Dining out at a restaurant is not a one-way street. Yes, it should be a special experience. Yes, your meal should be delicious, worth the price tag, and prepared to your liking. And, given the right location, yes, you should even expect to be pampered a little bit.
But there are still a few ways you can screw up that whole “dining out” thing. We spoke with some of the industry’s biggest players (and our own restaurant editor, Andrew Knowlton) about what not to do when dining out.
Whether it’s gaming the online reservation system or getting blackout drunk (duh, right?), this is the bad behavior that’ll make things awkward for everyone involved.
1. Don't: Try to Game the System
Online reservation systems, like OpenTable, are awfully convenient: We can now book tables without the aggravating inconvenience of having to speak with, like, another person! (Human beings, yuck!) But, says John Winterman, a partner at Bâtard and formerly the maître d’ at Daniel and Café Boulud—all in New York City—online reservation systems can also be an enormous headache. Diners will sometimes make a reservation, then constantly change the time or date, he says, causing consternation for the restaurant and, eventually, earning a phone call from the maître d’ to find out what’s up. And sometimes, says a former server at Budakkan in New York City (who spoke anonymously), online reservers will try to sneak extra people onto a table. “A group will see that there’s no availability for a group of ten at an 8 p.m. seating, but there is room for six people. So they book the reservation for six guests and write a note in the comments: ‘We’ll actually be 10.’” The restaurant will often call the diner to clarify—or else just seat them at two separate tables. Either way, it doesn’t work and the diner looks like a jerk.
Other diners, seeing that the only open reservations are for, say, 5 p.m. and 11 p.m., will book the early slot—then hang out at the table for upwards of an hour while the rest of their party rolls in at a more dinner-friendly hour. “I loathe to seat incomplete parties,” says Winterman. So now you know: That’s why your host won’t seat you until your perpetually late bestie shows up. This behavior also grinds Andrew Knowlton’s gears: “If a restaurant won’t seat you without your party, it’s not because they don’t like you, or they’re evil people, or they’re trying to ruin your night. It’s not personal. They’re just trying to survive as a business.”
There is, however, one good hack for getting around some reservation systems: pick up the phone and, you know, call the restaurant.
2. Don't: Think that Being Late Is Fashionable
Traffic happens. A work conference call runs late. We get it, and so does your maître d’. But be sure to call ahead if you’re going to arrive after the reservation, and definitely don’t cancel without 24 hours’ notice if you can help it. Restaurant managers and reservationists take note of diners who cancel right before their reservations—and if it happens more than once, that diner may find it tricky to nab a seat in the future. White lies may seem harmless, but you won’t fool anyone with a “traffic was atrocious” plea. Says Winterman: “If traffic was bad, everyone would be late. It was just you, and I’ve been holding your table for half an hour.”
3. Don't: Act Like You Are the Most Important Diner Ever
We all know not to act like an entitled hothead when interacting when dining out, right? Apparently not. Kimberly Galban, vice president of operations for One Off Hospitality Group, whose restaurants include Avec and The Publican, has seen some pretty atrocious behavior from guests:
• snapping your fingers to get a servers’ attention
• saying, “Don’t you know who I am!?” (Ed. note: We are shocked and appalled this actually happens!)
• claiming you’re more important than other diners: “I should be seated first!”
• demanding the kitchen make you something off-menu
• bribing a host for a table: “A smile and a thank you would have been sufficient,” Galban says
• claiming the restaurant lost your reservation…which you didn’t actually make
Jerky behavior is Knowlton’s biggest pet peeve. “How you act as a diner directly affects your experience at the restaurant,” he says. “You have to meet the staff halfway.” Ben Chekroun, maître d’ of New York City’s Le Bernardin, breaks down exactly how acting like a jerk ruins the night: “When a diner is rude to their waiter, hostess, or other guests, it affects the mood of the whole table.”
Instead, kill ‘em with kindness. A patient smile and gracious words—that’d be please and thank you—can go a long way. And there’s no need to take things any further. Once, when our senior food editor, Dawn Perry, touched the arm of a host at a popular New York City restaurant in a move of solidarity—it was busy, the wait was long, and he was visibly agitated—he recoiled and shouted, “Don’t touch me!” Proceed with caution.
4. Don't: Shots! Shots! Shots!
That martini you sipped while looking over the menu was delicious, wasn’t it? How about those glasses of Sancerre, Barolo, more Barolo, and Port? Hold it. Check yourself. Are you wasted? Winterman explains that far too many diners don’t know their limit and wind up rip-roaring drunk at the table. Don’t be that guy or girl. It’s embarrassing for you, uncomfortable for the restaurant, and a nuisance for everyone around you. Drinking with wild abandon is for dive bars and tequila shots something we don’t condone. (We save wild abandon for butter.)
Bill Mann, the general manager of Qui in Austin, Texas, agrees that overindulging is a problem—and offers a potential explanation: “Cocktails are more popular than ever these days—and, frankly, more delicious,” he says. “But starting your meal with six ounces of liquor and finishing with two bottles of wine will get anyone drunk.” Mann acknowledges it’s a two-way street: “Our responsibility, as a restaurant, is not to over-serve,” he says, adding that it often happens at the bar, before the server is even aware there’s a problem. But the brunt of the responsibility is on the diner: “No one sets out to get drunk,” Mann says (and we hope). “But have self-awareness. Order a low-alcohol cocktail to start, like Campari and soda instead of a negroni. And maybe work with a buddy system.
Read on for more of the worst things to do at a restaurant.
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