Is Restaurant Etiquette Dead?

A well-heeled guest recently beckoned me, her waiter, to the table to urgently ask what apparently she thought was a very important question. “Why is that woman over there wearing a hat?” she asked scornfully, nodding toward a young woman wearing a cream-colored winter cap festooned with a stringy pom pom on top.

Sensing that I was flummoxed, she stared deeply into my soul for an uncomfortable moment and disdainfully pulled back on her crown of braided blond hair. “Hmmpf,” she muttered quietly to herself, “I guess times have changed, but that isn’t very classy in an elegant restaurant like this.” She seemed a bit young to be such a faithful disciple of Emily Post.

I didn’t disagree that it seemed out of place for guests to wear hats in the dining room, but I also wasn’t about to walk over and pull the hat off this poor woman’s head either. Is that what she expected me to do? Whether the woman wearing the hat was, in fact, cold or just making a fashion statement, it seemed inappropriate for either of us to intervene for the sake of defending some antiquated social mores.

It’s true, times have certainly changed when it comes to restaurant etiquette. Perhaps that’s a good thing. After the fury of the moment subsided, the woman asked for the check. She and her companion had plans to see the ballet. I hoped for her sake that no one in the audience had the nerve to show up in jeans. The usher might get an earful.

After she left, I thought about how much time she’d spent at the table on her cellphone. She discharged it often throughout the course of her meal to take photographs and videos of the food and some of our table-side presentations. Of course, it’s commonplace these days for guests to film everything, but what’s more intrusive in the dining room of an upscale restaurant: the incandescent lights of a cellphone screen or someone’s harmless headgear?

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I served another couple recently that was so consumed with the social media ramifications of their meal that they lowered every plate of food they’d ordered onto the banquette to meticulously photograph each one. They MacGyver-ed an iPhone swaddled in a linen napkin with its flash on as a makeshift studio light and snapped portraits of each dish using a second iPhone. The parties seated around them looked on incredulously, distracted by their odd behavior.

One evening, I witnessed two elderly guests sitting next to each other wearing identical eyeglasses that had dual spotlights attached to each hinge like they were about to inspect diamonds or descend into a coal mine. To onlookers in the dining room, it may have looked like the restaurant was being invaded by extra terrestrials.

Deploying digital technology this way has always clashed with the analog charms of a restaurant, but the two are inseparable now. Parents anesthetize their young children with makeshift home entertainment centers—propping up iPads on the bread basket and sealing their young ears with noise-cancelling headphones to quarantine them from any human interaction whatsoever.

Staffs of fine dining restaurants are resigned to being filmed without permission. Guests consider us part of the scenery. But imagine if the same people decided to film their doctor giving an exam or their lawyer taking a deposition. Having the nerve to do so would be outrageous. But why is a restaurant experience that much more of a spectacle than a trip to the dentist?

It’s partially our fault. The restaurant industry balked at the opportunity to take a stand in the early innings of the smartphone invasion. It should have treated them the way theaters do, insisting that attendees keep their phones in their pockets while they’re seated or at least implore them to use discretion. Instead guests act like boorish spectators at a rock concert.

Unfortunately, hospitality ideals make it difficult to enforce house rules without offending people. Suggesting that someone is dressed inappropriately, misusing their phone or being too loud can result in public shaming online or negative reviews on crowdsourcing apps like Yelp. Defending controversial policies can seem elitist and exclusionary. It puts restaurant management in a difficult predicament. Most restaurants these days have to choose their battles very carefully. No matter how much integrity there is behind our desire to set a standard for etiquette in the dining room, it’s a battle that we know we can’t win anymore.

Helpful Hints for Holiday Dining

No matter how curmudgeonly we get about guests’ improprieties, we always try to keep our focus on giving constructive advice and finding ways to help you become a more fluent diner. Between now and the end of the year, restaurants will play a big role in your holiday festivities. Many of you will dine out frequently, sometimes traveling to cities far away or maybe returning to your hometowns. Your holiday dining may occur in restaurants you’ve never been before or falling back on those old familiar neighborhood places. Some may seek out trendy places that appear in every critic’s year-end “Best Of” lists.

The holiday season—though often the most lucrative for hospitality professionals—is the most difficult time of the year to work in restaurants. Guests arrive with unreasonable expectations, dysfunctional families are easily triggered and staff is always burning its candle at both ends. Bear in mind that the people serving you are sacrificing time away from their loved ones to facilitate your sharing a great meal with yours.

Here are some helpful hints to make sure you get the most out of your holiday dining experiences:

Ask what time the table is needed back – Christmas is the season of giving. Turn times are a harsh reality of the restaurant business that becomes even more harsh during the holidays. The simple act of showing consideration goes a long way. Most restaurants will pander and tell you to keep the table as long as you like—even if they can’t afford extending the courtesy to everyone—but acknowledging that the table may be rebooked is guaranteed to boost your status with the restaurant hosting you.

Elevate your tip percentage – We know, we know… you always leave a great tip for the waiter. But if your standard tip is twenty percent, go up to thirty! Most tipped employees don’t receive holiday bonuses. Because they aren’t salaried, any additional income during the holidays usually comes from guests’ generosity. Dig deeper into your pockets at Christmastime and show your appreciation. Being generous pays dividends, especially at the restaurants you patronize most frequently. Plus, tipping well just makes you feel good.

