The Dos and Don’ts Of Dining At A Restaurant Without Being A Jerk

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It’s a lame and cliched joke to say that in my early 20’s, “I was actor so, you know, I was really a professional waiter.” Hardy har har. But, I mean… I was an actor/professional waiter. At several different restaurants. The flexibility, the (sometimes) decent pay with less hours, the social aspect of working with a bunch of other young, creative types joking through the dinner rush and then getting drinks after work together — all of it seemed like an appealing way to make rent while taking auditions.

But, as it turned out, I hated waiting tables. Mostly, because I was really, really terrible at it. Some people are fantastic servers. They’re charming, efficient, knowledgable about the menu, and just fun enough to make you feel like you experienced something special while also being respectful of your space. I am not that person. I’m awkward, and shy. I’m afraid of strangers. I creep up to tables nervously to ask if they want dessert in a tiny, high-pitched voice. They can smell my fear and it makes them want to give me a five minute head start then hunt me like a wounded gazelle.

In all seriousness, being a server is stressful. Your pay depends minute to minute on whether everything is going smoothly when, in reality, most things are out of your control. How many people come in at the same time, what and when they order, how busy the kitchen is, and whether or not the bartender is slammed at the moment — these things affect the guests. Sometimes, no matter how hard you’re working, people are going to walk away unhappy. Or worse, get mean.

Sure, there are bad servers out there. I’ve had plenty of them (and I’ve tipped 20 percent anyway because 1. I don’t know what’s happening in their lives, and 2. I’m not a monster who thinks I can dictate people’s ability to pay for their basic needs because my sandwich is cold.). But for the most part servers want your meal to be awesome. That gets us a good tip. So we’ll try desperately to please you, but also, it’s a two way street.

There are things you can do too to make things more pleasant and run more smoothly for everyone. Because for every bad server, there are a hundred bad customers, and they make it a drag for all of us. And you might not even realize you’re being that bad customer! So, let me give you a few tips for being a rockstar diner. Because rockstar diners sometimes get a free cookie at the end of the night because we like you. A. Free. Cookie.


DO put your phone away when the waiter comes over to the table.

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The situation: The server has come to greet your table but you just thought of an amazing tweet, and you have to type it out right now. It’ll take like two seconds. “No!” you say, “You don’t need to come back in a minute, I’m almost done.”

Why you should put down your phone: First, of all: basic human decency. It’s rude to not put down your phone when another human being is talking to you. But from a more logistical sense, you being distracted on your phone stops up the whole process. There are meals and drinks coming out, waters to refill, and other tables that have orders to give. The two to three extra minutes your server has to stand awkwardly staring at you while you ignore them may seem insignificant to you, but it throws the whole rhythm off.

So put down the phone and interact with the people around you, or order take out so that no one can make you stop looking at unlikely animal friendships on Bored Panda for 30 seconds. Your call.

DON’T ask your server their name.

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The situation: You’re just being friendly!

Why you shouldn’t do it: In my experience, when a customer asks you your name NOTHING. GOOD. WILL. COME. OF. IT. Usually, it means they want to call your name out from across the room over and over again like you’re a dog that they’re trying to train. Or they want to write a mean Yelp review and mention you by name later because they don’t understand why young people think it’s okay to not iron their aprons anymore.

And in the small percentage of cases in which they aren’t using the name as a sort of blunt weapon, they will for sure forget it two seconds after I walk away, and call me Alyssa or Elena the entire night. Without fail.

Here’s the thing: it’s okay for you to not know my name. This isn’t the same thing as not knowing your mail carrier’s name or someone you see every day. We shared this one brief and beautiful moment in time together where you ordered the fish sticks and I brought you extra tartar sauce just like you like it. Let’s leave it at that, my love.

DO open your menu when you sit down, and DO close it when you’re ready to order.

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The situation: You haven’t seen that friend/former coworker/”vengeful ghost of an old lover” in forever. You’re in no hurry to order (you have to catch up!), so when handed the menu you just set it aside. But UGH the server keeps checking up on you to ask if you’re ready to order like they’re trying to rush you! Not today, Satan!

Why you should do this: It’s so simple. When you sit down, open the menu and put it in front of you. When you’re ready, close the menu and push it to the side. It’s like a code and people love codes!

Because look, I don’t want to bother you and your friend while you catch up about that time at summer camp when you had a crush on Bobby Smith and you guys kissed in the woods and then you accidentally ran over him with your car, got rid of the body, and made a blood pact to never-speak-of-it-again-unless-you’re-at-happy-hour-drinking-half-priced-Moscow-Mules anymore than you want me to overhear that conversation. But if I’m your server, it’s my job to get your order. And here’s the problem: As servers, we don’t sit in a life guard stand and vigilantly watch you the whole time to see if you looked at the menu yet and/or are drowning in your half priced Moscow Mule. We have other tables! When we’re gone, we have no idea if, in those missing 5 minutes, you took a look at the menu, decided what you want, and then closed it again. So we ask.

