Restaurant Etiquette: Tipping

It seems that with every passing day the protocol for tipping changes. Service charges are springing up on checks while the tradition of automatic gratuity for large parties is going the way of the dodo. What is restaurant customer to do?

I’ll be honest with you, it is currently a frustrating situation that varies from restaurant to restaurant, city to city, and state to state due to a patchwork of wage and gratuity laws.

1 Google it, or call the restaurant. Especially if you are dining in a major city like New York, Las Angeles, or Chicago, as several restaurants (even casual spots) have begun applying a standard 18% service charge in lieu of gratuity. Some restaurants no longer permit gratuities of any kind. Currently, it is best to find out in advance what the tipping procedures are at each establishment you visit.

2 When splitting payment between cash and credit card, do not give the cash tip along with the cash to go toward the check. Leave the cash tip separately on the table.

3 When dining in large groups, double check if gratuity has or has not been applied to the check. There is no need to double tip, certainly, but one should not assume that gratuity has been included (as a change to tax law in 2014 altered the way restaurants may apply these charges).

4 10%- 15%-18%-20%. The same standard still seems to apply, even in cities where there is not a sub minimum tipped wage. A 10% tip is still the standard way to show you were dissatisfied with the service provided. 15% is the average in quick service spots or smaller towns, 18% is the standard is major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and 20% is the universal indication that you were beyond satisfied with the service you received.

Restaurant 101: Expo

Expo: short for “expediter”, a person who organizes the flow of food from the kitchen into the dining room. This requires a strong knowledge of how long it takes each dish to cook (cook time) and how quickly the kitchen is currently cooking each dish (ticket time). Good expos will alert servers or managers if ticket times are getting long, or if a particular station in the kitchen is getting overwhelmed so that adjustments can be made in the dining room (i.e. If the grill cook is buried in orders and steaks are taking 25-30 minutes to come up, the servers will push pastas or salads). the Expo also typically adds the final garnish to dishes; a wedge of lime on the tortilla soup, sides of ketchup with the burger, a sprig of parsley and lemon with the halibut.

Sometimes the expo also runs food to tables himself, but in busy restaurants, he usually stays on the dining room side of the kitchen line, in the liminal space between the back of house and front of house, the intercessor between the servers and the chefs that keeps everything running smoothly.

Restaurant 101: Bussers and Backwaiters

Bussers and backwaiters are both dining room– “front of house”– staff in a restaurant. They perform service that does not include taking orders, pouring wine, or delivering drinks from the bar. They clear tables, refill water, perform bread service, and reset tables between guests. Sometimes they will ‘mark’ tables, i.e. reset them with clean silver, between courses (though some establishments reserve that task for servers.

Some more modern establishments will alternately use the term “Server Assistant” or “SA” in place of the older “busser” or backwaiter.

The terms are pretty much interchangeable and vary mostly depending on the style of restaurant; busser is more common in casual spots, backwaiter in fine dining, SA in corporate locations. In a way bussers and backwaiters are “assistants” in that much of their work enables servers to perform their tasks more efficiently. But I prefer the term backwaiter, because I think it is more indicative of their role as integral to the service. They may not be required to memorize the wine list and know all the allergens in the tortellini en brodo, but their work is no less important than that of the sommelier or the head waiter.

In most restaurants in the US you can ask any front of house staff member for help if you need a fresh glass of wine, or don’t care for your entree. But generally you will get these things faster if you request them from your server rather than the backwaiter. By all means catch the backwaiter’s eye if you have spilled something and need assistance, if you need more water or coffee, or if your table leg is wobbling. They are the head of the brigade and best equipped to meet those needs. But if you need to know if the cannelloni is gluten free, wait for the server.

Restaurant 101: 86

If you’ve seen any film or television show set a restaurant, you have heard the number ’86’ thrown around like a verb by restaurant staff.

It has two meanings.

The first one is “We’re out of” as in “86 the meatloaf” means “We are out of the meatloaf.”

The second meaning is little more ephemeral. As in “That guy at table 12 is 86.” This means two things in itself– one, “that guy” is going to be ushered from the premises pronto, and the manager or owner wants the staff to get a good look at him, because an 86’d guest is usually not to be served in the future.

Restaurants are loathe to lose a customer, so generally the 86’d person would need to behave absolutely heinously to be 86’d.

There are several theories as to where the slang usage originated, but the one that makes the most sense to me is as a synonym for… dead. As the parameters for a grave are eight feet long and six feet deep. So the meatloaf is dead; it is 86. And when a customer behaves foully, they can become dead to the restaurant; just as if they were eight feet across and six feet deep.

Restaurant 101: “Corner!”

If you have ever encountered a neighbor at your local supermarket hollering “Corner” while hurtling around the end of the cereal aisle, chances are you narrowly missed slamming into a person who works in a restaurant.

(I will neither confirm nor deny that I have shouted “Corner” in public spaces like farmer’s markets, parking garages, and the market down the street from my apartment.)

Restaurant staff work constantly in tight quarters with hot, heavy, cumbersome plates of food and trays of martini glasses, and so some strategies develop to make it less likely that a bartender with a tray of glassware will collide with a busser laden with arm-loads of dirty plates. When rounding a blind spot in the restaurant floorplan– generally near the major entrances and exits to the kitchen, bar, or scullery– if one listens intently, one may hear a chorus of “Corner” being performed throughout the night.

