When the inherently human experience of eating out collides with consumer expectations in the Uber age, things can go sideways quickly. More than ever, today’s diners’ actions can make or break the experience. We partnered with Culinary Agents, a marketplace for talent in the hospitality business, to poll their more than 400,000 members about diner behavior. We also asked the chefs and restaurateurs at the top of their game what restaurant guests can do to help make their nights out the best they can be—for everyone involved.
What does it mean to be a five-star restaurant guest, and why does it matter? We asked the ultimate host, Brian Canlis, co-owner of Seattle’s legendary Canlis restaurant, to weigh in.
On a perfect night at Canlis, the restaurant my family has run for 60-plus years, I see great dining experiences happening throughout the room. I love the juxtaposition of laughter and fine dining. Guests are up and mingling with friends they’ve discovered at different tables; the lounge is filled with people who have been at the restaurant all night and don’t want the evening to end. For me, the key to that harmony is helping diners realize that hospitality is about relationships, not about transactions. (I know, one side is paying. I get that.) But truly, I think of it like dating. You need two people to make the experience memorable. The key is being sensitive to each other’s needs. And I won’t know how to serve you if you don’t give me something to go on.
Take a guest who says, “I want your best table.” My first reaction is: What’s your name? I’m not asking if you’re famous or important; I mean who are you? What’s your idea of “best”? Personally, my favorite is Table 1. It was my grandfather’s table. It’s a two-top on the upper level of the restaurant, overlooking the dining room, with a fully functional 1940s phone. I once put a guest there who had requested our best table, and he got angry. To him, the “best” meant something completely different. Recently someone told me, “My mother is having surgery soon, and if there’s a quiet table where we could talk, I’d really appreciate it.” That just made my heart explode. Listen: If we know what it takes to blow you away, we will do it.
Here’s another way to help us help you. Dining out, especially at a place like Canlis, is about more than just filling your stomach. You’re probably coming because the night means something. Tell us what that is when you make the reservation—ideally over the phone, but we do read the “notes” section in our online reservation system. Do that, and we’re 80 percent there. Then, when you arrive, introduce yourself. Don’t just say “Johnson, party of two.” And learn our names. That’s so powerful. If you have an allergy or any other food issue, let us know. Remember, we’re on the same team. Finally, surprise your server by treating him or her like a human being, one you’re curious about. People in this industry so often get treated like servants; that’s not what we are. We’re professionals trained to deliver an individually tailored experience. Be kind and empathetic, and we will fight to make sure you leave a raving fan.
Remember: It’s all about you and the restaurant getting to know each other. Why not make some small talk and just see where the night goes? True hospitality is the business of relationships. Help us build one.
12 New Rules for Dining Out
1. Make a connection. Back in the day, when you wanted a reservation, you called the restaurant and spoke to a human—a connection was made. With the rise of online reservation services like OpenTable and Resy, that connection is gone. So, as Brian Canlis suggests, use the “notes” section (most services have one) to re-establish it. “Communicate with us,” says Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, “and we can make anything happen.” Is it a special occasion? Got a favorite table? It’s always better to let the restaurant know in advance. “Say you’re a vegetarian,” says Katy Kindred of Kindred restaurant in Davidson, North Carolina. “It’s fine if you tell us when you arrive, but if you tell us earlier, our chefs might make something special.” Bottom line: Give restaurants as much info as possible as early as possible so they can exceed your expectations.
2. Make a commitment. The anonymity of the web has made it easier than ever to bail on a table. “We get that planes are delayed, kids get sick. Just let us know,” says Brioza. “But no-shows keep someone else from having that table.” When you do show up, arrive on time. If you’re running late, call to let the restaurant know. And make sure your party of four is just that: four. (You wouldn’t arrive at a dinner party with three extra people in tow—right?) Sure, a restaurant can make it work (probably), but your actions may throw a wrench in the night’s service, including yours. Squirrelly or downright bad behavior doesn’t just affect others—it can also come back to haunt you. Some reservation services allow restaurants to rate guests, à la Lyft. Two-star guests do not get that extra wine-glass top off. OpenTable will even suspend a diner from its service if they’re a no-show four times in a year.
