4 Ways to Be a Better Restaurant Customer

Speak up and speak wisely; your words can make or break a shift.

restaurant etiquette oops
Photo: Allrecipes Image

Restaurant staff — both in the kitchen and the front of house — have had a daunting two years. What was once already a challenging career choice became draining amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, mask debates with challenging patrons, and often, the stress of attempting to balance childcare with work.

Not to mention the fact that the typical server salary is around $18,000 per year, a whopping $37,000 less than the average American wage, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Generous monetary tips are vital, and can certainly go a long way to help bridge that pay gap and to show your appreciation. But kindness and compassion will also mentally and emotionally offer "gratuity" that is priceless, says Kara Graves, senior partner and director of marketing for Uptown Hospitality Group in Charleston, S.C.

"It's very important to have a good rapport between staff and patrons. A big reason people work in the food and beverage industry is to take care of the patrons that walk through their doors," she explains. "Happy customers create happy staff members, and hopefully make a business thrive!"

Think of dining out like a mini two-hour relationship, suggests David Barriball, director of operations for One Off Hospitality Group, including The Publican, avec, The Violet Hour, and more, in Chicago.

"You're having a short-lived relationship with the service team, so put a little effort into making that relationship a positive one. You only get out of relationships what you are willing to put in," he says.

Read on for what to say (and what to skip) to be a dreamy diner in the eyes of the restaurant staff.


"Please" and "thank you."

Throughout this entire pandemic, most guests have been kind and engaging with the team at Saint Stephen in Nashville, Tenn., reports chef R.J. Cooper.

"A simple 'please' and 'thank you' always go a long way with the team and help the team to do their job in making the experience memorable in the best way for each guest," Cooper says.

This is especially important given the current state of the hospitality industry.

"Restaurants are understaffed, so a simple 'thank you' can make a big difference," during a busy, stressful day, says Hunter Evans, chef at Elvie's in Jackson, Miss.

"You're doing an awesome job!"

"We're always receiving constructive feedback in restaurants, so it feels amazing when guests go out of their way to say something entirely positive like this," explains Brooks Kirchheimer, co-owner of Hearth and Hill in Park City, Utah. "It goes such a long way with management or staff members who are working so hard."

Even a small comment like, "You're doing a great job!" or "Wow, you're handling all of these tables with such grace," can truly make someone's day, according to Kirchheimer.

"It's wonderful to be here."

In related news, keep top of mind that "restaurant workers are human," Kirchheimer says. So "being nice can really go a long way."

That means if you're delighted to have the opportunity to dine out (what a treat after pandemic-related closures, right?!), let the staff know by telling them you're excited to be sitting in their establishment.

"We love our regulars who are pleasant to wait on," Evans admits. "I'll send free bites from the kitchen, our staff lights up when we see certain people, and overall the guests and server have a better experience when this relationship builds. We know what wine they like, how they like their salads, what their preferred steak temperature is, and more. They take care of the staff in return with a generous tip."

Sometimes, say nothing. Listen instead.

Since restaurant professionals go out of their way to make their guest's feel comfortable, the most important thing any guest can do is to respond to a server's greeting, Barriball says.

Let's role play…

Server: "Good evening, nice to have you with us tonight."

[Guest offers sincere eye contact and a smile — with their phone away to limit any potential distractions.]

Diner: "Thank you, it's nice to be here."

"This sounds simple, but is truly appreciated," Barriball continues. "And be engaged. When your server is explaining the menu, nightly specials or talking about the wine list, make eye contact and listen to them. Your server really wants you to have a good time, so be open to it. The more engaged you are in your experience, the better," and often, all it takes is some courtesy and open ears.

Don't Say...

"What do you have?" or "What's good?"

Since the menu lists all of the offerings, which the chef felt proud enough to share, skip these questions, Graves says. And please don't ask for things that are totally off-menu and expect the restaurant to accommodate.

Try to keep modifications to a minimum, if possible, Evans adds: "No one in the industry loves it when a guest modifies a dish to the point that it becomes an entirely new dish."

"Is my table ready yet?"

Ninety-nine percent of the time, if you're waiting, you are top of mind for the host and service staff. So "don't constantly ask the server when your table will be ready," Evans advises. "If you are waiting, don't point to an open table and ask if you can sit there either, as there are other guests waiting too who got there before you. We will sit you when we can."

And if you arrive early, plan to practice patience.

"It is frustrating when guests ask to be seated immediately when they arrive well before their reservation time," Cooper says. "Our team treats all of our guests like guests walking into their own homes. I do not want my team to be robots. If they are, it takes the personal connection away from the team members and the experience for the guests."

"I really hate this."

No one wants you to struggle through a meal you're not enjoying, but a little rephrasing can go a long way.

"Instead, try 'I'm not the biggest fan of this dish or drink. Is there something else you'd recommend?' Trust us, we don't like it when you order something you don't enjoy, but it sometimes happens. It's always easier to turn around a negative experience when a guest starts off with a gentler remark," Kirchheimer says.

"What's your name?"

If a server offers up their name in an introduction, it's absolutely okay to refer to them by it. It can feel intrusive, however, to ask if they choose not to mention it.

"The only exception is at the end of your experience if you ask your server for their name to let the manager know what a great job they did or to post a review identifying the particular server for their great work. Let your server know why you are asking for their name," Barriball says. (Even easier: Look at the check at the end of the meal; the server's name is usually listed somewhere in print.)

Above all, keep in mind that "people work in restaurants because they like to interact with others and contribute to a positive guest experience," Kirchheimer says. "At the end of the day, building a good rapport and remembering locals not only brings guests in more often, but also helps them build relationships with staff members and encourages them to tip generously. People want to thank and reward those that put the effort in to remember them, their preferences and orders. We are all human, being recognized and appreciated warms the heart and makes you feel really good."

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