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How to eat at a restaurant

Some notes for you, the diner, from a Madison server.

Illustration: Two restaurant tables and chairs littered with napkins, spilled wine, and discarded face masks, with coins and bills strewn about on the floor. In the foreground, a foot steps on a ketchup packet, which bursts in bright red. Illustration by Owen Tuohy.

I love working in restaurants, I really do. I love disappearing into the rush of a busy shift, I love the camaraderie, I love running around balancing orders and plates, I love food, and I love taking care of people. My favorite restaurant job was serving breakfast at Willalby’s in 2015, where I could get people coffee and giant pancakes and bacon for their hangovers, while reminding them in a whisper to drink water, too. But after quitting two other Madison restaurants in quick succession in 2021, I started to wonder if maybe I was too sensitive to do it, if the pandemic had taken away my drive, my kindness for strangers. I started to think I was the problem. 

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But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the problem is you: the restaurant guest. I know this might not be easy to hear, but I’m here to help. I’m here to usher you into the era where the customer isn’t always right, as painlessly as possible. I’m going to teach you how to eat at a restaurant.

The first thing you need to understand about restaurants is that they’re just like any other job: there are systems in place, and those systems exist for a reason. Restaurants are giant wheels that turn easiest when the kitchen (“back of house”) and the bartenders and servers (“front of house”) aren’t overwhelmed. Servers are in charge of certain tables in the restaurant, and we call that our “section.” A section might consist of six or so tables, and we are constantly running down a to-do list for those tables. Introducing yourself to a table and explaining the menu and taking their order takes longer than grabbing a check or some salt. It’s the host’s job to make sure a server doesn’t get overwhelmed by being “seated” with too many tables at once. So, for example, if you really really REALLY want to sit at a certain table, and someone at the restaurant says no, they are not personally attacking you or trying to ruin your evening. They might be saving that table for a reservation, or saving a server who just got “sat” with two tables right before you walked in. 

The second most important thing to understand about the people who work in a restaurant is that…they are people! People like how your children and your friends are people. That’s right: your server is a human being. Your bartender is a human being. The line cook is a human being. The host and bussers are human beings, too. They all have feelings and beating hearts and lives outside of this job. They deserve to be respected and listened to. Even if they’re a woman! Or not white! Crazy, I know. 

Even before the pandemic, serving was a hard job. It takes a very special skillset to be a good server. You have to be able to talk very clearly and kindly to people who don’t always respect you. And it takes a deep well of patience and understanding. You have to know all the food in extreme detail, all the wine and beer and liquor, you have to know how to keep the kitchen happy, and you always, always, have to appear to be in a good mood. You have to be strong.

Now that you understand those two basic principles, we can move onto some helpful Dos and Don’ts. Unfortunately, they’re mostly don’ts. But I’m doing this for your own good. The word “guest” implies some level of social responsibility for you, too. I’m not saying they always apply 100% of the time, but they do annoy most servers, and instead of telling you how much more difficult you’re making our jobs, we just lie to you. I’m done lying. I’m telling you the truth because I truly believe you want to be a good person, citizen, restaurant guest. You want to be kind, but you don’t know better. Now you’ll know.

The most important Do is to tip. At this point, 20% is the minimum. We’re doing this in masks and risking our own health to bring you comfort, and if you don’t tip, I will assume (correctly, I’m sure) that you are an asshole who has never worked in a restaurant. I will imagine running after you on the crowded sidewalk outside and yelling, “Sir! You forgot to tip! You forgot to tip!” as everyone around you turns to look at you in disgust. And the next time you come in I will remember how you didn’t tip last time.

Unless you are absolutely 100% certain this is the kind of restaurant where people seat themselves, Do not seat yourself. This is probably the number one pet peeve among my peers. Remember: there are systems in place, and when you sit down at a random table you might be messing up that system. You cannot game the system by seating yourself—instead, you’re starting off on the wrong foot as a guest. If you are at a restaurant where you can seat yourself, try to sit at a table that fits. If you are a party of two, do your best to sit at a table with two seats. 

Don’t wave at your server to get their attention. This is basic stuff, but I had someone whistle to get my attention during a recent shift. As a server I’m always doing my best to scan the room for someone who might need me. I’m trying to anticipate all your needs, but if I miss something you can always nicely say “excuse me” as I walk by, or try to catch my eye.

Don’t say condescending things about the labor shortage. 

Don’t throw money down in front of me for me to scrape up with my fingers while you watch. Place it in my hand. 

Don’t bring chairs from one table over to your table to make your table bigger. Don’t tell your friends to come meet you halfway through the meal and join you. They can meet you after. 

Don’t sit in a restaurant for more than like 30 minutes after they close. Maybe you’ve done this before and your server said it was totally fine. They were lying to you; it is not totally fine.

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Don’t comment on my appearance. Don’t gender me, don’t call me a waitress, don’t “ma’am” or “miss” or “sweetie” me. 

Don’t ask me what my name is. You don’t need to know my name and I don’t need to know yours. 

Don’t go to a restaurant the second they open. You look desperate, and it’s annoying. I personally have a rule of waiting at least 15 minutes after a restaurant opens. 

Don’t act shocked or offended that something on the menu has changed or isn’t available anymore. 

Don’t let the drunk man at your table talk down to or tease your server.

Don’t speak over your server or interrupt them. If I say, “Good morning! How are you?” The answer is not, “Two eggs over easy, bacon, and coffee no cream.” The answer is “Good! How are you?” I love building a relationship with a table, I want to take care of you, I want to bring you something extra for free if you’re having a bad day, but I can’t do that if you don’t talk to me nicely. 

Don’t complain about having a bad server. I’ve had bad servers before and guess what? I survived. I simply survived. And I was still grateful I didn’t have to make food at home. 

Don’t give the server advice, or advice for the kitchen. We are not going to go back there and tell them you think the dish should have less sauce. 

Don’t hold your server hostage at your table. They probably have other tables they need to check in with, and you’re ruining those tables’ experiences by not letting the server walk away. 

Don’t act shocked or offended when there’s a 45-minute wait on the Square on a Friday at 7:45. Don’t sigh or groan, just smile and say you understand and tell us whether you want your name on the list or not, so we can get back to work. 

Don’t compliment me instead of tip. Whenever someone compliments me a ton, I know they’re trying to compensate for not tipping. (I did not invent tipping. I’m sorry. If restaurant owners were willing to pay us more, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation.)

Do be aware of your space. Is your jacket in another table’s area? Maybe the restaurant has a place where you can hang it. Just ask!

Don’t tell us you know the owner. We know the owner too! And we probably do not like him! 

Do be patient. Be kind. Listen. Say please. Say thank you. Look around: sometimes there is a sign that tells you how the restaurant works! Read that sign. 

Don’t sit down at a dirty table. And don’t stand over that table and watch me as I wipe it down. I hate this more than anything. I often feel in charge and in my own power as a server, but sitting down to a dirty table and watching quietly as I clean it is demeaning to me.  

Don’t call the restaurant and ask if it’s going to be busy later. Think for a few minutes about what times of day most human beings eat, use your common sense, and answer that question for yourself. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. I can absolutely be a monster at a restaurant: I love asking for sandwiches with no bread, I love asking for things on the side. I ask nicely and I tip well and if the answer is no, I accept the no with a smile. 

Good luck out there. I believe in you.

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