Tips or no tips, serving in a restaurant can be a pretty thankless task at times. In just one night, staff can serve hundreds of people, many of them hangry, some of them just plain rude. They’ll clock up the equivalent of a half-marathon between the tables and the kitchen, all the while dealing with fed-up coworkers, a backlog of orders, and anything else the night throws their way.
To find out what your overworked waiters really think about you, we spoke to restaurant staff at some of the best London eateries. Read on to find out what their biggest pet peeves are while they're on the clock. Hopefully you won’t see some of your “helpful” behaviors in the responses.
Good manners cost nothing
“Speak to your waiter or anybody serving you like you would to somebody on the street or someone you are acquainted with,” says Matt Varona at Carousel London. “Just because they are serving you doesn't make them your servant.”
It’s basics: be nice to someone and they’ll be nice back. Just because you’re paying a restaurant for a meal, it doesn’t mean the waiter is in your employ. Would you snap your fingers at your hairstylist to get a quicker haircut? We’d hope not.
Remember, we’re shattered
“It can be a seriously exhausting industry to work in and makes such a difference to the staff when you take notice of them,” says Dan Wilson, co-founder and head chef at Dandy in Stoke Newington, London. “At Dandy we try to treat diners as friends and most of the time that's what we get back. It makes for a happy and relaxed environment.”
Split shifts, doubles, back-to-backs, all-dayers, 15 days without a break – these phrases are all in a waiter’s lexicon. If it’s a busy service, there’s every chance a waiter’s working day can consist purely of 10-yard sprints for eight long hours. They will be tired. They might be frazzled. A bit of courtesy goes a long way.
Don’t tweak our recipes for us
“Ask for the plate to come as the chef recommends rather than making numerous changes to the dish,” says Daniel Pimentel, director of food and beverage at Mondrian London. “Obviously we’ll account for dietary requirements, but we’d almost rather you ordered off menu than trying to change the dishes we’ve created.”
The chef and his team have spent weeks, even months perfecting a particular dish. If you don’t like one particular element on it, don’t order it. By the time you’ve swapped out aubergine for carrots and potato gratin for fries, not only have you marked yourself out as a philistine, but you’re creating a completely different dish. The flavor profiles don’t pair and any element of ingredient harmony has been lost. Unless, of course, you’re in a diner that mainly serves grease. Set Breakfast #5 can happily switch fried eggs for scrambled.
Don’t ask for more salt
“Some restaurants ban salt and pepper and to an extent I agree with this as any chef worth his position should season a dish properly,” says Varona. “However, if the guest is hell bent on raising his or her blood pressure, then who are we to stop them.”
People’s palates react differently to seasoning – courtesy of a misspent youth on the smokes, perhaps. If you don’t see salt on the table, taste the food first before you ask for extra. At least then you’ll be able to explain to your waiter (and the chef, should he come blustering out of the kitchen) which elements on the plate require an extra dredge of the white stuff.
Stop assuming I’m an out-of-work actor
“Sadly, the hospitality industry by and large is still seen as a 'non-profession' and viewed as a means to an end for part-time actors and students,” says Varona. “Customers know this and unfortunately exploit this to a degree. Some of us have devoted our lives to it.”
Just because you quit your job waiting tables when you left university, it doesn’t mean the person who’s about to deliver your starter is in the middle of his Bachelor of Tarts. At the top level, there’s excellent money to be made perfecting the art of service, but it takes years of practice to get there. Appreciate that it’s someone’s career choice and respect what they do.
Do feed back
“It’s great when people come up to the pass to let us know how much they’ve enjoyed the food,” says Yohini Nandakumar, founder of Sparrow. “Our head chef, Terry, still keeps a scrapbook with bills left on the table. One of the customers wrote ‘best strawberry dessert ever’. Gestures like that are lovely and don’t go unnoticed.”
Whatever line of work you’re in, it’s nice to receive praise when you’ve done a good job. Whether that means complimenting the waiter on his or her performance, or scrawling a note to the chef to tell him about something you enjoyed, it won’t go unappreciated. Chefs, in particular, are distanced from how their food is received. If you feel bold enough, ask to go and see the chef to comment on his food. And if you can’t stand the heat, you know what you can do.
“Personally, I think we should update the signing mime and replace with a pin number punching mime, or a contactless waft of a card mime, and I’m working on an Apple Pay mime,” says Richard Temple, at The Vincent. “Whatever you do, it has to be mimed, even if your server is standing right in front of you. Feel free to do it from a distance – they won’t mind.”
The international language of asking for the bill isn’t rude; it’s simply the most effective way to communicate what you’re after. Staff will actually be frustrated if you call them over to ask for it. Just make eye contact, do the sign language thing and they will deliver it as soon as they can – they probably want you to leave as they’ll want the table back after all.
