The average person would probably tell you that they know proper protocol for dining out. Tip 18%, no elbows on the table, napkin in your lap, and you're all set right? That's a great start. However, as a former host and server, I can tell you... you think you know, but you have no idea. (Well maybe you do, in which case, just nod along as you continue to read.) The following are a few tips that make the dining experience more pleasurable for you, and for the staff (which in turn... again, makes it more pleasurable for you.)
1. Make a reservation. An inside scoop: Hosts, managers, servers, and even the kitchen staff place restaurant guests into one of three categories:
a. Walk-ins - These are the folks that usually make up the majority of the business and their numbers/disposition are wildly unpredictable.
b. Regulars - They come in all the time and get treated like family (not exactly like a guest because there's no need to impress, but with love because the staff knows them well.)
c. Reservations - These are potentially important folks who plan ahead. Guests who make a reservation typically want and deserve a premier dining experience, and the staff expects their arrival and is prepared for it. The best seats are saved for them, the chef and/or manager may visit your table, and special accommodations are more likely to be honored. So even if it's a Monday night, and the forecast calls for rain, if the restaurants accepts them, make a reservation!
2. Order what the restaurant knows how to make. This may sound odd (they should know how to make everything on the menu right?), but listen carefully. Legal Sea Foods is a successful chain of 30 restaurants, not because of their steak or grilled chicken... but because of their seafood! I recommend visiting Yelp or Open Table for reviews and looking for repeated mentions of a food item. Choose wisely!
3. A restaurant is not a lounge. (Unless it's The Park.) Why do I mention this? Because I've seen parties of 15 hang out for over 3 hours in a restaurant as they debate Starbucks vs Caribou Coffee while a line of guests waits in the lobby. I understand that folks are having a good time and I'm all about having a word or three with friends, however, you need to understand... that every minute you sit there, the servers are losing money and other guests are hungry. You may say, "That's not my problem", but I guarantee that you've been out and being extremely disheartened as the host tells you the wait is over an hour. Help prevent long waits! Eat, chat briefly, then roll. Plus, if you've just eaten a hearty meal, you can burn some of the calories by walking and talking.
4. Speaking of large parties, large groups get a special set of rules:
a. Either bring cash (a generous amount to cover your food, tax, and gratuity) or prepare to evenly split the check. (Your best bet is to have one credit card cover the check and everyone give that individual cash, but that takes faith.)
b. If you are a party of 12, then arrive as a party of 12, (not 6, then 1, then 3, 2.) Carpool, coordinate watches, put it on your Outlook calendar... whatever it takes to make it so that everyone is seated simultaneously and eats together. Not only will the restaurant appreciate it, your fellow guests will.
5. Let the hosts and hostesses do their job. They have a reason for placing you in the seat they designated. They know the layout of the restaurant, they are aware that your favorite booth is opening up soon, and they know what seats will fit you and your guests. They know if they sit you in that cozy spot you love, you'll get horrible service because that server already has 7 tables, while another one is bored to tears. In short, they see the big picture, and you don't. One of my biggest pet peeves when hosting was when people would come in, look around, point at a table and tell me where they were going to sit. Unless the host places you in the center of the kitchen, or you have some type of legitimate concern (hearing problems, poor circulation, claustrophobia, et al), then sit there and enjoy your food. If you're at a decent restaurant, they won't really have "bad seats." (Also, another way to get to sit where you want is to follow rule #1 and make a special request!)
6. Please don't snap, prod, touch, or yell at your server. Server and servant are not synonymous. It's rude and isn't the smartest way to treat people who handle your food.
7. Minimize your impact. There's a time and place for your Dougie (Wolf Blitzer House Party), your child's screams (Space Mountain, Disney Land), and your lax cleaning standards (Survivor Season 24). But it's not a restaurant. The restaurant is there to make an impression on you; you are not there to make an impression on them. Behave accordingly.
That was easy enough right? Do you have any words of advice or suggestions for restaurant attendees? Share the knowledge.