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What is actually annoying about restaurants, according to someone who has been a waiter for 25 years

(Marco Bello/Reuters)

Earlier this week, I published a column that upset a lot of waiters. At its heart, the piece was about a decision that restaurants are faced with: Should we encourage our wait staff to clear plates as soon as customers are finished with them, or wait until everyone at a table is done eating?

It was meant to be lighthearted and playful, but many people didn't see it that way. They disagreed vehemently with both my view and my tone. One reader, in an email that was both very angry and very funny, quipped: "Mr. Ferdman, if you were a dinosaur, I would name you hyperdramatic-pettysenstiveasuarus," before calling me an "uptight douche."

Fair enough.

Many readers, most of whom identified themselves as waiters, have made legitimate arguments defending or criticizing the practice. They also point out that it's easy to blame the wait staff for something that is entirely the management's doing. Other readers, most of them restaurant goers, have agreed with me, and then included a laundry list of other annoyances.

So I figured, why stop at kvetching over plates being cleared too early when there is so much else to make a fuss about? Let's gather all of the small grievances out there, and then, instead of bringing them to an expert in etiquette or a food critic, run them by someone who actually waits tables for a living and often loses patience with people and their petty complaints.

That person is Darron Cardosa, who runs The Bitchy Waiter, a popular blog about waiters' grievances with the customers they serve. Cardosa has been waiting tables for more than two decades. And he has tons of opinions on the things that annoy people at restaurants, why they happen, and who is really to blame. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you think there is so much entitlement with people who visit restaurants?

Most people aren't entitled, but I think sometimes people feel the need to exercise their power. That's the impression I often get, that they're only asking for things or requesting changes because they feel like they can or are allowed. So if you get free refills, even if you don't want a second soda, you'll get it because it's free, and then not drink it. People do the same with bread, and tables, and all other sorts of things.

The fact that you are able to go to a restaurant, have someone cook the food for you, and serve it to you, and clean up after you—that's already a pretty good deal. A lot of people don't have that, or can't have that.

That would lead me to believe that you disagree with how I feel about clearing plates before everyone at the table is finished eating, but you actually don't. Right?

I don't ever want to put my customers in a situation that makes any of them feel uncomfortable, because all that's going to do is make their experience less than good, which will probably end up reflecting in my tip. With clearing only one person's plate, all that's going to do is make the person who is still eating feel uncomfortable, make them feel as though they should stop eating so their plate can be cleared too. I don't want to rush people like that.

I agree with you because I'm convinced that that makes people feel uncomfortable. Eating at a table by yourself, while three other people watch you finish your food, that's not right. So I one hundred percent agree with you, and I actually know many other servers who do as well.

You realize that people are going to think that I cherry-picked a waiter who agreed with me, right? 

(Audible laughter)

It does kind of make everyone at the table feel uncomfortable. It either makes you feel like you're eating too fast or eating too slow. I don't know, I just agree that it's not right.

I do realize that it comes down to management. I was just talking to a friend about it last night, who is also a server. She said that her boss encourages her to take the plates as soon as someone is finished eating, and she hates it. The thing is, she actually works at a nice and expensive restaurant, a place that is considered fancy. So it's happening at white cloth restaurants, too. I think it comes down to money. Everyone wants to move tables.

But I also wish that other servers would chill out. One of my colleagues at the restaurant seems to disagree with me. He clears plates as soon as someone is done with their last bite. I let him do it, because it's his table, and his tip, and I think he believes he's providing great service, but it makes cringe. I guess people see good service in different ways. I see it as rushing, and he sees it as being very attentive.

So why do people disagree with us?

I guess on some level it's a personal preference. I remember at least once before leaving a plate in front of someone who had finished eating, because their companion had not, and then being asked to take the plate out of their way. It was as if I wasn't doing my job, even though I thought I was. As far as I was concerned, I was doing the right thing by leaving it so others at the table wouldn't feel awkward.

But it's also a business decision. I mean, this isn't usually a waiter's choice, right?

For a lot of restaurants, every single thing is decided by management. Even the smallest details. So it's important that people understand that even if they didn't like the way service went, nine time out of ten the server was just doing was he or she was trained to do for that particular environment. Whether it's clearing a plate as soon as someone is done, or re-folding a napkin when someone goes to the restroom.

I forgot about napkin folding. What do you think about it?

I find it kind of odd and disgusting, but I have had to do it in the past.

I've always hated it for two reasons. The first is that I hate having to pick up someone's napkin that they've been using, and having to refold it, because I don't want to touch their napkin. But I don't think that the customers necessarily wants my hands all over their napkin anyway.

Some places even fold the napkin and lay it across the chair, which is equally disgusting, because someone was just sitting on that chair who was sitting on public transportation just before, and now that napkin is going to go to their face. That's just gross.

