Decoding Waiter-Speak

One of the most difficult aspects of waiting tables is learning to handle people’s questions at the table without always saying what you really feel. If you want to keep your job, you have to learn how to censor yourself. It’s not easy to keep your composure when you’re being assaulted by stupid questions or to hide how annoyed you are when someone says something upsetting. Offering candid opinions about the menu or being too blunt with guests can be also be dangerous as it can be construed as your being confrontational. So, maybe out of necessity, waiters learn to develop a secret language to artfully conceal what we really mean.

Here is an interaction you will never hear in a restaurant:

Guest: “How is the special Sea Bass?”
Waiter: “It’s probably not very fresh–we’ve been running it as a special for the last week and it hasn’t been selling well. I would not order any fish here.”

More likely it will sound more like this:

Guest: “How is the special Sea Bass?”
Waiter: “People love it but I think if I had to choose I’m a little partial to the meat dishes on our menu.”

Learning how to decode this “waiter-speak” will help you understand the hidden meaning behind what your waiter is saying so you understand what he’s really trying to tell you. Here are some of the most common phrases you’ll hear waiters say followed by a translation of each:

WAITER SAYS: “That’s definitely one of our most popular items.”

TRANSLATION: I don’t like it personally.

When you ask about something on the menu and the waiter tells you it’s “popular” it means he doesn’t endorse it himself and would probably order something else. Probe the questioning further and you might learn his favorites. Always be wary when the waiter doesn’t come out and say directly that he likes something. If he likes it, he will probably tell you it’s one of his favorites. Another warning sign is if he makes some other commentary on the dish to avoid taking a position. Eg. If you ask if something is good and he replies “It’s very rich.” (read: I think it’s too heavy) If he answers your question with another question, it can also be a warning sign that he is trying to guide you elsewhere. Eg. “It depends…Do you like spicy food?” (read: I get complaints that it’s too spicy and I don’t want you to send it back.)

WAITER SAYS: “Would you like anything to start?”

TRANSLATION: Your order sucks.

It’s bad form for waiters to come out and say it—“You haven’t ordered enough.” We understand that every time you go out you and your grandmother split an entree but we have bills to pay. Most servers are trained to address a deficient order by indirectly prompting you to augment the with appetizers, side dishes, etc. You will probably continue to insist that you’re not very hungry and your waiter will continue to think that you are just trying to save money. Since most waiters work for tips and the tips are directly related to a percentage of sales, we must find tactful ways to guilt you into ordering more food. If you don’t comply, we will retaliate by trying to turn your table as fast as possible so someone who orders acceptably can sit down in your place.

WAITER SAYS: “Can I get you anything else?”

TRANSLATION: Get out.

We can’t just ask you to leave. But you see those fifty people waiting at the bar? Yeah, they are waiting for you to pay your check. It’s heartwarming that you and your friends haven’t seen each other since your days in boarding school but try explaining that to the hungry people waiting over 45 minutes past their reservation time. You probably won’t get the hint but waiters will offer you something else to make you feel like you are welcome to stay. They are really offering you the door.

WAITER SAYS: “Sorry for the delay, there was some miscommunication in the kitchen about your order.

TRANSLATION: I totally fucked it up.

Waiters don’t like to take ownership of their mistakes so they will usually pin blame on someone else. Since the kitchen is typically hidden behind closed doors, it’s usually safe to say it’s their fault without getting caught. Shamelessly throwing the chef under the bus to save our hide is a desperate strategy but sometimes we have no alternatives. And some of us will do anything to avoid taking responsibility so we can salvage a decent tip. Don’t judge.

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WAITER SAYS: “It’s a pretty dry, full-bodied wine.”

TRANSLATION: I’ve never tasted it.

Describing wines in vague terms is a technique waiters use when they don’t know anything about the wine you’re asking about. Beware of waiters that use vague words to describe wines like smooth, elegant, round, fruity or velvety. They will do their best to fake their way through it to sound knowledgeable. Go ahead, let them wax poetic about the wine’s “tannic grip”—then just order the Chianti.

