i'm not one to hold up to commitments all the time, so i hope everyone took my post with a grain of salt when i announced that i'd be doing a restaurant etiquette post a few months ago. sorry about that. welcome to my life. i got a few people who thought that'd be a good idea, though, because there are enough people who don't know some things that i, having worked in a restaurant for a couple years now, thought was common knowledge about how to act, how to tip, what to order, etc. well, sorry about the wait, but finally here are some of my thoughts. i'm no expert, i'm just sharing what i've learned from my first two years of experience, having very little idea of what the business was like before i started (like many of you, i'm sure).
first, a preface. i started reading "kitchen confidential: adventures in the culinary underbelly" by anthony bourdain (host of no reservations on the travel channel). it's a great read and i think everyone should pick it up and read through it if you plan on eating out a good bit. you'll get an idea of the types of people who work in a restaurant, the tiresome grind that we (especially the behind-the-scenes cooks and prep people) go through to fill your bellies. so for more about the food side of the equation, read it.
1. respecting your seaters
you walk into your favorite spot on a friday night. there's a wait. you're surprised. i have to wait 20 minutes to be sat? but i'm hungry! i don't have the patience for this! guess what, my friend, it's a friday night. or even a wednesday night. depending on the place, time of day, and time of year, you're going to wait. don't take it out on the host staff. they want you up there bitching and moaning to them about as much as you want to be up there bitching and moaning. it's one of the most mindless, yet thankless jobs in the front of the house. "why don't you just push a couple tables together for our party of 8?" sir, you're brilliant! my life is changed and has been made simpler thanks to the most basic suggestion of how to seat your oversized party in the restaurant i spend more time in than i'd like to count. you're a life saver!
the host staff knows what they're doing. if they don't seat you in an empty section, it's probably because there is no server there. go ahead and sit wherever you want, they can't guarantee that you'll be served there if they don't put you there themselves.
2. respect your wait staff
i'll be flogged for saying that the host staff is the most underappreciated group in the front of the house, but servers have an argument. we run, we smile, we try not to roll our eyes, and we get your food to you as fast as the kitchen gets it to us. and all for what, 15% of your bill? 20% if you're a good tipper. we'll get to tips in a minute. respect your wait staff, they're handling your food for pete's sake. watch "waiting". it doesn't happen everywhere, but just know that those people you might disrespect are in charge of what does or does not enter your body for the next hour.
be aware of how busy your server is. if they're running around refilling bread and drinks for 3 other tables, chances are they won't get to your water in the next 10 seconds. ask for things in bunches so they're not running back and forth for one thing at a time.
and for goodness sake, try not to be picky. allergies, take em into account, we won't be bothered by that. those tomatoes you could live without? pick them out yourself, or suck em down cause they're good for you. i can't speak for the culinary crew, but i'm guessing they're not big fans of picky eaters. even at a chain like olive garden, recipes have been prepared and used by chefs because that's how they're supposed to be prepared. yea, you can change the sauce or garnish, but you're running the risk of being insulting in saying that your way is better than the chef's. being picky complicates things and, depending on how much your server cares or may be absent-minded (me), you may not even get that parsley left off of your fett alfredo, anyways.
3. respect the money
i didn't realize that not everyone in the united states knew that servers, generally, make $2.83 an hour and that courtesy is to tip at least 15% of your bill. well, now you know. it's not true everywhere in the country, as i've been informed that CA pays their servers more, but in general we are living off those tips. know that anything less than 15% is an insult if our service was on par. a 10% tip is an insult. anything less and i'd rather just get stiffed, but make sure to watch your back on your way out. if we do everything, get everything you want, and make your experience enjoyable, then take that into account.
i tip 20%. that's me, though. tip what you think is appropriate. if you go to eat n park for a cup of coffee and a cookie, keep an eye on how many times your coffee is refilled. sure, your bill is $4, but their service deserves more than a dollar. if you get a three course meal, think before you leave $4.
finally, think about how long you're there. you have dinner with an old friend, coffee and dessert, then sit and chat for another hour. sure, your server isn't necessarily getting you anything aside from an occasional decaff refill, but you're keeping them from using that table for another set of paying customers. if you're going to sit twice as long, consider tipping twice as much. this is how people are making a living, so if you're keeping them from having another table, then have the courtesy to make up for it.
4. respecting the food
i don't have a lot to say about this, but i'll share a couple items from "kitchen confidential". first, if you eat out on a monday it might not be the best option to order fish. the fish that will be served on monday will be leftover from the weekend. it's whatever the owner doesn't want to throw out because it's still clean and safe, yet it's not fresh. tuesday's and thursday's fish are better options. second, ordering a well done steak will get you the scraps. in regard to the "tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin that's been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile", it's likely that the chef will choose to "'save for well-done' - serve it to some rube who prefers to eat his meat or fish incinerated into a flavorless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won't be able to tell if what he's eating is food or flotsam." these are from the mouth of a chef, friends. for more, read the book.
finally, in regards to food, expect what you pay for. yea, olive garden and tgi friday's are better than mcdonalds, but not much. olive garden is going to coat your food in heavy cream and butter, making it utterly unhealthy, and causing the obesity problem in america charged solely on fast food restaurants. it's true, folks, there's a reason i ate there twice during my employment. it tastes good, but you'll regret it later. if you want some high quality food made by trained professionals, you're going to have to pay for it; probably why i don't eat out much.
so that's what i've got. keep in mind, i'm no expert, i'm simply a partially jaded veteran of chain restaurant service. this isn't everything, either, but it's what you need to know at the beginning. notice the key word: respect. respect your service-providers and they'll respect you.