Restaurant Etiquette: Class is in Session

Camille Livesay

With Charleston Restaurant Week in full swing, it seems like the perfect time to give our Grit readers a refresher course on restaurant etiquette. As a former restaurant worker of many years and many restaurants, I’ve seen it all when it comes to customer/service staff interaction. Here’s what the host, server, manager and chef at your favorite restaurant would say to you if they could, but can’t, so I will!

1. Mind Your Manners

I know it doesn’t seem worth mentioning, but you might be surprised to learn that this is a Kindergarten topic that needs revisiting when it comes to the restaurant scene. While server may be the most accurate, and gender-neutral, label for the person who takes your order, let’s not confuse it with servant. Think of them as someone with a specific skill set, there to provide you with a service. A service, you could not, or choose not to, provide for yourself. And while we’re on the topic of choice, more than likely, your server has chosen this occupation with intention. Whether they are working their way through school, pursuing a new career or like the flexibility of schedule and hours. Let’s once and for all debunk the idea that this industry is comprised of people who couldn’t do anything else. Treat the service staff as you would any other passerby with whom you’ll have a brief interaction. You might be surprised how far a please and thank you will get you. Pro Tip: They tend to go that extra mile for you (like sneaking an extra side of special sauce from the kitchen) when you’re nice to them. Who knew?!

2. Know your own allergies

We get it, everyone is allergic to gluten. Ok, in all seriousness, if you’re allergic to something, you know really allergic to something, not like it’s the latest #trending diet, it’s your responsibility to ask about every dish you order. Every ingredient isn’t usually listed on the menu, just a short description of the dish so you know what to expect. Most kitchens are more than accommodating to allergies and can easily make adjustments for guests whether it's leaving off the crushed peanuts garnish or leaving out the oyster sauce in your fried rice. Other kitchens may guide you to a different dish (or restaurant) altogether based on your allergy, but at least you know before ordering and no food need be wasted. Asking if your pizza is gluten-free as the pie hits your table because you don’t “do” gluten? Socially inappropriate.

3. Be on time for your reservation

The hospitality industry is in the business of making people happy. In order to stay in that business, they’ve got to stay in business. Restaurants are in the game to turn a profit like everyone else. When customers are late to reservations, it pushes back the reservation after that and the one after that and well, you get the point. Which leaves the Maître d’ scrambling to find a table to accommodate the people who actually are on time, eventually resulting in turning away customers and thus the loss of business. You might still be thinking, what’s the big deal if I’m 15 minutes late, the restaurant can figure it out, it’s their JOB! Yes, they can and yes it is! But it could end up affecting the quality of your experience in order to keep the evening on schedule. And I don’t know about you but I HATE being rushed through a meal!

4. What if I don’t like it?

This one is a toughy. You go to a store and buy a shirt, you get it home in a different light and don’t like. What do you do? Take it back of course. Same goes for a restaurant right? Sorry, not that cut and dry. If there’s something fundamentally wrong with the dish, say it’s too salty or burnt, more than likely your server will simply apologize for the inconvenience and bring you a replacement. As long as you’re nice about it, they may even throw in a free dessert, and everyone goes home happy! On the other hand, if you ordered something that’s exactly as described on the menu and you just don’t like it, the appropriate course of action is to remember that dish is not to your taste and not order it next time. You can’t work your way down the menu sampling things until you find something you like and expect to only pay for one dish. Unless you go to a buffet; at a buffet, that’s totally fine.

5. Tip!

Let’s talk numbers. Minimum wage in South Carolina is $7.25/hour. The Minimum wage for TIPPED employees, bartenders and servers, is $2.13/hour. That entire hourly rate goes directly to Uncle Sam no matter what, never even shows up on a check. Which means all of the money these employees make comes from their customers’ tips throughout the night. Let’s move away from the idea that tipping in a restaurant is optional. Tipping at Starbucks, for instance, is optional (albeit nice!) because those workers are making at least the federally mandated minimum wage from the company. Since we’re on the topic, what’s appropriate to tip these days anyway? Standard tip rate is 18%-20% of your order before taxes. Anything less would need to be the result of an egregious error on your server’s behalf. If you asked three times for a glass of wine and never got it, completely fair to dock a few bucks. When you come across someone who goes that extra mile for you, a few extra bucks on top of your tip is a nice gesture to say “thanks” – trust me, they’ll notice and appreciate it.