WAITER SAYS: “Can I start you with still, tap, or sparkling water?”

TRANSLATION: I hope that if I hide tap between the two bottled options I can trick you into paying for water.

This is a classic waiter ploy. Does it really confuse people into ordering more bottled water? Probably not, but we do it anyway. Or we’re forced to do so by management. You will be annoyed and ask for regular water but, like bums spare-changing on the street, we will not be discouraged. A new sucker is born every day.

WAITER SAYS: “I’m sorry that table is reserved for another party.”

TRANSLATION: I don’t want you to move because then I will have to reset your table again.

It’s a colossal pain in the ass after we’ve already started a table and then they decide halfway through their appetizers that they HAVE TO have that corner booth so we have to reset everything. Every time you ask to move in restaurants, your waiter’s first thought is the inconvenience of having to change the entire place setting so he will do everything in his power to prevent you from moving.

WAITER SAYS: “I can ask the chef if he’ll make it for you.”

TRANSLATION: I am going to walk in and out of the kitchen pretending to ask the chef and then tell you no.

There is a good chance that the chef will be willing to accommodate whatever special request you have. Unfortunately, there is a better chance that the chef is buried with tickets and doesn’t want to be bothered by another waiter with another special request. Sometimes he says no just because he’s sick of special requests. You’re welcome to go ask him yourself if it’s so important to you but we’re not gonna take a bullet just so that your four-year old child can have plain pasta with butter.

WAITER SAYS: “Sorry for your food is taking so long. It’s on the way.”

TRANSACTION: I forgot to order it.

We thought we put in the order. Honestly. But then that cute hostess who just started last week came over and we got distracted. Once we finally realize how long you’ve been waiting, we check the POS. Oh shit! We panic, run to get a manager and makeup a story about how we put in the order but someone else must have canceled it when we forgot to hit “send” on the terminal. We take a deep breath, calmly walk over to your table and… lie to your face.

WAITER SAYS: “It’s hard to compare them, those are two of my favorite dishes.”

TRANSLATION: You are probably going to blame me if you don’t like which one I recommend so I’m not taking the bait.

We’re not gonna fall into that trap, buddy. Nice try. You will order what we recommend and then when we check back on your food you’ll act all brooding and make some passive-aggressive comment how you’re underwhelmed and maybe you’ll try the other dish next time. You will always end the conversation with “It’s ok, it’s not your fault.” Of course it isn’t.

WAITER SAYS: “We stay open until the last guest leaves.”

TRANSLATION: It’s time to go when we drop the check and turn the lights on.

Of course, we have to SAY you can stay as long as you like. You’ll smile and remark at how refreshing it is that the staff doesn’t rush you when it’s near closing time like so many other restaurants do. But we have to be back for brunch at 10 AM, bro. We’re not going straight home either. One of the guys in the kitchen is celebrating his last night and we’re going out for karaoke till at least 4 AM. So… “Can I get you anything else?” (Now you know what that means!) No? Didn’t think so.

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WAITER SAYS: “I’m sorry I could not get an authorization on your credit card.”

TRANSLATION: “You’re broke, dude. Don’t even dare try to skimp on my tip.”

Do you have another card we can use? Hell no we don’t take Discover! Listen, it’s very touching that you’re treating your girlfriend to a fancy dinner for your anniversary and we hope you had a great time but it’s customary that when you finish your meal that YOU HAVE ENOUGH MONEY TO PAY FOR IT. Hopefully, after your new card is approved, you will overcompensate with a big tip to reassure present company about the state of your financial health. It’ll be our little secret.

Return To Sender

“How is everything?” the waiter asks you three bites into your over-cooked pork chop. You choose courtesy over honesty, muster a phony smile and continue eating. You’re disappointed in your meal and the staff thinks you’re happy.

