Spending a fair amount of time in restaurants and having worked in them when I was younger, I know how tough the job can be. There’s no reason for us as patrons to make it even more difficult. In fact, it’s enlightened self-interest to help them serve you better. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years for making the experience pleasant for everyone involved. They’re targeted at mid- to high-priced restaurants, but the theory works everywhere.
They’re Servers, Not Servants
First and foremost, don’t treat them like they’re your domestic staff. While this isn’t a destination career for most of them (which is a shame—real professional servers are a treat), that doesn’t mean they won’t have pride in themselves and what they do. They’re there to bring you your food in a timely fashion and help you navigate the menu and foods, not take the verbal beating that you really want to be giving to your boss/spouse/cop that ticketed you. Treat them with the same dignity and respect you’d treat anyone else (unless you’re just a giant ass in general—then try to treat them like they could, I don’t know, spit in your food).
Learn How to Complain
Even in the best places, stuff sometimes goes wrong. Here’s a news flash: When it does, don’t be a jerk about it. Pitching a fit isn’t going to get it fixed better or faster than being calm. It’s probably likely to make it worse for you. Simply explain to your server what’s not right. They know what to do from there. Believe it or not, they actually want you to have the best experience possible. And I know “it’s their job,” but thanking them for fixing it is a good idea as well.
If something needs improvement but isn’t time-critical, a calm talk with the manager on the way out is reasonable. “Hey, we thought the courses were a little rushed” or “the server kept over-filling the wine glasses” isn’t out of line, especially presented in an adult manner.
Learn How to Compliment (aka “Over-Tip”)
It’s a general social ill that we’re willing to complain but hesitant to compliment. When something goes well, tell them. People are bringing you tasty food and delicious drinks. A little thanks isn’t out of line. When service is outstanding, we will tip 25-30%. As long as it isn’t really bad, we’ll still tip 15-20%, but we believe in positive reinforcement, so when the staff does it right, it’s a good idea to treat them right.
Be Sensitive to Their Time
Especially when it’s busy, everyone’s time is stretched thin. Don’t eat it up unnecessarily. When the waitress asks if you’re ready to order, be ready. Your dining experience isn’t enhanced by them hovering over you while you decide if you really want the pork or think you should eat the vegetarian plate. Being sensitive to their time also means understanding how things work in a good restaurant. Don’t ask for Bearnaise sauce when your steak arrives at the table—some things take time and care to make right.
Don’t have the waiter take a partial drink order and then make them take another one when they come back. Wait until everyone is ready. You knew you were going to the restaurant, right? Doesn’t it make sense to figure out what you might want to drink (even if it’s just “some kind of New World Red” or “bourbon”) beforehand?
This especially goes when you’re at the bar. Bartenders are serving both their own folks AND the dining room. If you don’t know what you want, ask for a wine or drink list. Don’t make them stand there while you figure it out.
Pro Tip: On a busy night at a bar, don’t order drinks that take lots of time to make (mojito, Old Fashioned, and the like). Yes, a great bartender will get it done, but you’re better off waiting until a slow night to let her stretch her mixology legs. Stay simple.
Don’t Try to Impress Anyone
No one needs to hear about your trip to New York and how you ate at one of Mario Batali’s places (although that might come into play later; see “Establish Relationships” below), or how you once drank a 1982 Lafite. They really don’t need to hear about how much you spent on it. Don’t pretend to have private conversations about the best veal you ever had but then have them loud enough for the waiter or bartender to overhear. The staff is there to make your meal better, not assuage your insecurities.
I’m not talking about setting out to be friends with everyone who works there (although making friendships isn’t out of the question), I’m talking about recognizing and acknowledging the folks who take care of you, or at least the ones you have the chance to interact with. If we end up going to someplace regularly, I make an effort to remember the names of the hosts, servers, bartenders, and managers who we’ve interacted with. During your interaction with them, they’re likely to unintentionally drop hints about stuff that they like—the waiter constantly suggests Australian wines or you hear the bartender talking about making sure he gets to watch the Steelers game.
When time permits (so not on a busy Friday night; see “Time” above), I’d engage the waiter about the Aussie juice. Find out what he likes, which producers are his favorites, and share some of my experiences, maybe make some suggestions of my own. I might commiserate with the bartender the next time I see him after the Steelers get blown out (unless, of course, I’m a Ravens fan, in which case I offer up the rub-ins). Even if you’re not the type to deeply engage with strangers, recognition of the fact that they’re human beings who continue to exist even after you leave the joint will take you a long way toward establishing a rapport with folks and enhancing your experience.
Face it: restaurant staffs recognize some people as good customers and some as bad. Why would you want to be one of the bad ones? Why would you want them to rock/paper/scissors to not have to wait on you?
Once you’ve established positive relationships, you gain a number of benefits. They’re more likely to find you a table when you don’t have a reservation (although it’s your fault, not theirs, that you don’t have one and have to wait an hour). They’re likely to offer you things they don’t offer to other folks, like special events (“Hey, we’re doing this special dinner in a few weeks; we thought you might be interested”). You can also trust them when it comes to taking a chance on food or wine. You can tell the somm that you want “something racy and exciting” or “dark and brooding” and be assured that he’s going to find you the right bottle. They’ll steer you toward dishes that are looking good tonight or have gotten lots of positive comments. And though I never expect them, occasionally we’ve gotten comps just because we’re good customers—and I mean good in the sense that we treat them well, not in the “spend lots of money there” way.
If you’re wine nerds like us, establishing a relationship with the person in charge of the wine program is important. We’ve gotten first tastes of things they’re considering putting on the list. We’ve gotten special bottles that simply aren’t available. We get a heads up when something new comes into the cellar or on the by-the-glass list. We get invited to the wine geek events. All in all, it’s a win.
It’s easy to enjoy your restaurant discoveries. While there are a few additional things to know due to the nature of the beast, simply applying the precepts of being a decent human being will take you a long way.