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 Etiquette: Children in the Dining Room

As the classic 1980’s ballad goes, children are the future. And there are many things that we ought to teach them well, one of which is how to co-exist in a shared space with other people.

Some of my favorite guests in restaurants are precocious little gourmands, but there are some things that adult companions of children would do well to keep in mind when dining out:

1The waitstaff are not childcare professionals. They are here to perform a job that involves carrying hot, heavy plates and trays full of highly breakable glassware. No one wants to see a child with a bowl of hot soup or a tray of martinis spilled on them. Not to mention that the restaurant is liable for the safety of all of their guests and staff during the course of the service. So should another guest trip over an unaccompanied toddler who is running through the hallway to the lavatories, it could be a horrendous collision. It is also worth noting that restaurants are not in the business of vetting their customers. Permitting unaccompanied children to race through a dining room with several entrances and exits is no different than permitting a child to race through a carnival or a department store.

2Make special needs known in advance. While restaurant staffs are not childcare professionals, we are in the business of working with the public and accommodating may different types of people. If your party needs space for a stroller, a wheelchair, or a more secluded table to help ease the anxiety of a young diner who is sensitive to large groups of strangers, etc, let us know in advance. We want you and your guests to be comfortable, and knowing in advance helps us plan for you.

3Ask if the restaurant offers a children’s menu before you arrive. While some establishments may not have a formal children’s menu, most any restaurant will have an informal array of dishes (plain pasta, lightly seasoned chicken with vegetables) that are designed to please the palates of young diners. If, on inquiring about a children’s menu the response from the restaurant is that they do not offer alternatives for children, or that they do not have high chairs or booster seats available then you know that this establishment is not attempting to be child friendly and your party may be more satisfied by taking your dinner elsewhere.

4 Most restaurants will offer crayons or coloring sheets for children, but not all do. It is a good idea to have some diversion available for the children in your party. Though if your diversion makes noise, such as a movie on a tablet or phone, please bring headphones. The table next to you may not wish to have the dialog to Finding Nemo as the soundtrack to their anniversary dinner.

5 If your child has reached her limit and needs to go, the most polite move is to request to have your food boxed and have the check brought rather than subject the entire dining room to the dulcet screams of a toddler meltdown.

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 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.

Restaurant 101: Turns

The word Turn in a restaurant is more than a verb, it is noun. In restaurant speak, a Turn is the liminal space between one party completing their meal and leaving the table and the next party arriving to take residence at the same table for their meal.

When service is running smoothly, turns are seamless. A party that arrived at 6:00pm is sipping the dregs of their coffee cups and signing the credit card slip by 7:45pm. They clear off moments later under a chorus of warm goodbye and thank you‘s from the assembled dining room staff. The table is clear of everything other than a few stray demitasse spoons and water glasses, so a single busser can carry all the dishes away in one trip to the scullery, and the table is re-set before an 8:00pm reservation arrives to take residency for another two hours.

Turns are necessary to most restaurant’s survival. In order to keep the lights on and the water running, establishments must be able to turn tables. On popular nights (Valentine’s Day, New Years Eve, Saturday night), the turns enable more guests to enjoy the space on a holiday or special occasion. Attempting to accommodate turns is why, when you call at noon on Saturday the only tables available for dinner that night are 5:00 and 9:00. The restaurant may be empty at 5:00, but the staff knows that all of their tables are booked for 6:30pm, so they may not be able to seat those tables at 5:15, or may only be able to seat them with the condition that they party clears the table by 7:00.

Restaurant Etiquette: Pre Fixe Menus

On special occasions such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Eve–and *ahem* Valentine’s Day–restaurants tend to rely on pre fixe menu.

This can be irritating. You have chosen a restaurant that you love based on the food you typically enjoy there! Why are they changing it up? Do they really expect you to order a $75 four course meal for your three-year old?

The main reason restaurants offer a pre-fixe menu on a holidays and special occasions is the same reason that they frequently require parties larger than twelve to select a set menu; it makes the service faster and more efficient so you and all the other guests filling the dining room can get their food in a reasonable amount of time.

Typically, the menu will include mouthwatering dishes from succulent pastas, unctuous roasts, cracklingly grilled steaks and seared fish…. It is in the chef’s interest to make everything tempting because she knows that if she doesn’t, forty-seven people are going to order the grilled ribeye simultaneously and her grill cook is going to get overloaded while the pasta cook’s lovingly handmade noodles disintegrate in a pool of congealing cream sauce waiting for the steaks that are on the same ticket.

If you have Pre Fixe Menu Anxiety (PFMA), here are some things to consider : Continue reading