Why do restaurants often feel like such etiquette minefields? Is it because we're so immersed in the online world we've forgotten how to interact with our fellow humans? Or because we're so stressed in every other aspect of our lives? Or maybe, with busy schedules and occasions to celebrate, each meal is weighed down with all the baggage of being a Big Deal.
Whatever the reason, restaurant staff have seen it all. A recent thread on Reddit's TalesFromYourServer subreddit dove into some of the unwritten rules that restaurant professionals wish diners would follow.
We decided to query a handful of industry veterans, who responded with much less profanity. Just don't assume they view the diner-staff relationship as an adversarial one. "We're human beings, and for some reason the negative always stands out, and that's unfortunate," says Ruth Gresser, the owner of Pizzeria Paradiso and fast-casual sibling Veloce. "Most customers are great, like most people are great."
Here's some advice on how to be even greater:
Be considerate of your server. "Try not to be too caught up in your own conversation with your guests," advises Jeff Strine, director of human resources and training for Jamie Leeds's JL Restaurant Group, which includes Hank's Oyster Bar, Hank's Pasta Bar and Twisted Horn. "There's nothing worse than not wanting to interrupt a table's conversation," while not being able to take an order either, he says. And even though your efforts to organize those dirty dishes are motivated by laudable intentions, "It's probably best to let the server clear those plates and stack them in their own hands," Strine says. "The server's a professional. They know what they're doing."
Be considerate of everyone else around you. "I'm amazed at how electronics still make their way into the restaurants," says Blue Duck Tavern general manager Joseph Cerione. Sure, we're all guilty of whipping out our phone for an Instagram photo or text, but the bright glow of a laptop, as Cerione has seen in his dining room? That's generally a no-no. Keep your phone conversations to a brief, quiet minimum, if you have any at all. Equally distracting: "Guests being intimate," Cerione says. "It's amazing what I've seen going on in a restaurant." So, please, keep the public displays of affection G-rated.
Don't treat the menu as a starting point for your own imagination. "There's generally some thought that goes behind the creation of a dish," says Gresser. "If you're trying to alter it, it may not work." Your server should have a pretty firm idea of what will and won't taste good, not to mention be doable by the kitchen. That being said, if you have a food sensitivity ...
Be upfront about your allergies. For especially severe ones, definitely call ahead to check with the restaurant. The private party at Pizzeria Paradiso that inquired whether there were nuts anywhere in the building? "There is a limit to what we're able to do," Gresser says. But "most restaurants are used to being able to handle some limitations in terms of people's allergies," she says. Just don't play off your dislikes as an allergy (and then be inconsistent about it). If you can't stand a certain food, ask your server for guidance and the kitchen may still be able to accommodate you. "We're hospitality workers," Gresser says. "We want you to have a good time."
Respect the corkage policy. When you think that up to a third of a restaurant's revenue can come from alcoholic beverages and wine, Cerione says, it's not an insignificant effect when diners bring their own wine. If you're planning to BYO, call ahead and inquire about the policy. And then abide by it. Blue Duck has a two-bottle limit per party, but he's seen guests show up clutching many more. And, by the way, it's a standard 750 mL bottle. Leave the magnums at home.
If you're not happy with something, speak up right away -- politely, of course. "The server, the staff, the management all want to take care of the guest. That's their business," Strine says. "They want to make sure the guest is happy when they leave." The manager would much rather you talk to him at the restaurant than get a phone call or email the next day, or worse yet, a lousy online review for something you never gave him an opportunity to address in person.
Keep tabs on your kids. "You want to make sure the kids are taken care of," says Meredith Cutler, general manager of Firefly, which is popular among the family set. Whether it's with some toys or a little screen time with your phone or tablet, keeping the little ones entertained can help head off restlessness or meltdowns. Look for places, and hours, that are more kid-friendly. Firefly, for example, gives cookies for children to decorate. Bottom line, know your kids, and know your setting.
Be flexible (but not too flexible) about your reservation time. Cerione says he's consistently surprised by how adamant diners can be about wanting a table at a specific time. "That 7 p.m. mark is it," he says of the prevailing sentiment. "It really puts restaurants in a hard spot." Be willing to eat earlier or later, and when you do snag your table (by reservation or walk-in), try to have your whole party with you. "It's always important to have your group there as quickly as possible, at the same time," Strine says. "When a restaurant has open seats, they're losing money."
Keep a little perspective, and just be pleasant. "I feel like sometimes a dining experience for guests becomes almost a life or death situation," Cerione says. "We're trying to create a fun, memorable experience. We're not performing surgery." As Strine puts it, "Being nice goes a long way." Eat, drink and be merry.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the surname of Blue Duck Tavern general manager Joseph Cerione.