality trade.
Don’t sit at a dirty table. It’s as rude as squeezing a roll and tossing it back into the bread basket or talking on your cellphone while a server is trying to take your order. Wait until someone has had a chance to clean and reset the table before occupying it.
[Etiquette in the arts: How to behave in the digital age]
Use your inside voice. We would all like to think our table is a zone of privacy, a place where we can say anything we want, because we’re basically renting the space for the duration of a meal. But guess what? It’s not, Blanche, it’s not! So avoid language stronger than what you’ve heard in “Gone With the Wind,” do not recount (above a whisper) the gymnastic abilities of a bedmate and never mistake a dining room for a secure facility. You never know who might be eavesdropping; the competition’s wife could be sharing your banquette.
Be a proactive customer. Never assume a restaurant can handle your special dietary request. Always call ahead and spell out what you need to avoid, then repeat the same to your server. You might be pleasantly surprised by what some chefs can do for you given a little notice.
Don’t leave it to Beaver. I enjoy seeing kids in restaurants, provided they’re well behaved. But it takes some parental coaching at home to teach them not to play with the salt shaker, not to scream or cry, not to dump their rice on the floor and not to fidget too much. I know this because thoughtful readers tell me that role-playing in the comfort of home is the best preparation for a child’s introduction to dining out. Is a little one getting antsy? Take her for a stroll outside. Did Noah throw his mac and cheese on the floor? Clean up what you can, apologize and be sure to tip generously.
File complaints ASAP. The best time to let a restaurant know you’re unhappy with something — your seat, a dish, the server — is the moment the problem is unfolding. Most businesses will do their best to accommodate you. Just remember to be civil in your delivery. The worst time to air a complaint is after you’ve eaten, which doesn’t allow the restaurant a chance to make amends on the spot. Diners sometimes tell me they don’t want to speak up on a date or in front of a host. The easy solution is to excuse oneself from the table and talk to a manager out of view.
“I don’t like it.” Okay, then why did you eat half the dish and ask for the other half to take home? True story, from a few hundred meals ago. The same woman had the audacity to ask that the entree be removed from her bill. Diners, don’t go there.
Let them eat cake. Preferably, one that’s baked by the restaurant’s pastry chef. If you want to bring in your own dessert for a special occasion, be sure to call first and ask for permission. Some restaurants are happy to oblige for a caking fee of several dollars per person. (You’re using the restaurant’s plates and utensils, after all, plus its dishwasher.)
Camping is for the great outdoors, not for restaurants. When you’re finished with your meal, especially in a busy establishment, ask for the check and pay it promptly. Want to keep talking? Head to the bar. They serve coffee there, too.
Read our critics’ takes on etiquette in their respective fields:
- Hornaday: Improving manners at the movies
- Kaufman: Dance audiences are too caught up in the performance to be rude
- Pressley: Turn off your phone at the theater. And ignore the prostitute.
- Midgette: How (not) to behave: Manners and the classical music audience
- Richards: How to not be a jerk at a concert
- Kennicott: At museums, selfie sticks poke holes in the idea of anything goes