I've actually wanted to start writing something like this for quite some time, but as you all know, life gets in the way of such things. It really doesn't have anything to do with queer issues, but it's something that deserves a better look at, I think. Consider this part rant, part etiquette column, and part autobiographical. I'm hoping to have people comment and perhaps get a discussion going. Enjoy reading, "From the Other Side of the Table: The Joys and Misfortunes of the Restaurant Industry."
From time to time, we all go out to eat, whether it'd be with friends, family, co-workers, or even by ourselves. The reasons for going out are infinite in number: birthdays, anniversaries, going-away parties, welcome home parties, wedding rehearsal dinners, friends just getting together, business dinners...you get the idea. Throughout your dining experience, the restaurant employee that you're going to have the most contact with is going to be--needless to say--your server (aka waiter/waitress). Having a competent server is one of the best experiences that someone can have, because a good server:
*anticipates your needs
*helps you with the menu
*is friendly and professional
*brings out food/beverage in a timely fashion
*corrects any errors that may have been made with your order
*ensures that you're satisfied with your dining experience
*and LOTS more!
IMPORTANT CAVEAT: PLEASE READ!
This essay will assume that your restaurant server is all of the above listed things--this essay assumes that you have a good server at a good restaurant. We're going to start going course by course, from the moment that you sit down to the moment that you leave. I'll say right now that I'm not accusing anybody here of being bad customers; I'm just relating stories that I've personally experienced during my few years in the food service industry. This is mostly an admonishment to those who've made it miserable to be waited on--I'm talking to those rude people who've graced my restaurant. :) Ok, now that we're all set, let's get going!
First and foremost, if it's REALLY that important that you have a booth to sit in, you really should call ahead and make reservations if the restaurant of your choosing takes reservations. At the very least, when you arrive, ask before you're seated if a booth is available. Unless there is something truly wrong with your table (foul odor, etc.), you should never asked to be moved. This puts a strain on the host staff because you will have screwed up their seating rotation which in turn puts a strain on the severs, because one will have been what we call "double-sat." Double seating is when a server is given two tables at the same time or very close to the same time (say, 5 minutes). Double seating isn't so bad, but being triple or quadruple sat is dreadful.
Just a side note: if the restaurant allows for you to seat yourself, don't take a table that seats eight for your little party of three. That's the height of rudeness: it takes away an opportunity for that server to serve more people at that table, and of course, that cuts directly into his or her tips at the end of the night.
Every restaurant is different, but generally you're going to be asked if you'd like something to drink. Ideally, you will have put some thought into that before being sat. Of course, many people don't, and that's OK, too. Just don't keep the server there waiting for you to make up your mind. Simply say, "I'll need a minute to take a look at the beverage menu."
If you need a special garnish or accompaniment (such as a lemon or a lime, or cream and sugar) for your drink, make sure you ask when you order the beverage and not when your server brings your drink to you. I hope this is self-evident.
Should you be on a time frame (say, you have tickets to the ballet after dinner), you should allow plenty of time to eat and drive to the venue, with some cushion time to make up for unforseen events. Allowing just one hour to eat and drive there simply isn't an acceptable expectation.
Especially if it's an ethnic restaurant, you might want to ask your server what he/she reccomends on the menu. People all too often try and order something that's closest to what they know and are comfortable with, but there are vast tresures of culinary delights out there, and your server will be able to discuss those with you. And of course, always ask about specials.
Since I can't think of a good place to put this in, I'll add this in right now: just because you're in love with your young kids (or young siblings, etc.) doesn't mean that the restaurant diners will be. Screaming children are absolutely unacceptable and disturb the entire restaurant. As stated before, there are people celebrating special occasions, and the ill-behaved children in your party are ruining their dining experience. As much as nicer restaurants try and be kid-friendly, the fact is, they're not. Please, take the time and invest the money in a good babysitter and enjoy a night out without the young ones. Don't subject others to what you have to deal with away from the restaurant.
When ordering, try and keep the substitutions down to one or two. The chef has designed the menu with every detail in mind, and unless you think a certain side dish is absolutely foul, you may want to try the entree with the sides that were meant to go with it.
And for the love of Pete, if you have multiple food allergies (e.g. gluten, soy, dairy) and/or are vegan, you owe it to yourself to find a restaurant that is equipped to deal with these sorts of dietary restrictions. It sucks, I know, but it's better for everybody in the long run. Don't waltz right into a mom and pop Mexican restaurant and expect to find a lot of meals without some sort of animal fat, because odds are, that's not going to be the case.
Restaurants want to have happy customers, so if you have severe dietary restrictions, calling ahead and asking to talk to the chef about preparing a special meal in your best interest as well as theirs. Chefs are very accomodating when it comes to things like that if they know in advance.
I hate to bring it up and insult anybody's intelligence, but if you're food is taking a long time, it's not necessarily the server's fault. You have no idea what's going on in the kitchen: there may have been a large order ahead of yours; there may have been a foul-up in the kitchen...it's not always your server's fault directly. Most of the time, he or she has no control over what happens in the kitchen. Give your server the benefit of the doubt and go easy on him or her if your food is taking a little while.
