Steve Holt is a writer living in Boston. His work regularly appears in Civil Eats and Edible Boston.
Pro tip: They can tell when you're faking that food allergy.
Hang out with servers, kitchen staff or managers after a restaurant closes, and you stand an excellent chance of being regaled with tales of oblivious, obnoxious or entitled restaurant customers. If only the dining public could be privy to these late-night complaining sessions—we just might change our ways.
So consider it a public service or an intervention, but we spent the last couple of weeks chatting with restaurant personnel across the country, and ended up with a surprising list of the universally annoying things you may be doing when you go out to eat, even if you don't realize it at the time. To all the servers (and diners, for that matter) out there, you're welcome.
1) You’re faking a food allergy.
Many Americans have real food allergies, some of them deadly serious, and these days most fine dining restaurants take steps to provide allergy information on their menus or discuss them with their customers before they order. But with close to 18 million Americans now claiming a "sensitivity" to gluten, some restaurants have grown cynical about certain allergies, especially when supposedly gluten-intolerant customers ask whether a dish has sugar, potatoes, or rice (all gluten-free ingredients).
Jennifer Piallat, owner of San Francisco’s Zazie, says that while her restaurant gladly accommodates most any allergy request, they can be frustrating given the amount of misinformation out there about certain allergies, combined with the number of customers who say they’re allergic but aren’t. (And Piallat is not alone, judging by the number of times we heard this complaint from the chefs who responded to our informal poll.) All of it cheapens the risk actual allergy sufferers take when eating out.
“I want my servers and kitchen to hear that someone is allergic to something and assume that means they will collapse in anaphylactic shock on the floor if it touches their lips—think peanuts, shellfish,” Piallat says. “Not that they'll be a little bloated when they wake up tomorrow.”
2) You rewrite the menu.
Closely related to the fake allergy issue is the constant need of some customers to substitute side dishes and seasonings, request items not on the menu, or otherwise alter what's on offer to suit their narrow tastes. Sometimes it’s as if the menu doesn’t even exist—and chefs really do consider this to be an insult.
“I am in no way saying that my dishes are perfect or works of art, but they are pre-planned and thought out,” says Eric Samaniego, chef at Little Sparrow Cafe in Santa Ana, California.
Sometimes customers don’t appear to have read the menu at all before rewriting it, like the person who ordered a fruit plate from Atlanta’s seasonally inspired JCT Kitchen and Bar in the dead of winter, when all it had were apples. At Zazie, three cooks prepare food for 80 customers at a time on just six stovetop burners, so even a single request for sautéed spinach and mushrooms (with no oil, lightly salted) instead of mashed potatoes takes up an extra sauce pan and is a huge nuisance to the kitchen staff, Piallat says.
“You are not that special,” she adds wryly.
3) You don’t respect reservations.
At Zazie, 30 percent of reservations are no-shows, and another 20 percent are late, according to Piallat. When a restaurant holds a table for a no-show or late-comer, that’s real money lost against razor-thin margins. The advent of online reservations has also been a double-edged sword for restaurant owners, who say groups are mass-reserving tables for the same time at numerous restaurants and choosing where they’ll eat a half-hour before the reservation. The other restaurants are left to purposely overbook or try to replace that reservation in a short time, which Chef David Santos of Louro in New York City calls “almost impossible.”
“People forget that this is a business and when you lose guests during prime time it hurts us big time,” he adds. “It’s also unfair to people who could have made a reservation when it was held for someone else who knew they might not be dining there.”
4) You’re cheap.
Maybe you’re not walking off with the bottle of English Leather from the bathroom (as the chef Steve McHugh reported happening recently at his San Antonio restaurant, Cured), but is your stinginess showing in other ways? Ani Meinhold, general manager at Miami’s The Federal, says a caller hung up on him recently when told that brunch food is sold separately during the restaurant’s $19 bottomless mimosa promotion. At Cured in San Antonio, which charges for bread, customers regularly ask for “the free stuff,” says McHugh. The best advice on how to avoid appearing cheap? Familiarize yourself with a restaurant's concept before you visit, and if the menu prices make you squirm, don't go to that restaurant.
5) You fail to extend basic courtesy to wait staff and other guests.
Yes, restaurants aim to please their customers, but please don’t forget that when you eat out, you’re also a guest in someone else’s dining room. Part of the social contract of a restaurant is that you do need to be aware of your impact on the tables around you. Using your inside voice is an obvious place to start. But what about recording cell phone videos throughout the restaurant, loudly, during the dinner rush, as Giorgio Rapicavoli, the chef and owner of Eating House Miami, recently observed?
Some other tips: Be mindful of how long you’re occupying a table, and certainly don’t put front-of-house staff in an awkward position by nursing that last glass of wine long after the restaurant closes. It’s common courtesy.
6) You’re mean.
Obliviousness is one thing, but meanness is quite another. Maybe you don’t realize it as you send your overly al dente risotto back to the kitchen, but your tone and overall demeanor toward the server is hurtful and rude. Customers own much of the responsibility in creating a positive dining experience for themselves, says Patrick Maguire, a Boston-based hospitality consultant and author of I’m Your Server Not Your Servant. Empathy goes a long way when it comes to interacting with wait staff, he says.
“If everyone spent a little bit of time on the receiving end of the general public's wrath,” he says, “the world would be a much more gracious, patient, and humble place.”
7) You don’t trust the professionals.
You’ve decided to come out to a nice restaurant for dinner instead of cooking at home, and yet you ask your server for a dish recommendation before ignoring it (“Listen to us,” says Meinhold of The Federal. “We will guide you!”) or smother your plate with salt or hot sauce before trying it.
“We take our time and taste everything before it goes out,” says Samaniego of Little Sparrow. “The least you can do is try one bite before you ‘make it your own.’”
8) You don’t tip (enough).
C’mon. This is still a problem? Must you be reminded how little servers get paid before tips? When you take home the merchant copy of the credit card receipt without leaving a cash tip or fail to tip on the full amount of your meal when paying with a gift card, “you look cheap or stupid,” says Charlotte, who is putting herself through college waiting tables at two Boston restaurants and asked to be identified only by her first name.
9) You complain about dumb stuff online.
In many ways, Yelp has become enemy No. 1 to restaurants over the last few years. The platform, and others like it, make it super easy for diners to toss semi-anonymous criticism bombs based on a single experience at a restaurant. Or worse, like the customer who gave Little Sparrow Cafe one star on Yelp after calling the restaurant and finding out it doesn’t offer bottomless mimosas.
“They didn't even try the restaurant at all,” recalls Samaniego, the chef. “At least give me a chance to earn a one-star review. If I screwed up, I’ll own it. But that was crap.”
The Bottom Line: Most restaurants will do their best to accommodate requests and will tolerate almost any annoyance, which most acknowledge is part of the job. “We are in the business of delivering experiences,” says Angulo of JCT Kitchen and Bar. But it can't hurt if we all had a better idea of what really drives restaurant workers crazy. You might just enjoy your next meal that much more.