Food service is physically demanding, requiring a person to be on their feet for long periods of time, carrying carefully-balanced and heavy trays of food. It’s psychologically demanding, because they have to deal with a wide range of, uh, personalities. So when you go out to eat, restaurant servers deserve your empathy, especially when you consider that they’re working to make your dining experience pleasant and enjoyable. Most of us know that—and that making your server’s life easier will, in turn, improve your experience—so we try to show our appreciation. But how can you do that (beyond leaving a fat tip, that is)?
Stop stacking plates and leave off the garbage
Many of us try to be helpful to our waitperson by doing some basic clean up at our table when the meal is done, including stacking up plates and cutlery. This seems like a way to make the waitperson’s job a little easier, but many waiters wish we’d stop, because we don’t stack the plates properly, which makes their job harder. The worst sin, however, is piling garbage like used napkins and straw wrappers onto the plates, because now the server has to scrape stuck-on trash off your plates or fish them out of glasses, which is a lot grosser and more difficult than just cleaning them off a table top.
Make room for the food
One way plate manipulation will make your waitperson adore you, however, is to make room when they arrive carrying an improbable number of plates for your table. This is especially true for stuff that shouldn’t be on the table in the first place, like your phone or a kid’s tablet. While most servers will happily arrange the dishes on your table in order to ensure everything is placed properly, getting your stuff out of the way really makes that a lot easier.
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Speak up about any issues
Waiters and waitresses are hard-working human beings, but mistakes can be made. One way to make them hate you with the force of a billion suns is to stay quiet when you’re unhappy about something—especially if you then tip 10% as a passive-aggressive punishment because they forgot the ketchup. It’s one thing if you point out an error and you’re ignored or given attitude; it’s something else entirely when you don’t even give a harried server the chance to fix a mistake.
But be polite
Saying “please” and “thank you” might seem like basic normal behavior, but many folks forget that when sitting at a restaurant. The idea that a waitperson is there to serve you—and getting paid to do it!—sometimes gives folks the notion that they don’t need to play by the usual rules of society. There’s some deep psychology surrounding social dominance that plays into this, but it’s an illusion—servers don’t occupy a lower position than you, they’re just folks doing a job. Being nice to them will go a long way towards getting better service and having a more pleasant experience all around.
Waiting tables is often frantic and exhausting. Your waitperson is dealing with multiple tables, all with specific requirements and different pacing. It’s totally fine to ask questions about the menu and to need a few minutes to figure out what you’re going to order, but nothing sets a waitperson’s teeth to grinding like a table that can’t get their act together and just order already. The best way to your waiter’s heart is to ask concise questions and be ready to order in a fairly timely manner. This is especially crucial when the restaurant is super busy.
Don’t be too friendly
It might seem like chatting up your server and taking an interest in them is polite, but it’s often not appreciated. Your server is busy, and while some friendly chatter is always nice, it’s very easy to take it too far. If you’ve trapped your server at your table for several minutes having a conversation that in no way advances your meal order, that means all their other tables are feeling ignored and the plates are piling up waiting for someone to put hands on them. Limit your friendly chat to a few easy exchanges, and then get to the business of enjoying your meal.
In a busy restaurant, it can get a little frustrating when your server seems to vanish and you need a coffee refill or you’re ready for the bill. But grabbing any random person and asking them to serve you is a surefire way to irritate your waiter or waitress. Unless you’re experiencing seriously bad service, involving other servers (or even bussers or runners) just generates confusion and makes your server look bad.
Avoid surprise splitting
Splitting a bill between parties is common and no big deal, but if you’re going to get more specific—as in, everyone pays only for precisely what they ordered—you need to let your server in on this complex arrangement from the beginning. Asking them to figure out how to split a bill to reflect what everyone literally ordered is hard enough if they can keep track as the meal proceeds, but making the request at the last minute is especially rude.
Read the menu
If you don’t notice that the Swiss Burger comes with caramelized onions when you order it, that’s on you. Restaurants typically offer some pretty clear descriptions of the meals they offer, and suddenly realizing you hate everything that was just delivered to your table is one of the worst sins a diner can make. Take a moment to make sure you know what you’re getting so you don’t have to ask your server to magically transform your meal into an entirely different meal.
Finally, it’s worth repeating that servers are doing jobs—they’re putting up with your bullshit because they’re getting paid to do it, but often not particularly well. The number one way you can be an ally to your server is to tip them appropriately. That means knowing what an appropriate tip is—and these days, tips start at 15% for typical service, with 20% expected for exceptional service. Those are minimums, and if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t eat out.