Top to bottom: Steven Shipp (Felicia Suzanne's), Jeff Frisby (Restaurant Iris), Melvin "Too Tall" Moore (Erling Jensen)
We know what makes a good restaurant server. He smiles warmly when he greets you, answers questions about the food, makes jovial conversation without being cute. She adjusts the thermostat if you're shivering, refills drinks without interrupting, appears promptly when you need her, but doesn't hover when you're tallying the tip. They'll let you peruse the menu, refrain from sighing if you change your order, and show genuine pleasure when you dine with them again.
We could offer dozens more examples of first-rate server traits, but what qualities do they like about us, the customers? What makes the servers smile or cringe? What makes their jobs a joy, or on some occasions, an endurance test? To help us compile this list, we picked the brains of longtime servers at three local fine-dining establishments — Jeff Frisby of Restaurant Iris, Melvin "Too Tall" Moore of Erling Jensen, and Steven Shipp of Felicia Suzanne's. A few tips they offered are standard but worth repeating. Some may truly surprise you. But all are intended to make the dining experience pleasurable — for guests and restaurant staff alike.
The Good Diner Tips
1. Make reservations — and arrive on time. "If we have reservations for five people at 7 o'clock, and the fifth person doesn't show till 7:45, that really throws a kink in things," says Frisby of Restaurant Iris. "People are apologetic and we understand events can delay you. But if at all possible, arrive with your party." For small restaurants especially, turning over tables is imperative. "I let people with a 6 o'clock reservation know that another party has a reservation at 8. If you want a four-hour dinner on a Friday night, this may not be the place for it. But you can certainly enjoy a leisurely meal. And when people do overstay, they usually apologize, saying they were having such a good time."
2. Be honest about the size of your party. Sure, reserving a table for six people — when you know full well only four will be dining — gives you some elbow room. But bear in mind the restaurant could use that space for other customers.
3. Let us know if a member of your party has a special need. "If someone is arriving in a wheelchair or has poor hearing, we can be prepared to accommodate them," says Shipp of Felicia Suzanne's. Also advise the server of any dietary restrictions, food allergies, or vegan diets. "You may have told the hostess when you made the reservation but tell your server too. We always ask, but communication goes both ways. The key to a great evening is communication."
4. If you want a certain table or server, make those requests in advance. "We have some big tables in the back for large groups and naturally the parties can get loud," says Moore of Erling Jensen. "Some people don't mind, others do. Just don't wait till I've brought your first course and then ask to move." Also, if you can't get a table with your favorite waiter, don't expect that waiter to stand and chat. By all means, greet him — he's always glad to see a regular — but let him focus on his current customers.
5. Show respect when the server speaks. "When we come to the table and a guest is on his cellphone, we'll nod and step away in case it's very private or an emergency," says Shipp. "But when it's time to describe the featured items, we appreciate diners giving us their attention. We don't mind repeating the specials, but if everyone would just pause for a moment and listen, then we can all jump in together."
6. Leave behind any preconceived notions about a restaurant. "White tablecloths and fine dining don't have to mean stuffy. We're not," says Frisby. "There's disco music playing in the background. I'll laugh and joke with you. If I feel that someone is nervous or uncomfortable, I'll try to disarm them. For me it's about being able to read people and I'm good at that. Come prepared to have a positive experience, and I'll do my best to see that you do."
7. Trust your server. "I'm a professional," continues Frisby. "I'm not here to sell you the most expensive wine or entree on the list. I'm here to serve you a dinner that suits your appetite and pocketbook. I have guests who will let me order for them and choose their wine. That makes it exciting and fun for me because it's a challenge. Just as we 'read' our customers, try to read your server. I will talk to my guests about the menu and how dishes are prepared and I would think my knowledge would give them a sense of security. Some diners will ask to alter a dish. I tell them I'll get it for them that way but it won't be the dish [the chef] created. A lot of times I'll recommend something else." Like Frisby, Moore asks that customers take his advice about food preparation. "Someone will order seared tuna or duck breast and want it well done. The dish is not going to turn out good. That happened recently and I told the customer next time we'll start cooking it a little less than done and see how that works."
8. Be adventurous — try a different dish. So you love the rack of lamb and order it every time you dine at your favorite restaurant? Great, but servers and chefs enjoy it when you venture from your comfort zone. "We've got so many good items on the menu," says Moore. "You might find a new favorite entree."
9. Avoid asking the server, "What's good?" Instead, says Moore, "tell me what you like and we can move in that direction. In other words, get me to the right neighborhood and I'll take you to the house."
10. Be considerate about special orders. "We're very accommodating and will make a dish that's not on the menu," says Frisby. "But on busy Saturday nights, when people are hanging from the rafters, those special orders can really throw the kitchen off."
11. Don't order a three-course meal if you're heading downtown for a game or show. As Moore explains it: "We get people who'll sit down and say, 'Look we need to be out at a quarter till 7 to get to FedExForum.' Then they'll order three courses and a chocolate souffle." Not only should a meal like that be savored at leisure, but the server has other tables to tend. Meeting your timetable can't be his top priority.