Get close to the kitchen, and you might also hear such juicy tidbits as “On your back!” And “Hot Behind!” Or their spanish cousin “Atras!” All of which serve the same general purpose; to keep folks from crashing into one another and spilling a tray of hot shortribs all over the floor.

Hospitality @ Home: Wine Service

This is simply a primer on basic wine service for those of you hosting in your home, or others of you who are seeking a restaurant job who have lied on your resumes (not that I have ever known anyone who has done that….)

1. Get a wine key. A real one, you are a grown-up after all. You want a wine key that looks like a swiss army knife, not one that looks like a metal man raising his arms as if to say “It’s gooooooood!” Additionally, your grown-up wine key should, ideally, have a hinged arm, not a solid one. Wine key wine service how to open a bottle of wine2. Learn how to use it.

3. Gather your accoutrement. A (polished) wine glass for each wine drinker, a linen napkin to wipe up bottle drips, and your wine key.

4. Pour a taste.

5. Pour 3-4 ounces in each glass. There is no need to overfill the glasses. Wine, like the rest of us, likes to breathe. And it is polite to leave some wine in the bottle, as some guests may enjoy a splash more wine than others.

A couple of other quick notes– one 750mL bottle of wine contains 5 glasses of wine. One bottle of sparkling wine serves 6. You can hardly ever go wrong estimating 2.5 glasses of wine per guest for a dinner party, as some guests will drink more and some less. Though if you know that your set is a thirsty one (that is not driving home), by all means calculate accordingly. Keep in mind that a good host should be well stocked.

Restaurant Etiquette: Reservations

Reservations are more than a guarantee of a table during a busy Saturday night, there’s a lot to know to make the reservation system work for you.

1.Call. I’m taking a firm stance on this one, because it is something I truly believe; it is always best to call rather than book online.  Calling enables you to begin establishing a rapport with the restaurant, and if there is any additional information that needs to be delivered, the staff can alert you now. Perhaps that 8:00 reservation available online is actually a table outdoors, or perhaps there is a large party arriving at the same time as your preferred reservation time, (if you arrive before they do, your service will certainly go faster). None of these nuggets of information will be listed on Opentable or Yelp. Plus, calling gives you the chance to test drive the place ahead of your meal. If the person on the other end of the line is surly or unhelpful, it might be a message from the ghosts of Dinner Future… advising you to avoid this place.

2.Special circumstances. On the phone call when you book your reservation, advise the restaurant of any special circumstances. Birthdays, anniversaries, food allergies, wheelchair or other accessibility needs, if you have plans after dinner and need to leave at a particular time. Even dropping a comment that “this is a meal with friends that haven’t seen one another in ten years!” Is helpful. Such a party will have a lot of catching up to do, and I wouldn’t book another party on that table for at least three hours.

3.Don’t reserve if your plans are not solid. And if your plans fall through, please call ahead to cancel. It might free up a table in time for guests that would otherwise be turned away, and it is always appreciated by the restaurant.

4. Remember; the computer is watching. If you have a pattern of failing to respect your reservations (i.e. “No Showing”) most reservation systems track this. No one is going to hold a good table on a busy Friday dinner for a guest who has No-showed for several reservations. If you have a habit of no-showing, don’t be surprised if you see a related trend of tables near kitchens and bathrooms, (or, in the worst cases, consistent rebuffs that the restaurant is already fully booked at every time you request).

5. Sometimes, there is still a wait. Anticipating the time it will take a party to enjoy their meal and close their check is not a science. From time to time  guests linger, or the kitchen gets backed up, or a busser had to leave suddenly because his wife went into labor. No one enjoys making guests wait for their table. And while every effort is made to have your table ready precisely at 7:30, circumstances might be such that it is not available until 7:53. When faced with this frustrating scenario, a person might feel compelled to huff “Guess I didn’t need that reservation.” But you did! You did! Because without a reservation, you would have been turned away at the door! There would be no table for you, not even in twenty-three minutes! And while certainly the restaurant ought to acknowledge your patience in graciously waiting until your table is ready by offering a complimentary appetizer or a glass of wine, no one is lying when they say that sometimes waits were simply unavoidable.

6. The Large Party Reservation— Many restaurants have begun requiring a credit card to secure a reservation for parties larger than 6 (or 8, or 12). This policy may be a total bummer for you. But these policies have been established for a reason (see: No-Showing). Yes, just like when we were in elementary school, a few jerks misbehaving can change the rules for everyone. There is no use wheedling the host when she delivers this information on the phone. There is no use escalating the conversation into a conflict by insisting on speaking to the manager. If such a policy truly bothers you, book a reservation elsewhere. Or, if you are granted an exception, don’t abuse it. It is typically the guests that exceptions are made for that tend to reinforce why the policy was made in the first place. Don’t be that guy.

7. Another guy not to be. Don’t be the guy who, upon arriving in an empty or sparsely filled restaurant at the beginning of the evening say “We have a reservation, but looks like we didn’t need one!” More than likely the tables are empty precisely because they are being held for reservations that are arriving within the next 45 minutes. More than likely the tables are empty because the restaurant just opened.

8. It is cool to have a reservation. On a related note, it is cool to have a reservation. You have a reservation! Your arrival is anticipated! Everyone is excited to see you! And everyone is grateful that you made a reservation, because reservations are about so much more than merely assuring that there is a seat for your derrière. Reservations enable the chef to know how many steaks to stock in the walk-in for the weekend. They help the dining room manager schedule enough bartenders so you don’t wait thirty minutes for a cocktail.