Restaurant Etiquette: How to Eat Out Without Embarrassing Yourself

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It's important to practice considerate restaurant etiquette when dining out, including picking the right restaurant for group dining, and properly calculating the tip.
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In "The Tricky Art of Coexisting," author Sandi Toksvig uses history, and her own experience with embarrassing situations, to cover proper behavior in a variety of settings.

In The Tricky Art of Coexisting: How to Behave Decently No Matter What Life Throws Your Way(The Experiment, 2015), award-winning writer, presenter, comedian, actress and producer Sandi Toksvig draws from personal experience (and world history) to provide valuable advice on etiquette and thoughtful behavior. This section on dining details acceptable behavior for considerately planning a night out and eating out with groups of all sizes.

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“Ladies traveling alone will request the escort of a waiter from the dining-room door to the table.
Ladies will make up their minds quickly as to what dishes to order.”

 — Collier’s Cyclopedia of Commercial and Social Information and Treasury of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge on Art, Science Pastimes, Belles-lettres, and Many Other Subjects of Interest in the American Home Circle, 1882

Many years ago an actress acquaintance of mine came to London for the first time. Born and brought up in the Welsh countryside, she had an exciting job in the theatre and was both thrilled and terrified. Her new producer decided to treat her by taking her to lunch at a very smart restaurant. The night before, she phoned her mother in a panic because she had hardly ever eaten in a restaurant and was worried she wouldn’t know what to order.

How to Eat Mindfully

“Have the special,” counseled her mother, “then you can’t go wrong.” The actress arrived the next day looking as smart as she could manage and sat down in the vast restaurant. She opened the menu and saw a large box that declared “Special Today” followed by a foreign name that she didn’t recognize. When the waiter came to take the order she calmly pointed to it and said, “I’ll have that.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, madam,” the waiter quietly replied. “That’s the band.”

Before we begin . . .

Eating out goes in phases. There was a time in the 1950s and 1960s when a meal in a restaurant was just for high days and holidays. Now people dine outside the home all the time, but this is not something new. In ancient Rome many houses didn’t have kitchens so meals were taken at small restaurant-bars called thermopolia. A typical thermopolium had L-shaped counters. People sat here socializing and eating hot or cold food from the large storage jars sunk into the counter. There was clearly competition among the thermopolia owners. In Pompeii alone you can find 158 of them along the main axis of the town and near the public spaces.

Paris is often cited as the birthplace of the restaurant, but before people went out for steak frites there were thousands of informal places to get food.

Separate tables

At first people sat at communal tables and ate whatever the host decided to serve. Gradually some people who had more money wanted more choice about what they ate and whose elbow, even when not resting on the table, they rubbed when they ate it. Restaurants began before the French Revolution, but they flourished when the chefs and staff of the aristocracy were looking for employment. After all the stress of so many people losing their heads the survivors also wanted to have fun and celebrate. Francis Blagdon, an English traveler writing in 1803, was amazed by his dining experience at the Parisian restaurant of a man called Beauvilliers.

“Good heaven! The bill of fare is a printed sheet of double folio, of the size of an English newspaper. It will require half an hour at least to con over this important catalogue. Let us see; Soups, thirteen sorts. –Hors-d’oeuvres, twenty-two species. –Beef, dressed in eleven different ways. –Pastry, containing fish, flesh and fowl, in eleven shapes. –Poultry and game, under thirty-two various forms. –Veal, amplified into twenty-two distinct articles. –Mutton, confined to seventeen only. –Fish, twenty-three varieties. –Roast meat, game, and poultry, of fifteen kinds. –Entremets, or side-dishes, to the number of forty-one articles. –Desert, thirty-nine. –Wines, including those of the liqueur kind, of fifty-two denominations, besides ale and porter. –Liqueurs, twelve species, together with coffee and ices.”

The word restaurant comes from the French restaurer, meaning to “restore or refresh.” It’s a place to make you feel better. In fact, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance it was common to study medicine and food preparation together. All the usual rules about table manners apply in restaurants but there are a few other matters to address as well. The first thing to remember in any eating establishment is that . . .

1. You belong. Do not get stressed

Don’t be put off by anyone treating you as anything other than a valued customer. It might help you to feel comfortable if you make sure it’s the right place for you first.

2. Make sure you can afford it

It may sound obvious, but it helps if you are confident that the prices at a restaurant are within your range. Menus are often available online or the restaurant will email one to you. If you really want to go somewhere expensive but finances are stretched, then you can have dinner somewhere cheaper and just go for dessert and coffee.

On my twenty-first birthday I took some friends to London’s theatrical restaurant Joe Allen’s. It was May 1979 and, although it’s hard to believe now, at the time the maximum amount of money you could take out of a cash machine was £25. I was a student and it was also the maximum amount of money I had. There were six of us and everyone ordered what they liked. When the bill came it amounted to exactly £25. I left all the money I had on the table and headed for the door, only to find I was being chased by the waiter.

“Where is my tip?” he shouted, “Where is my tip?”

“I don’t have any more money,” I explained mortified.

He wagged his finger at me. “Don’t you ever come in here again. I will know your face.”

His manners were appalling but it was about twenty years before I returned.

3. If you are the host make sure the restaurant is right for everyone invited

A steak place is unlikely to work well for a vegan. Check the dietary requirements of your group before you make a reservation. If there are a lot of you (more than eight) think about the kind of restaurant in which that will work. Big groups usually make a big noise.