Sending food back in a restaurant is considered gauche but it’s not nearly as obnoxious to waitstaff as people think.  Most servers are more irritated by passive-agressive guests who hide their dissatisfaction than those who are forthcoming about it.

Knowing how to properly send food back in a restaurant is a gentle tango. Here are some guidelines that will help make the transaction go more smoothly:

Avoid using language that lays blame on the kitchen or the server:

“Is this supposed to be burnt like this?”

“I wanted it Medium. This is totally raw.”

“I thought you said the sauce was going to be on the side?”

Avoid making broad statements or speaking in hyperbole:

“This is waaaaaay too salty!”

“This is so spicy it’s LITERALLY burning my mouth.”

“Would you eat this??”

Never suggest to the server that he try your food or that the chef taste it to confirm what you perceive to be wrong. We are professionals, you are not. Offering us your half-eaten food is a sure-fire way to send the negotiation into a tailspin.

Try to communicate to the server in simple language what is wrong and what you’d like instead.  Be as specific as possible. Ideally, phrase your concerns in question form.  Making statements can sound presumptuous and will likely be misinterpreted.  Don’t forget that the server is the only advocate for your needs in the kitchen, so it’s unwise to sour this relationship if you want results.

Here are a few examples of more productive ways of returning food:

“I’m sorry but this dish isn’t what I expected.   Would it be possible to order something else?”

“Do you think they could cook this a little longer?  The middle is too rare for me.”

“Would it take long to make another salad? I’m sorry… this one has too much dressing for my taste.” 

No one who works in a restaurant ever wants you to be disappointed with your food.  It makes our lives much easier when you’re satisfied.  As servers, though, we have no control over the quality of what comes out of the kitchen.  Miscommunications will sometimes result in your food coming out incorrectly, but don’t make assumptions.  If something is wrong with your food, the staff can’t correct it unless you speak up.  It’s inconvenient, we know, but at the end of the day it’s just food and it’s not the end of the world if something is wrong with it.

First Impressions

The first interaction with your server can set the tone for the entire experience. Many servers can develop prejudices about you based on your behavior at the outset that will portend negative consequences for service throughout your meal. Try to set a collaborative tone—a friendly vibe requires minimal effort and will pay you back in spades with more attentive service.

Here is an example of a common interaction at the beginning of the meal that can be problematic and how best to fix it:

Server: “Good evening. May I start you with a cocktail from the bar or do you have any questions about the wine list?”

Guest: “We haven’t really had a chance to look.”

Though it may be delivered with the most innocent intentions, “We haven’t even looked” translates to your waiter as “We’re on our own schedule, so don’t waste your time.” Even if you consciously intend to delay the proceedings, dismissing your server in this way could unintentionally send the message that you devalue his services or cast him as the enemy of your good time. Establishing an adversarial relationship will likely lead the server to disengage from your table even more. If the server feels like he is wasting his time because you repeatedly brush him off, he will act accordingly. If someone made you feel unwanted, would you keep trying to please them? Don’t make the mistake of sending out the message to the server that the best way to please you is by leaving you alone. At some critical point, you will need something and it will be too late.

Try one of these approaches instead–they should still communicate unpreparedness but with more optimism that you will cooperate soon:

Server: “Good evening. May I start you with a cocktail from the bar or do you have any questions about the wine list?”

Guest: “I think we’ll probably need your help. But would you mind giving us a few minutes to look over the menus?”

-or-

Guest: “This drink list looks great. I think we’re going to need more time to study it. We should be ready soon.”

You don’t need to patronize your server, but taking a more cooperative tone helps establish solidarity. Be yourself, but make them feel like you’re in it together. A little extra sensitivity will go a long way toward improving your first impression. Remember: your server carries a lot of baggage from coping with unruly guests every night and you carry a lot of baggage to the table from dealing with incompetent waiters all the time. But can’t we all just get along?