If there's a problem with your food (it comes out cold, it's not cooked thoroughly, etc.) PLEASE bring it to your server's attention at once! Don't eat half of it and say, "Waiter, my food is cold." That just says that you really don't care that something is wrong with your food and that you are trying to score free food/dessert. And of course, that's just tacky.
Many restaurants have bussers, and they'll make an appearance from time to time to clear off some dishes, refill water, that sort of thing. You shouldn't ask a busser for a drink or food unless they offer. That simply isn't their job. If you need something, ask the busser to send your server to your table. It'll ensure that your request is fulfilled accurately.
There are lots of great restaurants with some sort of theme or entertainment. For example, there's a restaurant here in Portland that has a magician that'll come to your table and perform card tricks. The restaurant that I work at has stolling accordion players and all the waiters sing. Others have live bands. Some places have wine stewards. Things like these aren't something that you find everywhere. So, if you have loose dollar bills, you ought to tip the entertainment if you enjoyed it. They're out to make money just like everybody else, and chances are, they're part of the reason you came to the restaurant anyhow.
When ordering dessert, make sure and do yourself a favor and ask what the server's favorite dessert is. Ask what's in it. Servers are generally more than happy to talk about their favorite desserts.
And how could I forget to mention split checks?! Ugh, how thoughtless of me! Look people, split checks are the bane of every restaurant server's existance. They are time consuming, and they are a HUGE hassle. To make things much easier on everybody, the first thing to do is make sure you tell your server from the get-go that you'll be needing split checks for your table. And for the love of God, stay in your seat!!! Servers have various numbering systems they use to keep track of what you ordered, and if you move, you mess that up entirely, and you ruin any chance of having your checks split in an efficient manner. Parties more than eight in number SHOULD NOT ask for split checks. Instead, when the bill comes, figure out what you had and leave cash, or have a total ready (minus tip) to put on your debit/credit card. Then, of course, leave an appropriate tip (discussed later).
At the end of the meal, you should assess the service that you got that night. Basically, it comes down to "did they do a good job?". We all have brains enough to assess that, I think. Keep in mind, too, that you're not the only customer that the server is taking care of. So if they disappeared for a couple minutes, try and understand that they are just trying to give the best service they can to their other tables, as well. And that does take time. Hopefully, the people that you are with will keep you distracted such that you won't notice such things.
On a more personal note, since I work in the industry, I tend to be pretty forgiving with respect to errors that a server has made during the meal. Unless I sense that the server simply does not care about providing good service, then I'll make sure that's reflected in their tip. If service was so bad as to ruin my evening, I make sure and ask to speak with a manager about the server. Sure, they could be having a bad day at work, but if I'm being polite and very low-maintenence, then I expect to be treated in a civil, respectful manner.
But if you did receive good service, you should tip accordingly. "What's a good tip?" you may ask? The general rule of thumb is that if your server brought you everything that you needed and that was all they did, then 15% of the total bill is acceptable. If the server showed a genuine interest in making sure you had a nice dining experience, then 18% to 20% is in order. If you were dissatisfied with service, leave 10%. That sends a message that there was something wrong with your experience that night. Couple that with speaking to a manager about that server, that's a very effective way to show them that they screwed up. Big time.
Some people may not know, so it's worth writing down: most servers are paid at (or in some cases, below) minimum wage. They're trying to make a living, and tips are what they pay their bills with. Most are decent, hard-working people that want to do good work, make good money, and go home and be good citizens.
Keep in mind that at the end of the night, servers have to tip out, as well. They have to tip out their busser, the bar, the host desk, the expo (the person in the kitchen that brings out your food instead of the server), and sometimes even the dishwasher. Servers tip out on a fixed percentage of their total sales, not their total tips. So if a server gets screwed over on their tips that entire night, they're still responsible for paying X percent to the various departments (host, bar, etc.), regardless of how much money they'll walk home with that night.
If you are able, make sure and leave cash. Most restaurants now keep track of sales through computer. They also keep track of every transaction and how every ticket is paid for. Subsequently, the computer keeps track of how much a server has been tipped on a debit/credit card. In the end, that means those tips are being taxed by the government. That's all well and good, but in discussing tip outs for various people in the previous paragraph, it becomes very evident that the money is being DOUBLE taxed: first through the server and then through the busser, host, etc. as they have to report what tips they get, too. It's all a very bad system, and the less the government can collect twice on this income, the better.
Furthermore, if your bill is, say, $35, paying with a $100 is not acceptable. Especially in nicer restaurants where there tend to be more credit card transactions than cash ones, your waiter will have a limited bank on his or her person. Should they get a bill that's too large for them to make change for, then they'll have to get a manager to open the safe or strongbox and break the bill. In a busy time of night, this can be especially troublesome. In the end, you'll end up waiting longer and thus you'll be more inconvenienced and irritated.
If you can't afford to leave a good tip for good service, then don't go out and have a nice dinner. Make something at home, or go to a restaurant where you can afford both the meal and a good tip. Stiffing the waiter is not an option!
So there you have it. A few things I wanted to get off my chest. When it comes down to it, it's a matter of simply treating somebody with dignity and respect. You certainly don't want to embarass yourself around friends and family by being an ungracious diner...we're all much too fabulous for that! As I said before, I welcome comments, additions, disagreements, whatever. I'd love to start a dialogue about this!