Don’t ask your waiter what to order – and other ways to be a perfect diner

I had my first waitressing job in Chancery Lane, a very lawyer-heavy corner of London, in 1991. I had been hired specifically to flog dessert wine at the end of the meal, and I learned the following: if people want dessert wine, they ask for it. Getting a person who doesn’t already want it to drink tokay is like getting a baby to take an antibiotic – you would basically have to squirt it into their mouths with a syringe. I also learned every single way in which a lawyer can be rude to a waiter: the cross-examination (“Why on earth would I want dessert wine?”); the stonewall; the sneering grandeur (“We’re actually in the middle of a conversation”). What is wrong with these people, I always thought. They can surely see that I’m not doing this on my own account.

After that, I had a couple of waiting jobs that were OK – corporate events in museums, where everyone was wild with excitement because they were going to snog someone from HR, and you couldn’t put a foot wrong – but realised quite quickly that if you wanted to be treated like an equal, you had to work in a pub. Indeed, drinkers treat you like an equal at the beginning of the night, and by the end, they are treating you like some kind of angel. Diners, gone bad, are the opposite: you’re staff at the beginning and a serf at the end.

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This is at the kernel of most significant crimes against waiting staff: treating them as irritating accessories to the dining experience, like wasps. In my wide-ranging focus group (Twitter) on what waiters hate now, nearly 30 years later, it’s all in this category: clicking your fingers; saying you’ve decided and then making someone stand next to you like a lemon while you actually decide; not making eye contact, especially when you pass back the payment machine (the message of which is especially chilling: this transaction is over, ergo you, waiting person, have ceased to exist). Lots of people said they do a Fawlty Towers when someone’s fingers click – look under the table and say: “Is there a dog under there?”

There are strategies galore for dealing with rudeness, which mostly end with a waiter spitting in your food, but the main reason you should behave properly as a diner is that you are human and so are they. You have to do more than not be rude yourself, incidentally; you have to be a good ally and police rudeness on your table. I would never eat with anyone who made waiters wait for the sake of it.

It may shock and appal you to learn that there are behaviours you think are harmless that waiters hate: folding crisp packets (this is more gastropub behaviour) into tiny squares and wedging them into crevices, bottle necks and suchlike; ripping up napkins into tiny pieces and sprinkling them about (I have some sympathy for this – it’s the kind of thing you might do on a terrible date instead of sticking a fork into your own eye – however, don’t do it). Some of these are ways you think you’re “helping”, such as piling an extra plate on to an existing pile, or handing something to someone when they are already laden. “I’m actually trained at this,” one waiter told me. “I know exactly how many plates I can get on to each arm and in what formation.” Chuck a rogue knife into that, and you’re essentially saying: “I have no conception of the amount of skill involved in your work.”

It’s annoying, however, when you overdo your respect, such as asking the waitress what she would order. There are restaurants where the staff have tasted everything, a mark of mutual respect and honour between employer and employee, but there are heaps of places where the waiters are just given a bowl of pasta at the end of a shift, and they don’t bloody know what you should order, between the chicken parfait and the asparagus. Then they have to go: “The parfait is very popular,” and you’re in this opinion no-man’s-land – does that mean it’s good or that other people are stupid? – and you cannot either take the recommendation or politely reject it.

Good diner behaviour is when you treat the staff as you would a member of your family who was bringing you some food: say please and thank you; say thank you like you mean it; move your phone when the food arrives, and anything else that is in the way; wait until they are free before you stage a fresh request; apologise when you spill; if you are making a complaint, unless it’s one specifically about the service, frame it as constructive bitching about a mutual acquaintance rather than an accusation.

At my first waiter interaction – “Can I bring you some water?” – I always say: “Nah, I’m all right.” It establishes the following: I am not a demanding person; feel free to try and flog me some dessert wine later, if you like; I intend to enjoy this occasion, by which I mean, really go for it. Of course it helps that I don’t like water.


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