That’s not to say you have to look at the menu or decide on which half priced Moscow Mule you want right away. It’s fine. Just open it, and when you’re ready, close it. This social contract will ensure that everyone is on the same page. And nobody goes thirsty when they want that Mule.

DON’T ask your server a ton of personal questions.

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The situation: It feels weird not to know anything about the person serving you your endless pasta and breadsticks.

Why you shouldn’t do it: Because it’s their job to be pleasant to you. And so, you’re putting them in an incredibly uncomfortable position when you ask their relationship status or where they live or what they’re doing later. Just to be clear: You. Are. A. Stranger. Just a stranger who will determine whether or not they have enough money to fly home for Christmas this year. Don’t hit on them. If, for some reason, you are cosmically meant to be together, they’ll tell YOU they are interested. Otherwise, please assume that this is a business transaction.

And also, please don’t ask your server what they’d really rather be doing. You think you’re being kind by asking them if they have dreams, but it’s condescending as f*ck.

DO send your food back.

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The situation: You asked for no cheese, but there it is, melted pepper jack all over your burger and bun. Or maybe it’s a crappy menu and didn’t list that the pizza was going to have cilantro on it. It has cilantro all over everything and cilantro tastes like soap to you.

Why you should do it: You’re paying for this meal! It should be good and how you ordered/expected it. I have never worked in a restaurant where a manager has docked my pay because a meal has to be redone.

When we ask you if you’re enjoying your meal, we mean it! Because, here’s the thing: it’s really frustrating to see that you’re unhappy with your dish, then ask if there’s anything we can do, only to have you say “no,” and then tip us badly later because you didn’t like the food. A lot of the time it isn’t our fault, and if it is we’re going to feel awful about it, I swear. You’ll probably even get something comped. Free stuff! Woooo!

So, tell us if we or the kitchen messed up, or the food is terrible. And everyone can go home happy.

DO pay your bill when the server brings it.

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The situation: You’re done eating and drinking but this date is going really well! You want more time to play footsy under the table and talk about your dream of becoming a rapping, classically trained ballet dancing, sitar player. If you pay the bill, you’ll get kicked out!

Why you should just pay the bill promptly: Nobody is going to kick you out (Within reason. Staying two hours past closing is really rude, guys). You can linger! But by not paying promptly, you run the following risks:

  1. Your server’s lunch shift was over at two, but they aren’t allowed to leave until their last table has paid up. They literally have to sit in the restaurant not making money for an extra hour because of you.
  2. They can’t close out their tickets at the end of the night, and so, when you do pay, rather than being able to get home to their kids, they still have 20 more minutes of work to do. Work that they could have done while you hung out.

Look, you’re going to have to pay the bill anyway. Just do it quickly and then do whatever you want. It helps the staff out a lot, and it doesn’t affect you in any way. (Obviously, if you were going to order more things just nicely tell the server that you still would like another drink or whatever when they bring the bill. We’re happy to have you spend more money!)

DON’T steal their pen. But if you do, BRING IT BACK.

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The situation: You put it in your purse or pocket by accident. Why would you bother to bring it back? It’s missing a cap, it cost like a quarter, and besides, it’s JUST A PEN.

Why you shouldn’t do it: Hear this if nothing else: Pens are a precious, precious commodity in a restaurant, guarded with more care and suspicion than an infant in a public place.

Don’t believe me? Let me describe restaurant life: If, as a server, you happen upon a random drawer in the restaurant that has a box of pens, you feel like Nicolas Cage discovering America’s greatest treasure. You grab several for yourself (obviously) but then…Oh then…. you become Littlefinger from Game of Thrones, scheming, plotting, using the windfall to your own advantage. You tell a few select friends that they can have a new pen if they want, knowing that now they’ll have to trade shifts with you FOREVER. You are a benevolent pen God and they, your grateful subjects.

All this while vindictively making sure Jen WHOM YOU HATE never knows one f*cking thing about those pens. Sorry Jen. The pen god doesn’t like your laugh.

DO clean up your personal trash before you leave.

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The situation: What are you going to do with all the needles you just used to check your blood sugar? There’s other garbage on the table, right? Leave it!

Why you should clean up after yourself: The great thing about going to a restaurant is that you’re paying for other people to clean up the table and do the dishes. It’s awesome and totally worth it. And napkins, straw covers, sugar packets, the extra food on your plate, ALL that is fair game for us to clean up.

But used bandaids, dirty diapers, the tissue you blew your nose in? (all of which have genuinely been left ON TOP of tables I served), those are not your server’s job to clean up. Imagine someone before you leaving those things on the table you just ate on. Gross.

Don’t be disgusting and make us touch that stuff. We serve and touch your food, it’s super unsanitary. And do you honestly think we have a sharps container in the back? Please. Just take it with you when you go and dispose of your shit properly.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. The kind of change that doesn’t leave a dirty diaper on the table of a nice restaurant.