Some restaurants won’t take such large bookings unless you use a private dining room. Don’t be offended if they say no. The same is true about small children. Expensive restaurants may not have high chairs and certainly won’t want anyone coloring or playing with toy cars at the table. You may be sitting next to a couple who have saved for a very important romantic meal. Don’t spoil it for them with a vision of the horror of eating with kids that is to come. One of your Top Cs—Consideration.

4. Getting a table

Make sure you book well ahead (about two weeks for the best places, although there are restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen that only take bookings once a month). Let the restaurant know in advance if you have particular needs, such as a table suitable for a wheelchair user. If you haven’t booked a reservation and the place looks empty do not doubt the maître d’ when he says it is full—most places have timed reservations and the place may fill up any minute.

5. Dealing with waiters

If someone offers to take your coat, let them. Do not leave it on the back of your chair for the staff to trip over. If you are ready to order, shut your menu and put it down. The waiter can then see from a distance that you are not still trying to decide. People who are imperious with waiters always suggest that they were once waiters themselves and wish to prove how far they have risen. Never shout. Your words with waiters should be requests not commands. The staff are on their feet all day or night serving food. You are sitting down and enjoying yourself. Have some empathy.

If you have to send food back remember that the waiter didn’t prepare it. He or she will not be pleased with the kitchen either. A good restaurant will want to know what is wrong and try to make amends. Allow them the opportunity to do so rather than dashing off a critical online review on your phone.

6. Ordering

If you are not sure about something on the menu ask the waiter. It’s his/her job to help you. The first restaurants in Paris only served soup. Now life is a little more complicated and you can’t be expected to know every possible ingredient or dish. It’s fine to ask. Better to ask than order something you don’t want. But do order something. Anything—do not say you are not hungry and then eat everyone else’s food. If you are really not hungry it is fine to order two starters. It is not fine to have two main courses. If you have serious food allergies, call ahead and warn the chef. I have ordered very complex dishes for friends who are intolerant to almost every ingredient imaginable and had very nice food served.

I had a friend who refused to ask for help in any eating establishment. This included restaurants in countries where she didn’t really speak the language. She was once in a Spanish cantina and insisted on ordering for herself and three guests in Spanish despite not being fluent in the language. She gave her order and the waiter said in perfect English, “Are you sure?” My friend was outraged at his impertinence and dismissed him with a wave of her hand. A short while later the waiter returned bearing a silver platter with two dozen fried eggs. Determined not to be wrong, my pal waited until he had put them down and gone back to the kitchen before silently putting all twenty-four eggs in her handbag.

7. Focus on the meal

It’s just like eating anywhere. You know the routine. Turn off your cell phone. Don’t brush your hair, pick your teeth, apply make-up, or text people who are not with you. Don’t be excused so many times that people become concerned about your health or check to see if you have a drug habit. Go between courses not during. Don’t tell people you’re going to the toilet. Just say “excuse me” as you get up.

8. Don’t rush

If you have taken the time to choose a nice place to eat then don’t be in a hurry. Let your fellow diners take their time in choosing what they want to eat. It’s supposed to be a treat, not a fuel stop.

9. If someone comes over to talk to you – stand up

Don’t stay seated. You are not a medieval king.

10. The end of the meal

Plates should not be cleared until everyone at the table has finished. It is fine to ask staff to wait if they begin to clear plates early. If you have signaled for the bill without success then getting up to leave will quietly get you the attention you desire.

The dreaded bill – whose is it?

• If you invited everyone then you should pay.
• If everyone is sharing the bill make the arrangements before you go in. Don’t go for a group meal if you are not prepared to split the cost. It is, however, kind to choose somewhere that everyone can afford.
• Don’t be the person who argues over every penny at a group meal. It’s very boring and you are unlikely to be invited again.
• Don’t assume that just because your friend is a higher earner than you that they will pay the bill.
• Going Dutch is fine with friends, but you might think it nicer to take turns treating each other.
• If you are determined to treat someone and don’t want a fight over the bill you can leave your credit card with the maître d’ when you arrive.

Basic tips

Nothing, if you are extremely dissatisfied with something, but make sure you are clear what it was so you don’t just look mean. Remember the waiter is likely someone trying to get a break in an entirely different career. He/she is probably not very well paid.

10 percent = unsatisfactory service

15 percent = ordinary service

20 percent = good service

over 20 percent = heavenly everything

Doggy bag

“When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.”

—Jesus on the subject of leftovers after the loaves and fishes meal, The Bible (KJV), John 6:12

The doggy bag, or container of leftover food taken by a customer from a restaurant meal, is more common in the United States than in Europe. I was once served an absurdly large steak in a very smart restaurant in New York City. Although I was staying in a hotel and didn’t want the leftover meat I knew there were a number of homeless people who waited outside in hopes of being handed doggy bags. I duly had my excess meat bagged up to give away. Out in the street it was cold and I approached a man with my offering, feeling rather virtuous. “Would you like this?” I offered my full bag of food. “What is it?” he inquired. “Steak,” I answered, slightly surprised. “T-bone,” I added, as if that made it better. He shook his head. “No thanks,” he said. “I’m Catholic, it’s Friday. I’ll wait for fish.”

It was a lesson to me to remember that everyone, no matter their circumstance, can have standards.

Doggy bags are not something new. When a Roman guest brought with him his own piece of material, or mappa, to use as a napkin, he expected it to be filled with delicacies left over from the feast upon departure.

Excerpt from The Tricky Art of Co-Existing: How to Behave Decently No Matter What Life Throws Your Way © Sandi Toksvig, 2015. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.

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