Advice On How To Act In A Restaurant From Someone In The Service Industry

Words: Adam Guy | Illustration: Ailene Gray

There are very few jobs where you have to interact with such high volumes of people while having such little say on how those people treat you. If you’ve never worked in the service industry, imagine having a job where every person who walks through the door gets to act like they’re your boss and part of your role is to indulge that fantasy regardless of how little respect they choose to show you.

I’ve worked in the service industry, on and off, for years and am always amazed at how many people seem to struggle with the basics of what it’s fair to expect and how to act. So with this in mind, here are a few basic pointers on how not to be a dick when visiting a restaurant.

The dirty table phenomenon

I’m not totally sure of the psychology behind it. But anyone who has ever waited tables will tell you that people seem inexplicably drawn to the dirtiest table in the building. If you give someone the choice they always run straight for the only table you haven’t had time to clean yet and awkwardly sit down with confused annoyed expressions. Every restaurant will have a few tables like the ones next to the window, that are better placed than the rest. These are also the ones that get reserved first. When someone seats you they normally have a reason for picking the table they do. If you’d rather have a different one feel free to ask. But please don’t get all passive aggressive or confrontational if the exact table you want isn’t available.

Having someone wait on your table is not the same as having a personal servant.
We are there to take your order, bring those chosen items to your table and help out if you need additional information that may not be on the menu. Most restaurants get busy, and your server probably has a lot of other tables as well as yours. Making us run back and forth every time you want an extra cube of ice is disrespectful and unnecessary.

We probably don’t know everything you want us to

It’s obviously not unreasonable to expect your server to have a good general knowledge of what’s on the menu. But expecting them to have an encyclopedic insight into the exact origins of every ingredient in a bottle of ketchup might be a bit unfair. In the event that they don’t have the answer to your specific question you may wish to give them a chance to find out before angrily dismissing them as an uneducated imbecile.

Menus exist for a reason

Kitchens only carry stock that is needed to prepare the items that are on their menu. Not everyone has exactly the same tastes so saying that you don’t really like onions, or wanting to add extra avocado to everything is absolutely fine in most restaurants. But listing random meals then getting annoyed when we won’t make them, without taking the time to pick up a menu, can be more than a little frustrating.

Leaving your table in an absolute mess is not okay

There have been times when I’ve been genuinely lost for words at the condition people have left their table in. It’s not always families with kids that are guilty of this, but in general it is. Some families are polite, friendly and respectful. Some are definitely not. Having children is not an excuse to leave your table looking like crap.

Different people have different jobs

Just because one person doesn’t look like they are busy to you it doesn’t mean all the staff are lazy. A restaurant is divided into sections and it will normally be one person’s job to look after your table. If you feel like you’re being ignored then trying to get someone other than your servers attention is completely fine. But in general, we’re not all there just for you.

The person serving you doesn’t actually cook your food

If your food is taking longer than you think it should, then there’s nothing wrong with enquiring about it. But swearing at your server won’t make it arrive any quicker. Also, not every item takes exactly the same amount of time to cook. The kitchen sends food out when it’s ready, not in exact chronological order. You may have ordered the most complicated item on the menu. It may take an entire team of chefs combining their efforts to bring this masterpiece to fruition. The table next to you may have picked something that was mostly pre-prepared and just needed finishing off. Pointing out that you ordered three and a half minutes before them won’t change this fact.

The person serving you does not set the prices

If you think that your glass of Chardonnay, or that tiny starter are over priced then you’re probably not the first person to have thought that. There is even a decent chance your server agrees. So angrily lecturing them about how ridiculously expensive something is probably won’t achieve much.

The person serving you is probably earning minimum, or close to minimum wage

I think it says a lot about the modern world that it’s totally normal to have people with degrees still working in the serve industry. Just because we’re waiting tables it doesn’t mean we’re all idiots. But most roles in the service industry are considered unskilled, and for most restaurants it isn’t hard to find more staff. For this reason employers tend to treat their staff like they’re disposable, and it’s also the reason why it’s one of the lowest paying industries in the country. We don’t have the same sort of tipping culture in the UK as they do in the States. How much people tip depends a lot on the type of place you work at, but in general tipping can still make up a decent part of our income and can be a big motivator. You don’t have to tip, but we will definitely appreciate it if you do.

We are not robots. The way you talk to us can effect us on a personal level

Shifts are often much longer than a standard eight hour day. When you do get a break there is normally pressure to keep it short as other people will likely be covering your section. If you’re tired or stressed you still need to work. Your personal life may be in tatters and you might wish you could spend the whole day hiding from the world, but you only get money for the hours you do. So if you stay at home you don’t get paid. With that in mind, if we are not always as welcoming as you think we should be it doesn’t mean we have “attitude” or that we are being purposefully disrespectful, or rude. It might just mean we’re having a bad day. I have seen servers reduced to tears on more occasions than I can count because of the way people have spoken to them. Sometimes we have to interact with hundreds of people a day. I can’t overstate how much of a difference it makes when someone smiles and takes a second to acknowledge you as a fellow human being instead of just firing off orders at you. It’s safe to say most of us wouldn’t be doing this job if we didn’t feel like we had to.