6 Rules For Dining Out That Waitstaff Really Wish You'd Follow

“When you see the ring light come out, you know it's going to be a bad table."
Taking photos is definitely a pet peeve, and not for the reasons you may think.
whitebalance.oatt via Getty Images
Taking photos is definitely a pet peeve, and not for the reasons you may think.

Now that we’re all back to dining out like we did in the good old days (pre-COVID), the rules of what’s acceptable and what isn’t have changed. For instance, fine dining once required specific place settings and dress codes, but that hardly exists anymore.

“Fine dining, as we used to know, is almost entirely dead,” author and teacher Matt Batt told HuffPost. “I think so many of the old rules of etiquette are kind of gone, and I think it’s for the better really.”

For several years Batt worked in restaurants, including a mob-run diner in Milwaukee, an Asian-German fusion restaurant in Columbus, and the James Beard-nominated Brewer’s Table — located above Surly Brewing — in Minneapolis, which shuttered in 2017. “It was in almost every way the best job I’ve ever had,” he said.

Last year he published the book ”The Last Supper Club: A Waiter’s Requiem” about his experience waiting tables and working almost every position imaginable at restaurants.

Michelle Wildgen is a novelist and writes about her experiences in the food industry through the books ”Wine People” and ”Bread and Butter.” Based in Madison, Wisconsin, she waited tables in high school and college, and for a few years worked at the James Beard award-winning restaurant L’Etoile.

“Post pandemic, I do feel like the standard of service has kind of gone down,” she told HuffPost. “I think people are stretched thin. They’re looking for more staff. They don’t have as much to work with as they used to, in terms of who the restaurant can hire and how great those people are going to be and how happy they are to be there. I do feel like it’s a lot more common for there to be a kind of dismissive attitude or for you to wait for a while, and it’s not as great as it used to be. But I think the food is often better.”

According to Batt and Wildgen, here are some rules to follow so dining out isn’t the stuff of nightmares.

Be respectful with your phone usage

“You can really tell by what people do with their phones what kind of table they’re going to be,” Batt said. “If you approach a table and not only are their phones out, but they’re all on them doing separate things, communication is going to be a nightmare. They don’t listen to each other, so they’re not going to listen to you.”

Wildgen worked at restaurants before phones were ubiquitous, but said the customer needs to pay attention.

“I personally wouldn’t care that much about phones as long as you stop talking and turn and talk to your waiter,” she said. “They’re there to help you have a good experience. If you want to be on your phone the rest of the time, so be it. But it’s really about getting that connection made so you can actually enjoy your time.”

However, be mindful of taking photos — we’re looking at you, influencers.

“It always irked me,” Batt said. “This is supposed to be a gustatory experience. At the best restaurants, they don’t let food sit under heat lamps at all. They want to plate it the moment it’s ready to go and get it to the table as soon as possible. And even just a minute of screwing around with taking pictures can cool down a dish. Your sauce can get craggy and gross. It’s food. Eat it.”

Even worse than snapping photos is when customers use photo equipment.

“When you see the ring light come out, you know it’s going to be a bad table,” Batt said.

Wildgen agreed: “The ring light coming in — that would be completely insane.”

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

“It’s the worst when [diners] don’t ask questions,” Batt said. “A lot of fine dining restaurants have really oblique menus where it’ll say scrod, tapenade — and that’s it. And you’re like, I don’t know what any of that is. It’s the worst when people order stuff thinking they know what they’re going to get, but then they didn’t ask any questions and they didn’t let me explain. Then they’re super frustrated they didn’t get what they wanted when it’s like, well, I could have told you what it was going to be, but you didn’t let me tell you.”

It’s better to be safe than sorry, so don’t be embarrassed to inquire about anything. “I really wanted people to feel relaxed and comfortable to ask whatever they wanted to know and not feel stupid about it,” Wildgen said.

At the same time, Wildgen said don’t be afraid to send a dish back to the kitchen if it’s not good enough. “There’s a way to be completely respectful and nice but still say, ‘I’m sorry, this is not great, or this is not what I pictured,’” she said. ‘May I have something else?’ Restaurants understand that.”

Keep your drinking in check

What if a customer gets out of hand with the boozing? Who handles it?

“A bartender or a maitre d’ or manager would likely be the one to do that,” Wildgen said. “It’s likely they’d first try to soft-pedal it — just drop the check and try to smoothly move them out. Luckily with a restaurant there is more of a finite endpoint than a bar where people expect to sit and drink.”

“You don’t want to make a big deal out of somebody who’s not drinking and you want to make a big deal out of somebody who is drinking [too much],” Wildgen said. “You can’t overdo it or it’s going to be really unpleasant. I think most people kind of get it together. And if they’re really hitting the drinks, then there’s usually a bigger problem afoot than just etiquette.”

Be respectful of how many samples you request.
Caia Image via Getty Images
Be respectful of how many samples you request.

Don’t ask for too many samples or substitutions

“One of the biggest frustrations I get working at a restaurant in a brewery is people want to sample everything first,” Batt said. “After a while it’s like, ‘Dude, order a beer and drink it. And if you don’t like it, order something else.’ It drives me crazy when people kind of fail to understand that if they order a drink or a sample of something, it’s the same amount of work for the server. They still have to get it from the bartender.”

Wildgen spoke about a substitution request she had with a customer 20 years ago. She wasn’t able to accommodate the customer, though he kept bringing it up. “Every time I went back to the table for the rest of the night to say, ‘What can I get for you?’ he would ask for the same thing again, just to make sure that I knew that he was upset about it,” she said. “It’s a dish of caramelised turnips. I highly doubt you woke up that morning and were like, ‘My life is worthless unless I can get my hands on caramelised turnips today.’ Get some perspective.”

The customer isn’t always right

“They’re absolutely not always right and sometimes need to be called out on it,” Batt said. He explained when he worked at Brewer’s Table, one time a group of drunken people came in and wanted to order fries from Surly Brewing, located downstairs. However, food from downstairs didn’t go upstairs and vice versa.

“You wouldn’t go to a food court at the mall and order from Sbarro and go, ‘Will you get me a rootbeer float from A&W next door?’ That’s a different place. You got to go through the different menu and ordering system and all that.”

Eventually, the chef kicked the misbehaving table out.

Wildgen echoed Batt’s thoughts. “I think that you’re all just trying to have a nice business relationship and a good interaction,” she said. “There are reasonable limits that I do think a lot of people forget because they’re busy thinking they can do anything they want because they’re the customer, which is not a reasonable way to go through life.”

Don’t split the bill with multiple cards

Finally, the bill comes. These days it’s easy to split bills, but it’s not advised to have multiple cards.

“I have been out with people who became so angry at being told they couldn’t split the bill entrée by entrée that they really acted rudely — that, of course, is not acceptable,” Wildgen said.

“As long as you tell the server pretty much when you sit down or when you order, it’s not a problem at all,” Batt said. “But if you’re like, ‘By the way, here’s a stack of six credit cards and I want all this different stuff assigned all these different ways,’ the risk of server suicide just went through the roof. I still have nightmares about it.”