Offer the waiter a glass from your bottle of wine – Servers rarely get a chance to taste bottles of wine from the list because they are often too expensive for management to open for educational purposes. It’s always a great way to build solidarity with the staff to welcome them to sharing your wine. You might even order a second bottle, ask the waiter to fill everyone’s glasses, then tell him or her to finish the bottle at the end of their shift. Drink and be merry!!

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Be respectful about unwrapping gifts at the table – We understand that friends and family often plan gatherings in restaurants as an occasion to exchange gifts. However, you should still be mindful how that can impede the staff’s ability to serve you properly. Don’t turn your table into an Oprah’s “Favorite Things” Giveaway episode. Order first before you open gifts so the server doesn’t have to fight for everyone’s attention. If possible, wait until your meal has been fully served before you unwrap gifts and always clean up any wrapping paper and holiday paraphernalia. Never leave your garbage behind!!

Don’t Wear Out Your Welcome – Especially if your holiday dining occurs on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, be respectful that the people working also need to get home to be with their families. If you notice you’re the last table in the restaurant and it’s getting late, pay the bill and thank the staff for being there to take care of you at such a late hour. They’ll appreciate the kind words, but they’ll appreciate even more when you get up and leave.

Leave a Positive Review for Your Server – The effect that review sites such as Yelp and Trip Advisor have on a restaurant’s success can be very influential. Unfortunately, guests with negative experiences often drown out the positive ones. Customers who leave thrilled rarely feel the need to leave feedback. Sharing your comments about a great service experience during the holidays can help balance the scales.

Stay Home on New Year’s Eve – Sorry, restaurant owners, but you’ve sucked for too long on NYE. It’s always nice to have a place to convene with friends and family to ring in the new year, but we can’t condone dropping wads of cash on overpriced cookie cutter menus and cheap Prosecco toasts at midnight. Restaurants never serve their best food on New Year’s Eve and food choices are usually very limited to simplify kitchen operations. Celebrate on January 2nd, and you’ll get the same experience or better at a third of the cost.

The Power of Forgiving Bad Service

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The other night, I experienced the kind of catastrophic scenario waiting tables that haunts every server’s dreams. One of my tables ordered the most expensive steak on the menu, a prime dry-aged cut of quasi-Wagyu beef from a boutique farm somewhere in bumblefuck that massages the cows and feeds them beer or whatever. You wouldn’t believe the price if I told you, so I won’t bother mentioning it.

When the runner plowed through the kitchen double doors hoisting a tray with their food, the steak plate flopped over and everything, including all of their sides dishes, slipped off the tray and spilled onto the floor. It looked like a crime scene at a butcher shop in a gentrified neighborhood.

This caused a chain reaction. The chef went ballistic. The food runner responsible for the blooper cowered by the dish pit. I almost fainted. The manager’s face turned ghost white. Suddenly, we all went into triage mode like an EMS crew. The manager approached the table to break the unfortunate news. The chef immediately began grilling a new steak. The sommelier opened another bottle of the wine they had free of charge to begin the reclamation process.

Miraculously, the guests who ordered the steak didn’t feel victimized. They seemed surprisingly amused by the whole situation. In high-end restaurants, this is rarely the case. It’s not uncommon for people to walk out in the middle of their meals when food delays cross their patience threshold. But this party showed remarkable humility. They were even concerned that someone might have been hurt when the tray collapsed. I thanked them profusely for being so gracious and promised we’d make their dessert course extra soigné.

The wait for the replacement steak was excruciating. The truth is, most of the time when crisis situations like this happen in hospitality, the staff suffers through it more than the guests do. In restaurants, timing is everything. Minutes feel like hours, and servers bear the burden of long kitchen waits every night like a constant ticking time bomb.

The re-fired steak took forty-five minutes before it was delivered, but it came out perfectly cooked. The guests loved it, but it helped that they didn’t want to hate it. We sent almost the entire dessert menu with our compliments, including a special table-side presentation that drew everyone’s attention. Other tables might have presumed they were friends of the owners. We treated them like royalty because they’d acted like it.

How a restaurant staff performs in crisis situations says a lot about the culture of the restaurant. They should take guests’ bad service experiences even more seriously as good ones. Do they run and hide from conflict or do they address it head on and take responsibility for any wrongdoing? But how guests respond to these crises says a lot about them, too. For people who depend on external sources to make them happy, most likely issues with disappointing food or perceived bad service will exacerbate their misery. Those anchored by inner happiness aren’t as likely to be unmoored by choppy wa ters.

It’s critical to acknowledge that when things go wrong in restaurants that it’s rarely about negligence or even incompetence. More often, service issues result from unforeseen turbulence or the grinding gears that result from the difficulty in trying to make so many different people—with unique tastes and personalities—happy simultaneously.

Yes… you always have the right to be upset. But you also have the choice to show mercy. Try to imagine yourself in the shoes of your caretakers, and you might respond more charitably. Calling off the dogs when things go awry will make you more worthy of hospitality, the sincere kind. It’s never a pleasure to take care of people who bully their way into restitution. Having the attitude that the “customer is always right” might get you what you want, but it will never get you respect.