So just because something is a tradition doesn't mean it shouldn't be tinkered with.

Absolutely. I know one thing that really pisses people off, and I don't like either, which is the tradition of always giving the check to the man. When the check comes, waiters just automatically hand it to the man, because the man must be paying. That can really tick a woman off, and it should—especially when she is actually the one paying for the meal that night.

People love reservations, but many restaurants hate them. What do you think about them?

When a restaurant doesn't allow people to take reservations it's usually because it's a small restaurant. If somebody makes a reservation for eight people at a restaurant that only seats 24 people, and those eight people don't show up when they say they are going to show up, that's a huge problem. That restaurant will likely have blocked off that table an hour before the party was supposed to arrive. If they don't show up, the restaurant has lost a third of its seating.

But restaurants also don't take reservations because they don't need to. There are many restaurants that simply don't need to book people ahead of time to know that they are going to have people sitting in every seat. And if the turnover is quick, you can make more money just by seating people as they come.

The problem is that all it takes is for someone to show up for a reservation 15 minutes late to really screw up the whole seating rotation of everything that's planned. You know, a reservation is only a guideline. You can't say your table is definitely going to be ready at eight o clock, because the people who had that table at six thirty might decide to have a cappuccino and an after dinner drink.

I actually think that not having reservations is the better way to ensure good service for people, and here's why. First, you're not going to disappoint someone by telling them you're going to have a table ready for eight, and then either you're not ready or they're not there on time. That really starts things off on the wrong foot, and it often spirals from there.

Whose fault is it?

Well, I think that the truth is that a lot of people are actually okay with places that don't take reservations. So if you have a problem with it you should go and talk to those people who are just waiting in line, and convince them not to go that restaurant until they take reservations again. I mean, it's probably not going to work. And remember, a restaurant owner doesn't really care who the five people waiting in line are. So if someone leaves, and someone else takes their place, it doesn't matter.

Here's one that a lot of people have written me about: How often waiters ask a table if everything all right. Is that all right? 

You know, this is an instance where I totally agree with people. That annoys me too, and I've been waiting tables for 25 years now.

I started waiting tables at a Bennigan's, where you had something called a two-minute check back. Two minutes after serving customers their food, you came back to make sure everything was okay, because that gives everyone a chance to taste everything. And after that, I was taught to swing by every once in a while and make eye contact so that you're readily available. But you don't actually need to interrupt their conversation to ask, 'Is everything okay?,' because if a customer finds something that is not okay, they're going to figure out a way to let you know. A server doesn't need to ask every five minutes whether everything is alright.

I get really annoyed when servers do that to me, and I'm a server. For a server to get annoyed by something another server does, you know, it takes a lot.

Do you think waiters are doing this to be more attentive? Or are managers pushing this onto their wait staff?

In this case I think it has more to do with the server believing that by constantly checking in they are giving better service. I can't imagine any manager expecting you to go by your table and ask how everything is every few minutes. I think it's just a misconception that that is giving good service.

Feel free to disagree with these things.

Oh don't worry, I will.

Ok, how about this one: Several people have pointed out that they can't stand it when waiters fill their water glasses when they are still half-full.

(Audible laughter)

No, seriously.

Ok, well, um, I think anyone who gets upset by that is just looking for something to be upset about. I mean, that to me is the server trying to make sure that they're doing their job. If a glass is half empty, that means it's probably going to be completely empty, what, four minutes from now? They just want to make sure that it doesn't go empty. Does anyone like an empty glass? No.

Anybody who complains about that, I just think, I don't know, god, that's what you have to complain about? There are plenty of people out there who would complain that we didn't fill it up enough. There's no rule, there's no right time. And, ultimately, I think it's safe to say people want water in their water glasses. So anyone who is bothered by that needs to choose their battles more wisely, and just drink the water. It's not that big of a deal.

Here's another one: Someone said that they can't stand it when servers ask them if they want to add something to a salad, because it tempts them to. I don't know about that—what are your thoughts?

I mean, look, the server is there to make money for himself and the restaurant. That's why when someone orders a burger, they ask if that person would like cheese on it. It's no different than going into the Gap, and, when you're checking out, being asked if you need any socks. It's the same thing. And bartenders do it too, when people order a martini, and then they ask if they'd like it with Belvedere or Grey Goose.

I don't think it's fair to complain about that. If a waiter asks you whether you want cheese on your burger, and you don't, then just say no thank you. Seems a little petty, especially when some people might forget that cheese is an option, or something can be added to a salad, and want it.

Okay, what about language. A handful of readers have complained about waiters who say "you guys" when they are waiting on a table with women. Thoughts?