3. Go with the flow. If the staff is really into something, try it. “Leave yourself in the hands of the team,” says Katie Button, executive chef and co-owner of Cúrate and Nightbell in Asheville, North Carolina. “That will allow you to experience a place the way it was designed to be enjoyed.” Short version: This is the staff’s job. Trust them. The heart of what restaurants do is creating an enjoyable experience. Go along for the ride, and odds are you’ll have a better one. “I never want to make anyone feel dumb,” says Andrew Tarlow, owner of Reynard in Brooklyn. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try and get you excited about some crazy new cheese we’re into that you’ve never heard of.” Seriously: Get the cheese. You’ll eat happier.
4. Dive into the wine. When you’re faced with wine lists full of umlauts and varietals you’ve never heard of, look at it as a chance for a relationship-building trust fall: “The first thing I ask is, ‘What do you normally drink?’ Then I give a few suggestions and ask them to trust me,” says Melissa Davis, beverage director of Staplehouse in Atlanta. “Guests already make the most difficult decisions—what to order, who to invite, whether to Uber—so let us take some of that stress away.”
5. Tell us how special you are. Like many places, Nashville’s Rolf and Daughters spends a lot of time making sure dishes can accommodate dietary restrictions. “We try to create a quiver of ways to satisfy any issue,” says chef Philip Krajeck. “We have cashew cheese for dishes, and we make our own gluten-free pasta in-house.” That said, the sooner you let a restaurant know any special requests, the more you set the kitchen—and your night—up for success. Are there allergies? Aversions? Overshare! Start when you make your reservation (see: Rule No. 1), and keep it going the moment you and your server first lock eyes. But please, says Krajeck, “Don’t make things up.” When you raise the possibility of a medical issue, kitchens go into DEFCON 1, taking extra care to prevent cross-contamination. So if you just don’t like peanuts, be clear that’s what you mean.
6. Complain! Things go wrong. It happens. What transpires next can derail the night or pull it out of the ditch. “We love our guests to provide feedback in real time,” says Danny Meyer, the man who literally wrote the book on hospitality, Setting the Table. “Constructive feedback is one of our greatest learning tools. It never feels good to learn we’ve let somebody down, but it’s a gift to be able to acknowledge a mistake and fix it.” If you’re unhappy, let someone know ASAP. If you aren’t comfortable talking with your server, ask for a manager, and then explain the situation. Says Meyer, “The biggest cause of misunderstandings is lack of communication. We appreciate hearing when the meal is going well, but even more so when it’s not.” The worst-case scenario for restaurants is a guest saying, “Tonight just wasn’t good,” when it’s too late to do anything about it. Even worse: hearing about it weeks later on Yelp. “Disappointing a guest is a chef’s nightmare. If it happens, we want to know right away,” says Andrea Reusing, chef-owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “When someone complains online, the only person it serves is the one writing the review.”
7. Hands off. It’s sad this needs to be mentioned, but here goes: Do not flirt, hit on, or touch anyone working at a restaurant. Period.
8. Party in bounds. If someone at your table has overindulged, do everyone a favor and step in. “Dude, I think you’re good,” goes down a lot better from friends or family. The ruckus isn’t the only problem. “If you have too much to drink, we are legally obligated to stop serving you,” says Kindred. “If it comes down to us cutting you off or us getting fined—or worse—we’ll choose the former every time.”
