by Larry Magid
I wonder if Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander have similar pet peeves? (Photo by zoonabar posted on flickr with Creative Commons license)
I love restaurants, but not all are as user-friendly as they should be. After years of eating in them — including during the time I had young children — I’ve come up with a few pet peeves or “rules” on how waiters and restaurant operators can make life better for customers.
But courtesy is a two-way street which is why I added “Rules for customers” at the bottom of the article.
1. Feed kids immediately
every parent knows, when a child’s blood sugar level gets too low, they become irritable. It happens to adults too but children can be particularly susceptible and can’t always articulate how they are feeling. The solution is simple. Give them something — almost anything– to eat right away. When a family has to wait for a table, a quick simple snack — even cracker or a piece of bread — can make all the difference and when the family sits at the table, always ask the parent (not the child) if they would like you to bring something right way.
2. Don’t clear dishes until the customer is really finished with them
My biggest irritation at restaurants is when the waiter whisks away my dish or glass when it isn’t 100% empty. And even if it is, I think it would be courteous for them to ask before they remove it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a waiter take away a plate when there was still food on it. It’s almost like the waiter saying that they think you’ve had too much to eat already. Even an “empty” plate may still have some value. My wife and I, for example, sometimes like to sop up extra sauce on a plate with our bread. The other day, I put my knife and fork down for a few minutes while engaged in a conversation and when I wanted another bite — they were gone. It’s my table, let me control what happens there.
If you’re going to clear a plate from the table, ask the customer “Do you mind if I take this plate.” If they don’t say yes. Leave it there.
3. Bring water as soon as the customer asks
If a customer asks for water it’s probably because they are thirsty. Don’t make them wait a long time for it. Bring it right away. And don’t bring the beer or soft drinks ahead of the water just because they’re sold rather than given way. I’ve had this happen many times when I’ve asked for water and someone else orders a drink and they get theirs ahead of mine. Also, don’t assume the customer doesn’t want tap water. Unless you’re in an area where the tap water isn’t safe to drink, always give them a choice. If there really is something dangerous about the local water, then you should tell them, but in may cities tap water is actually safer than bottled water.
4. Be attentive but not annoying
Waiters and other servers are there to serve customers, not annoy them. I don’t know what’s worse — needing service and not finding anyone nearby to help you or trying to have a conversation with a dining mate and being constantly interrupted by the waiter.
I know this is a tough balance and you’re never going to get it completely right, but interrupting people engaged in an intense conversation to ask if everyone is OK can be extremely annoying and cause them to lose their train of thought. On the other hand, it’s also annoying to need something from a waiter and not be able to get their attention. Have staff that are an appropriate distance from the table but always scanning to see if customers need anything and, if they do, attend to them as soon as possible.
5. Seat parties as people arrive
I realize there may have to be exceptions to this but, as a general rule, don’t insist on the entire party arriving before seating people. If someone gets there a little early or someone is a bit late, it’s nice to be able to sit at the table and wait or maybe even have a drink or an appetizer while waiting. If the restaurant is very crowded, it might make more sense to have the person wait, but don’t make them unless it’s really necessary.
6. Don’t make people wait forever for their check, credit card or change
I can think of times when I was tempted to walk out of a restaurant without paying because it took me forever to get my check. While you don’t want to rush your customers by shoving a check in front of them too soon, you don’t want them to have to get up from the table and demand the check as I’ve had to do when I’m in a hurry. Again, it’s a matter of being attentive and looking for signals. And when you bring the check, either wait a moment (from a little distance) for them to get out their card or cash, or come back right away. When they do put down the credit card or cash, come back as soon as possible with the card and the receipt or the change. If they do pay with cash, make sure they have proper change for a suitable tip.
7. The bill should be legible
I’ve had many a restaurant bill that I simply couldn’t decipher. If possible, use technology that prints out a clear bill that itemizes every order. If not, make sure it’s clearly written so the person paying can understand the bill. Mistakes happen, but if there is a mistake, correct it right away with an apology.
8. Always disclose or ask before adding condiments, sauces or cheeses
When someone orders a hamburger, they’re not necessarily in the mood to have it smothered with mayonaise or other sauces and when someone asks for a salad they might not want cheese on it. Same for butter on bread or syrup on pancakes. By default, dishes should be simple and plain with as many options as the customer might want. Obviously, the menu should make it clear if there are sauces or cheese on an item but even if it’s disclosed on the menu, you should still ask if the customer wants them on their meal.
9. Sugar-free means sugar-free
If someone orders a sugar free drink like a Diet Coke, be 100% certain that they’re not getting one with sugar and don’t put a maraschino cherry in a sugar free drink. The person could be diabetic or have an aversion to any sugar.
10. Don’t make comments
If I eat my meal quickly or eat everything on the plate, don’t make a comment like “Oh you ate so quickly” or “You sure like to eat.” Those can be off-putting and bring up issues. I do eat too fast (and sometimes too much) and while I appreciate my wife reminding me to slow down once in awhile, I don’t appreciate a waiter making a comment when I’m finished.
Rules for customers
Of course, there are plenty of “rules” for customers too, beginning with treating the staff respectfully and tipping appropriately at least in the U.S. and other countries where servers rely on tips. If there is a problem, say something politely and remember that the waiter probably isn’t the one who sets policy, manages the restaurant or cooks the food. Also be courteous to people around you by not gabbing on your cell phone while dining. Finally, support policies that encourage or require adequate compensation and health insurance for all workers, including those who work in restaurants.
More from around the web
Ted’s Rules for Restaurants
NY Times 100 Restaurant Rules Reconsidered
NY Times ‘Readers Offer Their Own Restaurant Rules‘
Top 10 Unspoken Rules of Restaurant Service Etiquette
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