Restaurant staff are required to be courteous: It’s just part of the job. When they’re not, customers complain on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. Restaurateurs, however, can’t rate their patrons. And while most of the customers a typical server sees daily are well-behaved, some are anything but.
Despite increasing informality, there’s still an etiquette to dining out, but those rules can be complicated. Emily Post dedicated 43 pages to various aspects of dining out in her classic Etiquette, but we’ve narrowed it down to a few simple rules, including a few concerning things she would never have imagined.
- Make a reservation, be on time or cancel it. Not all restaurants take reservations, but always call to check. And as the Copper Crown’s Kate Bannasch observes, “If you can’t make your reservation, call and cancel. So simple to do, yet so often overlooked.” Failing to do this means someone has to wait for a table while one sits empty in the midst of a crowded dining room, because they were told it was reserved.
- Acceptable tipping is 20 percent. Reservoir Dogs should have settled this once and for all: We all wished Mr. Pink an untimely demise after that scene. Why not 15 percent? Because the minimum wage for servers ($2.13) hasn’t exactly kept up with the cost of living. Besides, it’s so much easier to calculate a 20 percent tip: Just take the total, divide by 10 and multiply by two.
- No touching. The most common response to our social media query about restaurant etiquette concerned sexual harassment. As eight-year industry veteran Candyce Collard put it, “I’ve had my ass grabbed many a time, and I’ve never even worked at a bar and really only one place that was open late. … So yeah, Don’t f**king touch people.” Claire Winkler, a bartender at Post 25, added, “Your bartender is not your girlfriend for hire. If we’re nice to you, it’s because we’re professional. Do not mistake kindness for an invitation. If we’re interested in you, we’ll let you know.”
- Hang up your phone. A 2014 Slate article cited cellphone use as one of the causes of longer wait times in restaurants. While you’re finishing that call to Uncle Steve, the waitress is standing over you, tapping her pencil on her order pad — and someone at another table is waiting to order dessert or get another drink. “Just go outside if you have to take a phone call,” says Strada co-owner Anthony Cerrato. Winkler, meanwhile, gave us a brilliant haiku that covers rules 3 and 4: “Put your phone away/Savor sensual delights/Except the barkeep.”
- There are rules, man! Like it or not, every social setting has its rules — some spoken, some not. Observe what others are doing and act accordingly. Is there only limited staff? Are people ordering at the bar? Maybe you should, too. And if you want to attract a server, don’t wave your hand in the air.
It’s also good to know how things like wine service work in fancier restaurants. “A guest ordered a bottle of Beringer white zinfandel,” remembers Robert Johnson, a 20-year veteran of local fine dining service. “I present the bottle and pour a taste to make sure it’s good. The gentleman swishes the wine around the glass, takes a long, deep sniff to get the bouquet, takes a sip and says, ‘It’s not what I expected, nor nearly as good as I hoped. Do you have another one that’s better?’
“No, I don’t! It’s white zinfandel!”
Traditionally, if you order off the bottle menu, when the waiter pours a taste, it’s to find out if the wine is corked or has oxidized. If it doesn’t smell like wet cardboard or taste like cheap vinegar, then it’s probably still good, and you should drink it. It’s generally fine to ask for a taste of something you can order by the glass, since those bottles are usually already open.
- Obey the law. Health laws protect us from horrible diseases caused by food-borne bacteria; alcohol laws limit booze-related fatalities. Kyle Beach of Buxton Hall Barbecue has a cautionary tale about a table of well-dressed 30-somethings: “I noticed empty mini-bottles in their section, removed them, and told them consumption of alcohol from outside of the establishment was illegal. I came back, noticed more, and informed them they’d have to leave. A lady in the group flipped out, spat at me and used very bad language.” Note: Spitting at or cursing your server is also taboo.
- Be civil. Don’t shout things like “I pay your salary” at the waiter (which, apparently, is common), and don’t smash the toilet basin, as has happened to several local bars. And before you remove your prosthetic limb and leave it sticking out in the aisle, maybe you should ask if that’s OK. This actually happened to former Magnetic Field bartender Ken Klehm. “My grandmother was an amputee since her early 20s, so that wasn’t what threw me,” he explains. “It was just treating that kind of dining place like it was your own home.”
Another sore point, says longtime local server Michael Parker, is “changing a baby’s dirty diapers in front of diners. I have seen this twice. She put her baby on the vacant table next to her and cleaned and changed it. Two couples at separate tables had front-row seats to this. Let’s just say the guacamole was no longer appealing after that.”
In another such incident, says Cerrato, “The customer after them sat down and got it on their jacket! That was really hard to explain,” because the staff hadn’t seen it happen. But they subsequently found the diaper in the bathroom — which was equipped with a changing table. “Fortunately for us, the woman was very understanding and supernice.”