When I mentioned to Sarah, my life and business partner, that I was considering the idea of writing a piece about “8 things you need to stop doing in restaurants” she said it was a terrible idea. For Sarah, restaurants are a place where people go to relax and enjoy a meal, not a place where they have to be self-conscious about their every move. Honestly, I get her point and wholeheartedly agree, as almost always, so sit down and relax, I’m on your side.
By definition, restaurants are a place to have a good time, eat and drink delicious things and most importantly, be well-taken care of. The point of the exercice is that you leave full, happy and hopefully already planning your next visit; this is precisely why no waiter/waitress in their right mind will ever grab you by the shoulder as you’re about to step out, pull out a chair for you, sit you down, look you right in the eyes and tell you “sir, ma’am, you really need to stop doing such and such because of this and that”, since the result would undoubtedly be the pronouncing of the most feared six words in our industry: “Can I speak to the manager?”.
Having said that, there are things people do in restaurants that drives staff absolutely insane. When you first start working in a restaurant you think it’s just you, isolated cases, one time only mishap, but then you move on to that other place, and then another one after that, you talk with a wide array of fellow plate carriers, order takers, table wipers over knock off beers and you realise that it’s not just you, that it happens to them too, all the time, everyday, since forever, that there is a pattern, an unspoken list of top-ten-most-annoying-things-a-customer-can-do in your section that we are all unfortunetly well aware of. What I’m offering here, with plenty of tongue in cheek, is a peek in our world, unsolicited pointers to navigate the stormy restaurant waters.
1) The mysterious “last one for the road” full to the rim untouched water glass.
This is a personal favorite of mine, and for the life of me, I still can’t understand why this keeps on happening, over and over again. Once customers have left, you must clean or “reset” the table: a quick wipe, fresh glasses, water bottle, couple of menus, good to go for the next diners. While clearing the table, it’s in your best interest to make a single trip to the dishwashing station as reducing your number of steps per day is key to survival and longevity in our industry. To make a single trip, you’ll proceed in nudging plates and glasses and whatever other miscellaneous items were graciously left for you to clean in-between your expertly positioned fingers. The exercise though is made complicated, even downright impossible, when are left on the table glasses full of water, sometimes right up to the rim. Forget about any efficient trip-reducing stacking techniques, elaborate carrying of plates, glasses, cutlery, empty bottles, it just isn’t going to happen anymore, no way around it now, you are forced to make a special trip to the other side of the restaurant, awkwardly handling the glasses threatening at every step to let go of their untouched content. Spilling water on the floor of a restaurant during a busy service is something you want to do just about as much as popping the door open of an Airbus mid-take off, you just don’t. Fewer words could have been used to reach this conclusion but here it is: please, before filling up that last glass of water while you put away your wallet and grab your coat, take a moment and ask yourself if you’re really, really, really going to drink it because empty water glasses are a server’s best friends.
2) The mind-boggling attraction for the single dirty table in the whole restaurant.
There definitely should be a scientific study about this one. Why do people, when offered a few tables to choose from, will more often than not pick the only one that hasn’t been cleared yet. Crumbs, dirty napkins, tips still on the table, residual butt warmth on the seats; this is cleary not the table you want, yet customers seem to be attracted to it somehow. Never, ever, ever sit at a table that hasn’t been reset. It scores really high on the scale of things that drive FOH staff crazy because they are forced to ask you to pick another table or engage in a speedy reset while you’re just sitting there watching, probably not the best way to begin your experience. As a general rule of thumb try not to seat yourself, wait to be seated, it’s more respectful of the restaurant systems and overall flow and will earn you instant gratification from floor staff.
3)The blood boiling “Can we order?” when you’re not ready to order at all.
