Restaurant Ettiquette: Closing Time

(December 11)

Before I ever set foot in Paris, I had learned from watching various films that there are two types of people; those who prefer to walk the streets of Paris in the rain and those who prefer the streets while dry while dry. While I find myself on team rainy-Paris (yes, I am a romantic), I found that I most enjoyed Paris at night, walking back to our Airbnb after dinner and watching the restaurant workers stacking the patio tables and chairs and sweeping the sidewalks while their last table finished their espressos. Continue reading

Restaurant Etiquette: Credit Cards

December 4th

1. Don’t ask the server to decide which credit card to take at the end of meal. We’ve all seen and heard the haggling at a table after the check arrives. From “Are you going to let an old lady pay for dinner?” To “It’s his birthday, he can’t pay!” Imagine playing out this scene at a grocery store or dentist’s office and the absurdity becomes immediately clear. The cashier at the Kroger does not care who pays the bill; he will simply take the first form of payment handed to him. So too with restaurants (unless you are a regular, in which case we will generally always take your card regardless of when you hand it over.)

2. If it is important to you that you pay the check rather than someone else in your party, there are ways to arrange it. The easiest strategy is to arrive early for your reservation and slip your credit card to the server before your guests arrive. Alternately, many restaurants will allow you to leave a credit card days in advance if you are willing to complete a credit card authorization form so they can keep your card on file. As alluded in point 1, being a regular guest at an establishment generally ensures that the scales will be weighted in your favor in a credit-card duel.

3. If your party plans to split multiple ways, it is a good idea to bring cash. It is also a good idea to ask for separate checks BEFORE you order anything. This allows your server to organize the checks in advance so there is no confusion when the check arrives at the table.

4. Regarding check splitting, there are, in fact, apps like TAB which divide the tab for you, enabling your party to pay the bill with one credit card and settle up amongst yourselves later.

5. Get used to paying at the table. Credit and debit cards with chips in them encourage restaurants and other vendors to arrange payment systems that allow customers to keep the card on their person at all times. Besides making your credit card look like something from the Jetsons, they shift liability for fraudulent transactions to the “least secure” part of the payment pipeline, i.e.– onto the restaurant. So while some guests may find paying at the table rather rude, it is likely to become the new normal.

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 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.