Restaurant Etiquette: Sending Back a Dish

To err is human, and when you are dealing with hundreds of plates in the course of an evening, there is always a chance that a mistake will be made, or a dish will fall short.

If there is something wrong with your meal, do not hesitate to politely send it back. Restaurants want their guests to be happy, and every proprietor I know would prefer the opportunity to correct an error in the moment, rather than have a guest leave their dining room dissatisfied.

I know, however, that there are horrible urban legends about servers spitting in plates of unsuspecting diners that send things back to the kitchen. All I can say to allay that fear is that in my thirteen years working in hospitality, I have never seen anyone do this, and remind you, dear reader, that even in the myth, the server-saliva garnish tends to only be applied to customers who are rude and uncouth (Though if you do have any suspicion that a hospitality worker has interfered with your food or beverage in any way, I would encourage you to patronize an alternate establishment).

Should you find yourself in the position of needing to send a dish back to the kitchen, here are some quick tips to smooth what can be an awkward situation:

1 Be polite. Please and thank you go a long way.

2 Be clear in your desire about what would be a satisfying solution. Would you like the steak to simply be cooked a bit longer? Or is the salmon over cooked to the point of inedibility and a fresh filet is the only thing that will correct the error? Being clear from the beginning will help the staff correct the error most efficiently. If the dish is, according to the staff, actually prepared correctly and you simply do not care for it, do yourself a favor and order a different dish to replace it. There is no way to correct a braise once it is out of the oven, or take the minced onions out of the meatloaf.

3 Alert a server or staff member as soon as possible so the error can be corrected quickly.

4 If the dish takes a while to cook, a seasoned manager or server will ask if you would like to enjoy the side items while the protein is cooking, or they may bring you a complimentary sip of soup or a side salad. If these things are not automatically offered, it is certainly reasonable to request something of the sort, as having something in front of you will help any guests you are dining with feel less self-conscious about enjoying their meals while you wait.

Restaurant 101: Planning a Party Out

when planning a private party at a restaurant, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Know your budget. You can have a fabulous Bridal shower or 60th Birthday celebration at any budget. Establishing your budget up front will save you a lot of time with venues, because it allows them to give you the best options within your budget. Beware of the old ‘champagne tastes on a beer budget’ trope, though. If you have a tight budget, don’t approach the most expensive restaurant in town for a Saturday night reservation and expect to talk them down. You will be wasting everyone’s time. It’s not a very enjoyable party if you have to watch the bottom line of the check the whole time to ensure you don’t go over budget. Set your budget first. Then pursue options that fit.

2. Know your guest count. Even if your guest count is only a ballpark, have a reasonably good idea of how many people you are hoping to entertain. Some restaurants have several options for parties of various sizes and if you book a room for 30, but in the end will have 45 guests, this may change things considerably.

3. Set a menu. Set menus are designed to speed the service of large parties and prevent long waits for food. Frequently they are multi-coursed affairs not to gouge you, but to ensure that there is food on the table while the entrees are being cooked. Before you set a menu, ask your guests if they have any dietary restrictions or food allergies that need to be accomodated to ensure that there is an option for them on the menu. Though, generally, it is a good idea to have at least one option that is vegan and/or gluten-free on your menu in order to be safe.

3. Pick a beverage package. Beverage packages are designed to prevent sticker shock at the end of your party by enabling you to plan in advance for how much your party will cost. They are not designed to gouge you. If you don’t want to spring for a full blown bar package, most restaurants are happy to run a tab on-consumption and cut it off when a certain pre-determined limit is met– i.e. “Guests can order whatever they want, but can you let me know when it hits $500 so I can cut it off then?” It behooves you, also, to specify if you would prefer tap or bottled water for the party at this time, as well. As if you prefer bottled, you’ll want to ensure that the restaurant has plenty on hand.

4. Ask about restrictions on decorations, times, etc. Restaurants love to celebrate your milestones with you; it is big part of our business! But if you plan to decorate the private room for your party, check with the venue to ensure there are not restrictions. This is not a scenario where it is better to ask forgiveness than permission, as there may be restrictions due the historic nature of some buildings. It is not sexy to talk about, but there are also places where decor cannot be placed because it would impede people escaping the building if there is an emergency like a fire or an earthquake. If you intend to decorate, find out how soon before your party you can arrive to decorate, and also find out if there is a certain time that your party is required to clear the space. Especially during the busy holiday and wedding seasons, there may be other events in the wings waiting for their party in the same space.

5. Don’t move the furniture, or the lights, or adjust the sound system, or the thermostat yourself; ask a staff member. The staff of the restaurant is there to assist you. That is a large part of their job. But they are also responsible for navigating several overlapping systems that operate within the restaurant space. The thermostat you see on the wall may actually be tied to the vents in the kitchen and by adjusting it you could very well be roasting the chefs. What looks like one light switch could actually be daisy-chained to lights in other parts of the restaurant that you cannot see. Furniture placed by the staff is placed in accordance with fire exits and egress for service, and if anything needs to be moved, the staff is more familiar with the weight and dimensions of each piece of furniture and less likely to be injured in it’s moving.

6. Manage your guests. Usually, no food will come from the kitchen until the chef has the whole order from the party in her hand. So if you have hungry guests, encourage everyone to sit down and let the servers know their selections. If you need help communicating to your guests, you can always request that the service staff help you usher guests to their seats with a gentle The host has requested that everyone be seated to place their orders.

7. Set it and forget it. Order all courses at the same time. The staff will organize the timing of the courses based on the pace of your party.

8. If you plan to give toasts or speeches, let the staff know ahead of time, so they can time the courses accordingly. Try to time your toasts or speeches between the courses. Generally, between entrees and desserts are a good time, as you can be secure in the knowledge that your guests won’t be slowly starving while Uncle Owen expounds on his blessings for the guest of honor.

Restaurant Etiquette: Making Modifications

1. Keep in mind that some restaurants don’t allow modifications. If that bothers you, keep in mind that there are plenty of restaurants that do allow them, and you will probably be happier patronizing those establishments rather than stewing in a restaurant that you feel is not accommodating you.

2. And some dishes cannot be modified in the way you want them; if the steak has been marinated in an oil that contains garlic, it is impossible to alter that dish to accommodate a garlic allergy.

3. Speaking of allergies– don’t characterize an aversion to something as allergic to it. Calling something an Allergy sets off an array of protocols that stop the kitchen in their tracks. Grills and tongs may need to be washed in the moment, gloves donned, fresh plates brought from another part of the restaurant to prevent cross contamination. This delays service for every party in the restaurant, including yours. If you have set off all these protocols to accommodate your “gluten allergy” that is truly only a desire to avoid eating carbohydrates, don’t be surprised if every staff member in the dining room stares daggers in your direction when you order the banana cream pie for dessert with the excuse that “a little gluten is ok, I’m not that allergic.”

4. Be polite. Politeness goes a long way. Not that you won’t be helped if you are not polite, but it can make a difference in how hard the server negotiates on your behalf with the chef. In the heat of a service, a server may know that she only has three serious favors a shift to ask of the kitchen. She’s not going to go toe to toe with the sous-chef for a guest that was rude; she’ll take his initial ‘no’ and be happy for it.

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.