How to be a good diner
Whether you eat out all the time or it’s a less frequent pastime, the experience can be greatly enhanced by engaging with your wait staff but, sadly, some people don’t know how to be a good diner.
All over the world, from the humblest café to the finest of fine dining, it’s more than likely you’ll have a team of people looking after you. We’re not talking about tipping per se (but more on that later), but rather the absolute basics that help make your experience in restaurants as good as it can be.
Over the years, Greedy Girl has seen some shockers. One particular floorshow was in Hong Kong where a very drunken Australian man, flush from a decent win at the races by the sound of things, kept yelling at the wait staff: “Where’s the Semillon … I want to see the Semillon’. The bemused Chinese wait staff stood motionless – they weren’t keen on approaching someone as inebriated as this fellow and having failed with their first attempt to actually point out the various white wine varieties on offer, obviously had no idea he was bellowing for the ‘Sommelier’.
How to be a good diner tip #1 – waiters are not your personal slaves
Whether the wait staff are pros, or students working to pay their way through university courses, they’re deserving of your attention and respect – unless, of course, they’re downright rude (which can happen too). If you’re unlucky enough to snag a waiter when they’re clearly having an off night or are just in the wrong job, it can play havoc with the dining experience.
But for the purposes of this blog, let’s say your waiter is doing his or her best to engage with you. Make eye contact. Listen to the specials, or the details of the tasting menu. Where the experience is a la carte, gluttonous husband has a sure fire way of connecting with wait staff by asking them what they’d recommend. A great many wait staff will happily volunteer their favourite dish on the menu or the restaurant’s signature dish.
In better restaurants, where the food is a bit beyond the mundane, you’d expect the waiter to talk to you about the dish they put in front of you, pointing out details that may not be on the menu or, indeed, describing the dish in the many fine dining establishments that don’t have menus.
Give the waiter room to do their job – don’t clutter the table full of your phones, keys, sunglasses etc. Let the waiter clear the plates and signal to them that you’re finished with a dish by arranging your cutlery. Unless you’re seated at a table where it’s hard for the wait staff to reach, don’t hand them your plate. If things start wobbling because you’ve tampered with their system and end up with a dirty fork (or worse) over your clothes, don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Attracting the attention of wait staff can be an issue. The clichéd snap of the fingers and calling out ‘garçon’ is not going to win you friends anywhere. If you’re in France, ‘s’il vous plait’ as the waiter passes by is usually more than sufficient. Learning how to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in the local language is always appreciated. A friendly wave is always a good option.
But if you seem to be invisible and all these gestures don’t result in you receiving any wait staff attention, standing up and walking towards the host or reception desk often works wonders. In Sydney, Greedy Girl was waiting for a friend to arrive for dinner and tried several times, unsuccessfully, to gain attention from any wait staff. She stood up and headed for a person wearing a suit, hovering near a serving station. After seeing her slightly bemused expression, he came bounding over and, when informed she’d very much like a pre-dinner glass of champagne, it was promptly provided. A couple of minutes later the same person came back to the table apologising for the lax service and stating the champagne was complementary.
In other words, don’t bang on. Stay calm and collected and, if you need to, let the staff know what you need. Sometimes poor service is down to them being literally run off their feet and they need a gentle reminder, but erupting at a member of the staff who clearly isn’t up to the job, isn’t the way to go.
How to be a good diner tip #2 – put down the smartphone
At a cafe in Tokyo, Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband watched three Japanese girls at the next table who texted continually on their phones. One wonders if they were actually texting each other. While some would argue the dining table is no place for a phone, Greedy Girl is a bit more pragmatic. She snaps pictures of all her dishes but does it as quickly and as unobtrusively as she can.
Social media and our obsession with posting food pictures isn’t going away anytime soon. Greedy Girl’s rule-of-thumb is that it shouldn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the food and the ambience. No flash, no standing on the chair to get the ‘best’ angle, no histrionics. You’re in a restaurant, not a photo studio.
The phone itself is on Airplane Mode so it doesn’t ring at dinner but, if that’s not practicable for a host of well-founded reasons, at a minimum make sure it’s set on silent. If you need to take a call, excuse yourself to go to a quiet area – either outside, or somewhere you’re not going to disturb other guests. Sitting at a table in a restaurant, chatting loudly on your phone, is just rude. Greedy Girl wouldn’t even do that in Starbucks (well, if she actually went to Starbucks, which isn’t at all likely). A restaurant isn’t the place to FaceTime your friends or family. If you must, take it outside.