9. Think of the children! “I have no qualifications when it comes to bringing kids into my restaurants. I love it,” says Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. “But make sure you find somewhere that feels the same way. Go to a place where kids are welcome, not merely tolerated.” A couple of tip-offs? The chef-owner actually has kids. “Notions of ‘kid-friendly’ change once you have your own,” says Gjerde, from experience. Look online. A thoughtful kids menu—meaning, not the usual fried suspects—is a good sign. Know that if you come in at 8 p.m. on a Saturday, the restaurant will be far more bustling than it will be at, say, 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. And don’t let your kid run around the place. That’s not just a courtesy to other diners—with servers carrying hot food through a crowded space, it’s a safety issue.
10. Know the limits of BYO. If you plan on bringing that magnum of Champagne from a recent trip to France, read up on a place’s corkage policy (better yet, call; in some states BYOB is illegal, so the restaurant may not have a say in the matter). Note that rolling in with a $15 bottle from the shop up the block does not count as opening a “special” bottle—and by trying to game the system, you’re missing out. Thoughtful restaurants curate drink lists to elevate the food. Trust them (see: Rule No. 3). Intimidated by the wine list? See Rule No. 4. Here’s another tip: “Stick to by-the-glass,” says Justin Chearno, wine director of The Four Horsemen in Brooklyn. “It’s a great way to experience the breadth of a wine program and learn in the process.” Cin cin! Win-win!
11. Ask for overtime. “If you’ve paid the bill but decide to sit for another hour hanging out, that’s very hard for a restaurant,” Canlis says. “Tell us: ‘We’re having a blast—is it OK if we hang out, or do you need the table?’ Even if we do, we’ll find somewhere so you can keep having a good time. Just ask.”
12. End on a high note. “If I see a diner walk to the front door and no one says goodbye, that drives me crazy,” says Reusing. “I love it when a guest says, ‘Thank you so much.’ Feelings of gratitude are mutual.” Once you’ve paid (tipping 20 percent—you do know that tips are how servers make money, right?), make eye contact with the staff on your way out. “Use those names! Say goodbye! Shake our hands!” adds Canlis. “The date is coming to an end, and we’ve both invested a lot into the night. Let’s acknowledge that.”
The Right Way to Send Food Back, According to Waiters and Chefs
Few things are more deflating than biting into something that looked super-tasty on the menu and hating it. What to do (aside from never ordering it again)?
“It’s always OK to send a dish back,” says Danny “Mr. Hospitality” Meyer. Here’s how to do it.
Be honest. If you changed your mind or decided to try a dish you knew you might not like, be up-front with your server about that. Don’t say, “This dish is no good.” Say, “I think I ordered the wrong thing.”
Be specific. Why exactly didn’t you like it? Was it poorly executed? A line like, “I don’t like this because it’s too acidic and spicy,” may help the restaurant describe the dish better in the future.
Be confident. No one wants to make a guest unhappy (even if said guest should have noticed the menu called out the fish sauce in the salad). Send it back without apology—and then tip well.
Be mindful. If you send back more than one dish, maybe the problem is you.
Same goes for the wine. If you don’t enjoy a wine, return it (see: “Be Mindful”). “If the wine isn’t flawed, we can still sell it by the glass,” says Carlton McCoy, wine director at The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado.
How Chefs and Restaurateurs Really Feel About Your Phone
What's the best thing a guest has ever done?
- Sent a thank-you card
- Brought us doughnuts
- Became a regular
- Left a $1,000 tip
- Treated staff with respect
- Shared their wine (that they made themselves)
- Paid for another person’s food
- Told our managers how great service was
What's the worst thing a guest has ever done?
- Left without paying
- Didn’t leave a tip
- Came in drunk and made a mess
- Clogged up plumbing with steaks, baked potatoes, and dinner napkins
- Said they were allergic to salt
- Threw a chair
- General rudeness
- Verbally abused staff
What tools/skills would help you serve guests better?
What do guests do that make your job harder?
- Have a close-minded attitude
- Seat themselves
- Use their phones when they order
- Not communicate
- Not disclose food allergies
- Lack manners and kindness