A little knowledge goes a long way
“The best ways to ensure you get great service is to show a bit of personality, display some knowledge about the ingredients and, most importantly, smile,” says Gilly Gubernari at London’s Radio Alice Pizzeria. “Also, believe what the waiter tells you. Customers often feel as if we’re trying to cheat them in some capacity. Mistakes can happen but we always try to explain why.”
If you know that a certain ingredient is in season, or that the area you’re in is known for a particular type of produce, mention it to your waiter. It will inevitably instigate a conversation about where the restaurant sources its dishes from, which staff are always keen to talk about. If it’s relayed to the kitchen staff that “table three knows what they’re talking about”, there’s a good chance chef will take extra care over your plate, too.
Find Out Our Names
“A good waiter would always introduce themselves at the beginning of a meal, so you should really try and remember,” says Pimentel. “If not, it does no harm at all to ask them their name and give them yours.”
You’re going to be in their company for an evening, so why not get to know them? Serving staff will go above and beyond for customers that they like, whether that’s an extra second inverting the bottle while free pouring your drink, or picking up your food first from the pass.
Don’t stack plates
“Sit back and relax once you’ve finished eating,” says Richard Temple at The Vincent in London’s Hackney. “If you can see that the waiter or waitress is really struggling to reach a plate, then moving it closer is a nice gesture, but stacking actually causes us more hassle. Let us clean the table while you carry on the conversations. Take a sip of your drink and maybe give us a friendly nod.”
Let the guys get on with their job. You might think you’re helping by loading up your plates, but it messes with their system. It’s a lot easier to carry a number of plates by stacking them up your arm than it is to lift a pile with your fingers. Leave them to it.
Keep it simple, stupid
“Splitting the bill can be a pain, though it depends how you split it,” admits Varona. “If you split it evenly among four people then that is absolutely fine. If you are a table which divides up a bottle of water depending on how many sips you had then yes, this is very annoying. Especially if you expect the waiter to do the divvying up.”
The likelihood is that your waiter isn’t studying for a degree in pure mathematics and, as such, wouldn’t be able to work out what you owe for the eighth of the pizza you had on top of 2.3 handfuls of fries. Either work out who’s paying what before the card machine comes out, or download an app that does it for you, like Hello Casa. Alternatively, stop inviting that friend who seems to be AWOL when it’s their turn to buy a round.
The tipping debate
“Tipping is always tricky,” says Varona. “I guess we haven't got it as bad our American cousins, but it would be nice to live in a world where it didn't need to happen. You wouldn't tip the nurse after a visit to the hospital would you?”
For Brits, the act of tipping always seems to be painful: why can’t there be hard-and-fast rules? Hospitality workers rely hugely on the wage bump tips provide, so if you’ve received good service, it’s good to show that with a gratuity. Ten per cent reads as a “Thanks. You’ve done an acceptable job”; 15 per cent could be considered “Top-drawer service. I’ll be back”; and 20 per cent is construed as, “You’ve made my night. I’d like you to bring me food and drink every day of the week.”
“I find it a huge lack of respect when someone refuses to look me in the eye when ordering,” says Varona. “How hard can it be?”
You’re not Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, so stop staring at your feet. Unless you’re looking over the bartender’s shoulder to admire his back bar, make eye contact with the guy who’s about to pour you a drink or take your order. You never know, there might be an extra measure in it for you.
If you don’t ask…
“Customers can be often get away with being much more demanding than they are,” says Nandakumar. “If you want a starter as a main, or a smaller portion of a main then you should just ask. The key is to do it with a smile and as nicely as you can; once you have your waiter on your side anything is possible.”
The only stupid question in restaurants is the one you didn’t ask. They might not be able to accommodate what you’re after, but you’ll never know if you don’t try. Consider what you’re asking for and how much time or hassle it will be for the person doing it. As a general rule of thumb, the more you’re paying for your meal, the more likely the restaurant is to bend over backwards to keep you happy.
Step out of your comfort zone
“I like customers to trust their server. When they let the waiter guide them and are happy to try something different to what they’d normally choose, in my experience, they really enjoy it,” says Gubernari. “I’d love people to try more products. They’re normally scared by the idea of having something different.”
It’s all too easy to stick to what you know when going out for dinner. But surely the whole point of eating in a restaurant is to try food you don’t usually have at home? We’re not saying tear up the rule book completely, but if something is a restaurant’s specialty, it’s worth giving it a go. On a very base level, as they’re shifting so much of it, it’s likely to be the most fresh. Ask your waiter to guide you around the menu and explain each dish in more detail and get a clue as to its genesis.
Don't snap your fingers
“Never, ever click your fingers at a waiter,” says Pimentel. “You’d be surprised how common this still is. Surely people realise how rude it is!”
Basically, don’t be an douchebag.