The phone and or tablet can be a great thing to keep kids amused at a restaurant by playing a game or watching a video. If it’s the former, turn off the volume – other diners don’t need to listen to simulated machine gun noises or racing cars. If it’s a video, give your kids headphones.
How to be a good diner tip #3 – you’re out in public, so keep it nice
With the exception of the beach bar, keeping your shoes on is a really good look in a restaurant. Unless you’re injured and the restaurant offers you another chair or footstool, don’t put your feet up. PDAs (public displays of affection) can be OK, but keep a lid on it. No-one wants to watch you and your significant other play tonsil hockey and restrict the slurping sounds to eating ramen noodles. If you absolutely must, ahem, take things further, get the bottle of wine recorked, cancel the rest of your dinner and head home/back to the hotel. You won’t be thanked for trying to head to the restrooms for a quickie between courses.
There’s such a thing as getting too comfortable when you’re eating out. Don’t be a slob and try not to make a mess, and ensure your kids don’t make a mess (as much as humanly possible).
If you’re not having a great night, or ill-will strikes you and your fellow diner(s), take it outside. Don’t give the other diners – and wait staff – front row seats to your argument and/or tears.
How to be a good diner tip #4 – ask questions
Most good wait staff are very knowledgeable (and often passionate) about the food and wine they’re serving. Not sure what wine to choose to go with a particular course? Get a recommendation. No-one’s going to think any less of you because you have no idea about which French variety is which. A good sommelier or wine waiter will talk you through the characteristics of a wine and why it complements a dish.
It’s the same with the food. If the menu has a term you’re not familiar with, or there’s an element of the dish that you can’t quite put your finger on, ask the staff. Most times they’ll know exactly what’s in the dish and how it’s prepared. Other times, they’ll check with the kitchen. Admittedly, sometimes (as we found in Singapore), we asked about a flavour in a dish and the response from our waitress was: “I don’t eat this food. I have no idea.” And she left it at that. Yup. Ah well, you can’t win them all.
If you’re interested in food and wine – particularly if you want to learn more so you can improve your own cooking – engaging with the front-of-house team in restaurants can be a huge bonus. We’ve developed great relationships with hospitality professionals all over the world that’s helped us get reservations at some very hard-to-get restaurants. Their network, especially in fine dining is often global, so keep that in mind.
Let’s talk about tipping
In some cultures/countries, tipping is not the norm but generally in hospitality, there’s either a hope for a tip or a requirement. Many restaurants routinely add a service charge to the bill, which you can opt to remove or (particularly in Asia) there’s a standard service charge and local tax added.
In NYC, where the minimum tip is usually calculated as double the tax amount on your check, there have been moves towards ‘all inclusive’ tariffs. One of those is the excellent Eleven Madison Park, where the bill includes service. Sometimes though, you’ve had such wonderful service, you want to do something a bit special. In Paris late last year, Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband had a bistro meal and happily chatted with the waiter. Admittedly, it wasn’t a busy night, but we appreciated his humour and goodwill. He even presented us with a riddle where, if we could solve it, he would present us with a little treat – a very fine glass of a Chateau Margaux 2008 red.
When the bill came, there was a service charge – which is usually spread among the entire team – but we wanted to add just a bit more to thank him for making it a hugely fun night. And so, we did.
Wait staff who engage with you in the hope of earning tips are usually not pros. People making a career out of hospitality are generally adept at forming a genuine connection with you. It may only last until the end of your meal, or it may follow through on repeat visits. We have one such relationship at Melbourne’s famed Flower Drum where we always ask to be looked after by the same person – and he comes up with some amazing dishes to try to get us to enjoy new things. It’s been going on for around 10 years now (we go each year to celebrate our wedding anniversary) and we get so much more from our dinners there.
Not all wait staff will engage with you to the same degree. Some are more reserved than others, and that’s just fine. You don’t expect to become instant buds with everyone offering you a plate. But being pleasant, personable and respectful is not only basic good manners, but it can really take your dining experience to a different level.