12. Be aware of kitchen timing. Sometimes between courses, diners will go outside to smoke. When that happens, the server has to ask the kitchen to hold the dish until the diner returns. That stops the flow in the kitchen and the dish could get shoved to the back of the line.
13. At higher-priced restaurants, feel free to split courses with others at your table. "We don't want people not to come because it's high dollar," says Moore. "I tell people you can make it as expensive as you want — or not so much. Erling is very generous in his portions. A lot of people share things and that's fine. Somebody sitting there sharing is better than nobody sitting there at all."
14. Speak up immediately if you have a complaint. If the food is cold, too salty, not cooked properly, let the server know right away. He can correct it or get you another dish. As Moore says, "Don't wait two weeks and send a bad letter. Let me know tonight and I'll do what it takes if I have to change your order. "
15. If in doubt about the price of an item, ask — and listen to the answer. "If a guest is offended with the price of a dish and the waiter did not disclose the price to the guest, then we eat that cost," says Shipp. For instance, some don't realize that sparkling water still comes with a price, unlike tap water. "The diner will say, 'I had no intention of paying for water.' Not a problem. In the grand scheme of things, it's not worth losing a customer." But sometimes restaurants choke down more than a few bucks — even when the server clearly states the cost. Moore recalls a particularly pricey moment. "A few years ago, we had a 3-pound lobster, selling it for $26 a pound. A fellow came in and ordered it and I told him the price per pound. When he got the bill, he swore I said it was $23 for the whole thing. Anybody in the real world knows you're not gonna get a 3-pound lobster for $23. But what could we do? He wound up paying $23 for the whole thing. Man, that hurt."
18. Treat servers and other restaurant staff with respect. "I've seen grown individuals speak to the host or server in a manner that in any other circumstance wouldn't be tolerated," says Frisby. "There's absolutely no reason to demean anyone. I want to say, 'You're an adult, act like an adult. You screaming will not help the situation.' We don't see it often, but it can happen when people are waiting on their tables, and it's crunch time, people are crowded at the door. It's frustrating, everyone is human. We want you to be happy and we don't want to lose guests. But on the few occasions when people have said they weren't coming back, I'm thinking maybe it's best they found another restaurant that would accommodate every reservation at any given time." (And good luck with that.)
19. Bringing your own wine? Show a little class. Don't bring the bottle in a brown bag straight from the liquor store. Says Moore: "If you don't have a wine bag, just carry it in your hand. And please, take the price tag off."
20. Watch your alcohol intake. Moore owns a bar business for private parties, and when an inebriated guest demands another cocktail, he's been known to walk away from the bar. But as a restaurant server, he doesn't have that luxury. "I don't want to lose a customer, so don't put me in that situation. Work with me. Don't make me say no to another drink. You say no first."
21. Be responsible for your children. "Make sure your child is within eye distance," says Shipp. "And bring distractions for them." Crying babies can often be placated with a bottle. "Bring the bottle with the formula and we'll be glad to heat that up." Also, if you know your child's going to want something that's not on the menu, call ahead and request it. "Most kids order from the big boy menu," says Moore, "but invariably we'll get one who asks, 'Got any chicken fingers?' So when you make reservations, let us know what the child wants and we'll have ingredients on hand." Finally, when the kid needs a potty break, don't ask the server to take him to the bathroom. "I'll do whatever my guests ask me," says Moore, "but some servers are offended." Indeed.
22. If you've had a bad day, try to leave it behind before you sit down to eat. "I've seen people who are upset about something when they come in, or get a text or call while they're here," says Shipp. "They may just need an avenue to vent. We try to do that without feeding the fire. I've had guests apologize saying, 'It's not you, sir.' I appreciate that. Our job is to make the dining experience as pleasant as possible." On the other hand, some customers can extend a bad moment into a wretched evening. "When that happens they may see the waiter as a moving target for them to vent on. If it gets too excessive, we probably need to get them another server and hope the behavior stops. If not, we endure them to the end of the dining experience, thank them for coming, and learn from it."
23. Got a beef with your spouse or companion? Chill out before you enter the restaurant. "Guests with disagreements are as real as leaves falling from the trees," says Shipp. "Liquor can help or hurt the situation. These situations don't happen often but when they do, our job is to smile through it all. I just wish people would be ever mindful that they are out to enjoy themselves."
24. Be a guest that waiters like to see walk through the door. As Frisby describes several of his regulars: "They're like a breath of fresh air, patient and understanding. You see them and think, 'There's someone I can laugh with, a friendly face.' It takes away the pressure. I have many wonderful customers I consider friends, and some who are well on the way to being friends. The personal connection makes all the difference."
25. Connect with your waiter, enjoy your meal, and by all means come back. Shipp can speak for most servers when he says, "We appreciate it when guests [call us by name] and give us a handshake or hug. We like it when they introduce us to their best friend or future son-in-law. We like it when we go to other restaurants and see our guests and they stop to say hello. Most of all we like to see our guests enjoy themselves, their friends, and their meals. That's what dining out is all about."