So I have actually gotten that complaint before. I had a table once with only women, and I did exactly that. I asked: Is everything alright with you guys? And one of the women reprimanded me. She said, 'There are no guys at this table.' So I apologized, and said I had only done it out of habit. But then a few minutes later, when they were leaving, or I was giving them their check, or something, I did it again, accidentally. And the same woman said: 'For the last time, there are no guys at this table—please stop referring to me as a man.'

I think it's tough. If I had a table with only women, I would never turn to the busser and ask him to give "those guys" their check, because they're women. But when you're talking to someone, it slips. I understand why people might be upset by it, but it feels like small fries, like it shouldn't be the big deal some people make it out to be. Believe it or not, I once referred to a table of women as ladies and they got mad at me, too.

What about when waiters say "no problem" in response to thank you? A lot of people have written me about that. Subtle sign, or stupid pet peeve?

So that actually drives me nuts. I feel very strongly that saying "no problem" implies that what they were asking for could have been a problem, and it should never be that. So I personally hate it when people say "no problem," and wish it wasn't such a thing in the restaurant industry.

Anyway, yeah, I really don't like it.

What other gripes do people have with restaurants that you've noticed? Feel free to point out ones that you don't appreciate.

One thing that never used to happen but now seems to be really common is that people don't just order what's on the menu. Instead, they look at menu, and find components of, I don't know, like three different dishes, and then ask for all of them. They say, 'I want this from this thing, and then this from that thing, and the sauce from here, and the vegetables from here.' People are just way too comfortable now creating their own entree.

That's fine, I guess, if you have time to do it, and the kitchen can handle it, and your owner or manager doesn't care. But that's rarely the case that all of those things are true.

I think it's partly a symptom of the world we live in now, where we have so many options at the touch of our finger tips, that if we don't see exactly what we want, we think we're entitled to still have it or create it. I think that's spilled into the restaurant world. People say, 'Well you've got this, and this, and this—can't you just make that for me?' And if you push back they ask, 'Well, why can't you? You've got all the ingredients.'

That didn't happen ten years ago, but now it does. I think people feel a lot more entitled to get exactly what they want, when they want it.

How much do you think the rise of diet fads and awareness about food allergies has played into that?

A lot. But I'm not a fan of the attitude some people have about it.

A woman recently came into the restaurant, and asked whether the couscous that was part of a dish was gluten free. I said no, because couscous isn't, I think we can all agree, gluten free. Anyone who is gluten free, I thought at the time, should know this, that couscous is not gluten free. Couscous is full of gluten. Anyway, I told her that we could replace it for potatoes, but that the sauce that comes with the dish is made with flour, so I'll leave that off. And she said, 'Oh no, you can leave the sauce on, because some gluten is okay with me.'

That person is clearly then not gluten free. And they are making it difficult for people who do have celiacs disease, and depend on restaurants to make sure that there is no gluten in their meal. Those are the people who really upset servers, and I think rightly.

The ones that say they're gluten free and then order a beer. Does that happen often?

Oh yeah. It happens with beer, and it happens with desserts. Someone will say they are gluten free, that they can't have pasta, or need this or that removed from their plate, and then order like a chocolate brown or a piece of cake or something else that clearly has tons of gluten.

Someone last week told me that she can't have any sugar. Nothing. And then she orders a tonic water, which is all sugar. Does it get any more perfect than that? People who just make it up as they go along.

That's how you really upset a server, by making a big scene about something and then totally disregarding or disavowing it ten minutes later.

Can you think of any other unreasonable customer quibbles?

Oh, there's just so much entitlement. Let me see. When people feel like a certain table isn't right for them. When they say 'I don't want to sit here, can I sit at that one instead,' and point to the furthest table in the back.

Well, why? That table is all the way over there, and I don't have any other customers over there, and I'm going to have to walk all the way over there over and over. I had this one customer who changed tables three times, and it was incredibly frustrating.

I wish customers would just take the table we gave them. There's usually a really good reason for it, and I don't think people understand that.

Is it fair to say that part of the problem is simply the dynamic a restaurant, where someone is being served and someone else is serving?

The situation does automatically create this scenario in which I am literally serving someone. And some people can make you feel like that is all you're doing, being their servant.

The way I try to look at it is as a transaction, as a two-way street. My job is to do this, and your job as a customer is to be polite, and know what you want, and be grateful, and thankful, and friendly to me. At the end we have a final interaction, where there is an exchange, and that's the end of it. There shouldn't be levels or intimations that someone is better than someone else, but there are definitely some customers that feel like they are better than their servers. There are servers that feel like they are better than their customers, too, but I think that's far less common.

Look, some customers do really nasty things, like flash their fifty dollar bill, thinking that it communicates a server should do what they say for the next forty five minutes. Those are the types of people that can make you feel really miserable about your choice of career.