I’m going to go ahead and kill two birds with one stone here. First, forget about any sorts of waving, finger snapping, whistling, shouting, elbow grabbing to get your waiter/waitress attention. It is the Voldemort of our industry, it’s dark territory, it’s somewhere you don’t want to go, practices you don’t want to get mixed up with. Proceeding with such gestures will probably only get you worse service and even less attention as a passive-aggressive way to teach you that it isn’t done. We’ve all felt it before, abandoned, forgotten, unappreciated: “we ordered before they did and they already have their food!”. Trust the system, your food is coming, it was just more convenient for the kitchen to expedite in that order. So that’s that, no waving. Then you’ve got its even more infuriating cousin, the waving of a waiter in an insistent manner followed but the urgent request to order, here and now, only to find out the customer hasn’t even opened the menu yet and is about as ready to order as I am to grow dreadlocks; it is going to take a very, very, long time. This is highly disruptive for a waiter/waitress; it is the industry equivalent of getting quagmired in a deep sticky puddle of mud with a brand new SUV. You need to go, you’re needed elsewhere, the kitchen bell is ringing, table 206 needs some water, that lovely two top is ready to pay and is letting you know by softly yet insistently taping their credit card on the table but here you are, tires spinning furiously, flooring the gas pedal, totally unable to move forward, anchored down by sir who really wants to order but has no idea what’s on the menu. I’d recommend letting the waiter/waitress do the driving, meaning adapt to their flow/systems, order only when it’s your turn to order and most importantly when you are ready to do so.
4) The infuriating denial of basic greetings.
We work in the service industry. No one forced us, we’re adults and we made that choice in conscience, so technically we don’t have a right to get upset for having to say “hello”, “thank you very much”, “not a problem at all!” and “goodbye, see you soon!” two hundred times a day. It’s part of the job and if you’re uncomfortable with it you’ve made some poor career choices my friend. That being said, nothing is quite as infuriating as, once you’ve gathered the energy to produce a genuinely friendly smile and the confidence to let out a natural “hello there, how are you doing today?” although it’s the 542nd time of the week, being answered with a cold, nonengaging, downright rude “yeah, two cappuccinos and what’s the wifi password?”. For the already weary waiter/waitress, it’s like a dagger to the heart, sharp, cold, painful. Impossible you say? Can’t be true? No one would ever! Well, take my word for it dear reader, I came to this beautiful industry late and only have a few years of service under my belt but let me tell you, if I’d been given 1 cent (one of those annoying red coin no one uses) every time this happened to me (about 42.000 times based on my very approximate math), I’d be having myself a fancy dinner at a 3 Michelin stars restaurant of my choice free of charge, wine pairing included. All this to say, it happens a lot. So a word of advice: not in the mood, having a bad day, in the middle of a meaningful conversation, unfamiliar with the local dialect? It doesn’t matter, FOH says hello, you say hello back. Disobey this oh so basic rule and you might find yourself waiting a long time to order, eat, pay, while everyone around you seems to be getting fantastic service. Some call it karma.
5) The ever so upsetting self-clearing of one’s table by transferring dirty plates to the adjacent spare table.
This one is bad. Work in a restaurant long enough you will witness it first hand and it will make you see red. Often committed by mid-thirties tie wearing loud male customers but not exclusively (one always have to be very careful about speedy profiling), a customer will proceed in discarding his empty dirty plate, cutlery, bundled up food smeared napkin on the perfectly dressed, clean, awaiting next customers directly adjacent table, disregarding the well-oiled restaurant workflow, entirely bypassing the waiter/waitress and his/her role within those walls and that pisses them off a lot. Are you done eating? Place both your knife and fork inside the plate, napkin on top, someone will catch this universal visual cue and will come to clear it up before you have time to snap your fingers, which you should never do, remember?
6) The offensive tipping with a million copper coins.
Money is money you will say, right? I beg to differ, 1,2 and 5 cents copper coins are not money. They are unwanted pocket space wasters, currency crumbs, smelly dirty tiny pieces of metal that should never have been made in the first place (did you know they cost more to produce than they are worth? I mean, come on!). When the meal is over and comes the time to tip the person who has looked after you for the last hour and a bit, don’t be that gal or guy who just pours the entire content of his/her pockets on the table, creating a little mound of filth blackened copper coins, pocket dust, crumbs from a forgotten biscuit, bits of old metro tickets, a couple of broken pieces of gum and call that the tip because it isn’t. It’s called pocket spring cleaning, not tipping. If the service was poor, the staff unfriendly and the overall experience disappointing just don’t tip, that’ll get the message across but if the service was excellent and you enjoyed yourself you must tip. I don’t care if you’re leaving the country forever tomorrow, this isn’t a bureau de change, we don’t want your copper coins. We’ll smile and we’ll thank you, but thankful is the last thing we’ll be. My advice when it comes to tipping your waiter/waitress: you’re cheap? Don’t tip. You had a bad experience? Don’t tip. You had a good time? Tip at least 10% (a vast majority of people don’t even tip that in France) but whatever the reason might be, keep your coppers to yourself as they will undoubtedly come across as some sort of offense. Getting on a plane tomorrow to never come back to Europe again? Give your coppers to charity at any supermarket, throw them in the Seine and make a wish, they’re also great to stabilize furniture on uneven floors. They do come hany for a lot of things really but tipping just isn’t one of them.
