Any number of things can make or break a meal out at a restaurant. Catching up with friends after a long week over shared bites (and maybe a bit of booze)? Definitely worth looking forward to. Finding a piece of hair in your food that’s a completely different color from your own? Not ideal. The whole joint singing happy birthday as you’re handed a slice of cake? Likely embarrassing, but still not the worst.
But have you ever considered what might differentiate a standard dining party from… well, an unpleasant one (to put it mildly) from the perspective of the kitchen and restaurant staff?
Real talk: While many diners abide by the notion that the customer is always right, this isn’t always the case. Despite the fact that you’re supporting a business with your hard-earned dollars, remember that a bit of courtesy and mindfulness (read: respect) go a long way. Ahead, Chef Dale McKay—founder of the Grassroots Restaurant Group, winner of Top Chef Canada season one, and competitor in 2023’s Top Chef: World All-Stars—shares three pain points he wishes diners would correct to make for a more pleasant dining experience for all. Keep reading for the food pro’s seasoned (hehe) insights.
3 common restaurant etiquette mistakes, according to a chef and restaurateur
1. Deviating from your party size without advanced notice
While it may seem innocuous enough to add (or remove) a chair or two at your dinner reservation, even slight deviations can throw the restaurant’s operations off course. “It’s a very difficult and tricky job fitting in all the reservations in a busy restaurant. It’s a constant balancing act,” McKay says.
Reservations exist for a reason, and it’s not only to ensure that you enjoy your own meal out. After all, other diners need to be accommodated as well—not to mention there’s a rhythm that the staff has to maintain to ensure a smooth shift (and, of course, profits). “When you are fully booked and a party shows up with two extra people just expecting that there will be room, it throws the whole flow of service off,” says McKay.
“Guests will point at open tables and say they can sit there or that there are all these open seats, [but they] often don’t understand how restaurant reservations work,” says McKay.
A host or manager will likely do their best to accommodate changes in your party size, though it’s neither ideal nor always possible. “Guests will point at open tables and say they can sit there or that there are all these open seats, [but they] often don’t understand how restaurant reservations work,” says McKay. To minimize the risk of getting off to an unpleasant start or even losing your table entirely, give the restaurant adequate notice of any changes to your party size—ideally at least a day in advance.
And while you’re at it, it’s always wise to show up on time for your reservation. Many restaurants will offer a short grace period, but it’s better not to push it.
2. Conflating dietary preferences with restrictions
“We take guests’ dietary restrictions very seriously—whether it’s an allergy or an intolerance, or even a preference or dislike,” McKay says. Some are more common than others—say, for dairy or gluten—and kitchens tend to be prepared with alternatives. (That said, if you have severe restrictions or allergies, it’s worth mentioning these upon making your reservation instead of expecting guaranteed substitutes.) “We will go through each dish for the guest, making sure we are as safe as possible with no cross-contamination,” he continues. All the while, they’ll do their best to ensure each revised item tastes just as good as the original. These efforts amount to extra work and focus for both the kitchen and service staff, which McKay says everyone should be equipped and happy to accommodate. Just remember that being considerate goes both ways.
It’s important to be honest about what you can’t have for health reasons versus what you simply prefer to avoid. McKay says that all too often, when a substitution can’t be made for a certain dessert or dish, a “severe” allergy suddenly vanishes and the diner is fine to proceed with an order as is. “This can be frustrating after the extra work and care has been put into things, as people’s safety is something we take very seriously and always will,” he explains.
It’s important to be honest about what you can’t have for health reasons versus what you simply prefer to avoid. McKay says that all too often, when a substitution can’t be made for a certain dessert or dish, a “severe” allergy suddenly vanishes and the diner is fine to proceed with an order as is.
3. “Knowing better” than the staff
So far, we can deduce that the running theme of entitlement should be off limits while dining out. (The same applies to your dealings with service professionals across any industry, for that matter.) Perhaps the biggest grievance in this vein is thinking you know better than the chef, cooks, or other staff members—and brashly communicating this as such.
“With food TV and social media these days, there is a higher understanding of educated diners when it comes to food and drinks,” McKay explains. “But that also brings out guests that feel they know better than you, and often want to tell you all about their knowledge and let you know [what] could be done in a better way.” A love for and appreciation for the culinary arts is one thing, but offending a chef or restaurant’s approach is something else entirely.
McKay recalls one *memorable* story of a large group in one of his restaurants, in which a self-declared foodie ordered a charcuterie board. When the board of meats from local farms arrived on the table, the diner scoffed in dismay: Where is the cheese, the smoked salmon, the nuts? Different takes on charcuterie boards “have been very popular and common in social media and in restaurants, [but] the literal meaning of charcuterie is cold-cured meats,” McKay explains… which is exactly what his restaurant offered, alongside housemade pickles, mustard, and crackers. Nonetheless, the guest “proceeded to tell the table we don’t understand what charcuterie is and that they [could make] a way better one at home.” As if that’s not cringe enough, they also left a bad review and refused to tip their server(!).
In short, while you may have binge-watched every cooking show or are a budding home chef with Insta-perfect proof of your creations to boot, acting as though you’re the expert over the actual expert is pretty much guaranteed to put a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.