How to Speak Up Whilst Dining Out

Dear Agony Uncle,

I recently visited a local restaurant with a good reputation for food and service—usually a relaxed atmosphere and easy to keep one’s head down—however, for a party of five booked in advance, we were shown to a table for four. With one “emergency chair” placed at the side. I didn’t enjoy my meal because my backside was in the middle of busy waiter traffic. When paying for the meal, service charge of 10% was added as usual. Am I entitled to ask for a reduction in the service charge, or should I shut my mouth and grow a set?

Sir Swear-A-Lot

Dear Sir Swear-A-Lot,

We dine out not only for its convenience but with the expectation of a certain level of service. If pheasant under glass existed in a TV dinner form that didn’t induce bowel movements in a matter of moments after consumption, nor did it suggest a spinster’s existence of eighteen cats and a shoebox full of broken dreams, then perhaps we would be less likely to brave the whimsical nature of wait staff.

These days, good help is hard to find and The New York Times agrees. They recently posted a list of the 100 Things Restaurants Should Never Do—a comprehensive roster of service slip-ups that can ruin the culinary experience for would-be diners. Curiously, brass, Broadway and big band numbers are an ambiance no-no, while ketchup is deemed acceptable with any meal. I tend to disagree.

Here are some of my personal highlights from the Times‘ list.

2. Do not make a singleton feel bad. Do not say, “Are you waiting for someone?” Ask for a reservation. Ask if he or she would like to sit at the bar.

17. Do not take an empty plate from one guest while others are still eating the same course. Wait, wait, wait.

23. If someone likes a wine, steam the label off the bottle and give it to the guest with the bill. It has the year, the vintner, the importer, etc.

46. Never acknowledge any one guest over and above any other. All guests are equal.

58. Do not bring judgment with the ketchup. Or mustard. Or hot sauce. Or whatever condiment is requested.

85. Never bring a check until someone asks for it. Then give it to the person who asked for it.

93. Do not play brass — no brassy Broadway songs, brass bands, marching bands, or big bands that feature brass, except a muted flugelhorn.

94. Do not play an entire CD of any artist. If someone doesn’t like Frightened Rabbit or Michael Bublé, you have just ruined a meal.

Irrespective of individual condiment or Sousa preferences, the New York Times list sets a level of expectation for restaurant service, which clearly reaffirms the rules governing the relationship between waiter and guest in an age of bare table and paper napkin service.  Sometimes the service can be overly friendly, which I experienced on an outing to a certain Polish restaurant and vodka bar. The waiter, whose sleazy nature and overconfidence is legendary, took matters into his own mitts and thought that my knee was an appropriate resting place for his genitals. Now I’m certain I’ve had worse things on my areas of articulation, however, what I took most umbrage to was having to wait for half an hour for our bill to arrive, despite the specialised attention my knee received. Naturally, we departed without leaving a tip and he narrowly escaped a knee-jerk response.

As a diner, you’re entitled to complain if service isn’t to your level of expectation, however, be sure to do so in a manner than won’t see your meal a repository for a jilted staff member’s saliva. Speak to the particular member of wait staff who has been assigned your table and calmly address the issue—a dirty fork is not worth a tantrum. In your case, you should explain that the precise details of your reservation has been overlooked and that you would prefer to switch to another table should one become available. A good restaurant would do their best to accommodate your request and would even provide you with a complimentary round of aperitifs.

If your concerns haven’t been addressed, you have three options: endure sitting in a thoroughfare, ask to speak to the manager or stand up and leave before you order. Be measured in your delivery; you’re more likely to receive a positive and intelligible response if you keep your voice to an assertive and controlled tone and leave emotion out of your diction. If you can’t achieve a reasonable outcome then vote with your feet. Pick up your coats and leave without causing a scene—your departure will make enough of an impact to the other diners without saying a word—and make a beeline for the nearest establishment able to accommodate your party of five at short notice. It mightn’t be glamourous or charming, but McDonald’s will have your meal in front of you in no more than four minutes and the only brush you’ll have with anyone’s genitalia is if it’s on a truck route. Whatever floats your sundae.

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