7) The grueling sledgehammering and rebuilding of the menu to better fit personal tastes and preferences.
Restaurants are what they are, and that’s why people go to them. What I mean by that is that you go to a Chinese restaurant if you fancy Chinese food, you go to a BBQ joint if you fancy some juicy ribs, you go to that fancy French restaurant if you fancy that fancy French food. See where I’m going with this? Good restaurants specialize and design their menu carefully, sourcing their products with great care to offer an enjoyable dining experience. That’s why it’s such a big no-no to go to a specific restaurant and utterly destroy the menu. Read my words carefully: you’re not the chef. You’ve got a severe allergy? Most restaurants can accommodate patrons with food allergies nowadays (but be sure to tell your waiter before you order the food and not once your dish gets hot and beautiful to the table, once it’s too late for them to do anything about it, another big no-no). You’re vegetarian, absolutely nothing wrong with that, but maybe skip the Argentinian restaurant specialising in big juicy hunks of meat instead of complaining about the lack of cruelty-free options, asking if it’s okay to have “just like a big salad with some tomatoes and some olives and maybe some of that aubergine purée that comes with the entrecote, your kitchen can do that right?”. That’s even worse than tipping with copper coins. Well, not quite but it’s damn close. Chefs don’t like people playing the cut and paste game with their menu, waiter/waitress hate to be the messenger of your fantasy requests to the kitchen where they know they’ll probably be laughed at, verbally abused or preferably yet, just ignored. My advice would be: do your homework beforehand, make sure the restaurant you want to go to is suited to your tastes and dietary requirements as the staff is usually quite hostile towards menu twisters.
8) The unforgivable destruction of bathrooms.
Last but not least, why oh why do people treat restaurant bathrooms as if it was the last time it was ever going to get used, like some sort of disposable room from the future that would auto-wash the minute they step out? Trust me, they don’t auto-wash. Restaurant staff has the pleasure to do that many times during the day and the stuff you get to find in there can be pretty intense, not to say plain disgusting. It’s crazy even having to say it, but proper restaurant etiquette would be considered treating the restaurant bathroom as an extension of your home. Not quite sure what I’m saying? Here is a little yes or no game for you. Would you poop on the floor at home? Would you stuff soiled underwear down the toilet causing the water to overflow forcing a staff member to plunge hand first in murky waters to pull it out? Would you leave a sizeable skid marks on the ceramic and not use the toilet brush to clean it before stepping out? Would you pee on a closed toilet lid at home? Hopefully, you answered “no” to all of the above, otherwise you have a very questionable lifestyle and even looser hygiene standards. This one might seem like a given, but if you had cleaned as many toilets as I have or ever worked in a restaurant you would know, not pooping on the floor is not that common sense when it comes to restaurant Water Closets.
And that’s it! Here are the “8 things you need to stop doing in restaurants”. Now, you’re a good, happy, friendly, reasonable person who would never do any of the things (lengthily) described above. Of course not! But eh, we all have that friend we haven’t seen in ages who isn’t really a friend at all but insists on catching up over sushi and just keeps snapping his fingers at the obviously pissed off waitress. That brother in law who you wish your sister had never married but you didn’t really have much of a say in it and now you have to watch him painfully break rule 1, 4, 5 and 7, like a slow-motion trainwreck, debris gracefully flying in all directions at 300 frames per second when you all go out for family Sunday lunch. That coworker who really wants to go over a few things before Monday’s big meeting forcing you to smile through clutched teeth has he leaves a pile of neatly stacked 2 cents coins on the table assuring you that “they don’t mind” and that “it’s plenty”. These are the people you might want to share this little write up with, email subject: “Who does this French guy think he is?!”
Nicolas Alary is the co-owner of Holybelly in Paris.