9 Jun 2022

The rules of restaurants

After the difficulties of the last two years, we might still be a bit rusty when it comes to hosting meals in a restaurant, dining in a big group, or dealing with complaints or special dietary requirements.

Get the most out of the restaurant dining experience by following these simple rules:

Reservations

Whenever possible, make a reservation – always book if you are dining in a group, and discuss any special requirements, such as seating with step-free access, with the restaurant in advance.

Diets and Allergies

It is also a good idea to alert the restaurant in advance if guests have allergies or dietary restrictions. You might need to check, for example, if they offer gluten free or vegan options, and it is helpful to give them forewarning so they can make advance provision.

Choice of Table

If you are unhappy with the table you are allocated, ask whether it is possible to be accommodated elsewhere, but do this before you sit down to minimise disturbance for adjacent diners.

If the waiter assists a woman in taking her seat, she should accept this old-fashioned chivalry graciously, and wait until the chair is touching the back of her knees before beginning to sit down.

Wine and Water

Restaurants should now offer tap, as well as bottled, water, and it is always acceptable to ask for tap water. 

If you are hosting (ie paying) in a restaurant, then it is up to you to choose the wine. If you are dining in a large group, where the costs of the meal are to be shared, it helps if somebody takes control of ordering the wine, which means enlisting a consensus choice from the assembled company. If you are the designated wine selector, consult with your fellow diners over the choice of wine. Don’t make assumptions about how much they are willing to pay – the easiest option in these circumstances is often to go for the house wine, so it might be sensible to steer your companions in this direction.

Ordering

When dining in a group, you should try to agree collectively on the number of courses. Once you have chosen, close your menu. If you know that someone else will be picking up the bill, choose modestly. If you are footing the bill, you should suggest to your guests that they have free rein.

If you are dining in a group where everyone is paying, try and ensure that diners are ordering the same number of courses and comparably priced dishes. It helps if one person takes charge and makes this explicit at the beginning of the meal.

Normally, everyone at the table is served at the same time. Wait until all dishes have arrived at the table before starting. If yours is lagging behind, insist the others start, and wait a few minutes before quietly enquiring as to where yours is.

Complaining

If you are dissatisfied with the food, say so discreetly and with minimal fuss, and request any necessary (and reasonable) changes. Keep things pleasant, and don’t shoot the messenger. Be aware that excessive complaining may spoil your companions’ evening.  Never revert to sulking or playing the martyr if you’re dissatisfied – that way you’ll make everyone uncomfortable. If you are merely disappointed with your meal, keep it to yourself – you don’t want to strike a sour note.

Paying

There is one abiding rule – the person who requests the pleasure, pays for the pleasure. So, as a simple point of etiquette, you should pick up the tab for a lunch, dinner or drinks – whether dating or business lunching – if you have invited the other people.

Going Dutch is not recommended on a date. Instead, the person who issued the invitation should pick up the tab.

Splitting the bill is fine for bigger restaurant gatherings. Costs should be divided equally; niggling about the comparative cost of dishes and drinks will be embarrassing and look cheap. It is to be hoped that the preliminary discussions around the ordering process will ensure that most people’s orders are comparable. If there are gross inequities, for example one person ordering the lobster while everyone else is happy with fish and chips, then it behoves the extravagant diner to make a gracious gesture, such as paying for the tip.

Tipping

In the UK, tipping in restaurants is usually ‘discretionary’, but it is more discretionary in some places than others so check your bill. ‘Service not included’ means just that, and it is usual to offer between 10–15 per cent.

Since most transactions these days are by card, the tip is usually added as part of the card transaction. Leaving cash is still the method favoured by restaurant staff – but don’t just offload a pile of small coins, it looks contemptuous.

Many establishments will add a discretionary percentage automatically. You are not obliged to pay this if service has been noticeably poor, and in some circumstances it is acceptable to ask for it to be removed.

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