Understanding server etiquette and how you can avoid the top faux pas
The couple seated at table 23 is enjoying their meal: Not only did they ooh and aah over the appetizers, they also quaffed a couple of glasses of pinot noir and munched their way through an entire barbecue pizza.
The server walks over to take away the multitude of used dishes. “Wow, you cleared your plates!” he says. “Looks like you were hungry. Here’s the check.”
The enjoyable date night screeches to a halt.
Can you count the faux pas the server committed?* Keep reading for details on how servers can figure out when to clear plates and when to bring the check, without using awkward phrases or rushing the guests, so the meal ends on a positive note —and you end up with repeat customers.
Determining whether guests are done with their meal, and doing so graciously, presents a special challenge for servers in pizza restaurants. “With pizza, the guests may not be using utensils, so not everyone uses the utensil signal (see sidebar, “Body Language”) to show they’re done. And some people are not crust eaters, so the server won’t know if they’re done if there’s crust left on their plate,” says Robert Shutt, owner of RA Solutions, etiquette educator, and creator of the Dining Etiquette for Servers program.
Another confusing issue is that etiquette-wise, the server shouldn’t remove any plates until the entire party is finished—otherwise slow eaters will feel rushed. But at the same time, some guests dislike looking at dirty dishes while their companions finish their meal. This conundrum makes it even more difficult for the server to know when, and how, to clear the plates.
To help servers understand how to overcome these challenges and create a positive dining experience for guests, training is crucial; restaurant owners and managers need to offer servers a basic overview of what to say, what not to say, and how to “read” a table.
The words and phrases servers use to conclude the meal can enhance the dining experience — or leave guests with a bad taste in their mouths. Here are the top three faux pas to watch out for:
- Comments that draw attention to how much the guests have eaten. Phrases like “You cleared your plate!,” “You must have been hungry,” and “Wow, didn’t like that at all, huh?” can make the guest feel self-conscious and guilty — not exactly the best way to end the dining experience. However, if the diner left a lot of food on their plate, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions to make sure they enjoyed their meal.
- Generic phrases. “You still working on that?,” “Want that last bite or are you all set?,” and “Can I get anything out of the way here?” show a lack of attention, according to Dean Small, president and CEO of Synergy Restaurant Consultants in Newport Beach, California.
- Words that make the guest feel rushed. “I am always careful to not make the guest feel like they’re being pushed out the door,” says Tess Kelleher-Palmarin, a server and bartender at La Motta in Boston. “Using words like ‘done,’ ‘finished,’ or ‘over’ can subtly send signals that are unwelcoming.”
With all these caveats, what can the server say to clear things up, so to speak? Nothing at all, suggests Gilbert Lagunas, owner of First Class Waiter, a waiter training service in Sacramento, California. The server should work their section, reading each table for signs that guests are
finished. Then, Lagunas says, “Just make eye contact and present your hand out, palm up, and extend it towards the plate. They can understand just by the gesture and will say yes or no.” If the gesture doesn’t result in a response, the server can ask, “Are you still enjoying the food?”
Once the plates are cleared, servers are faced with another challenge: Knowing when and how to bring over the check. Slapping the check onto the table as soon as the plates are cleared sends a signal that the guests are expected to clear out immediately — but waiting until the guests are frantically trying to wave the server down leads to frustrated customers, not to mention lower tips.
Sometimes it’s clear that the guests are settling in for the long haul; for example, they may be engaged in a heated conversation. But otherwise, skilled servers get a handle on whether the guests are ready for the check by offering something new. “This is effective psychologically because instead of removing things, I am constantly adding to the experience,” says Kelleher-Palmarin. “Something as simple as ‘May I offer you the wine/cocktail list for your next course’ or ‘Would you like to look over our dessert menu?’” When guests start refusing the extras, she knows they’re ready for the check.
When it comes to the check, presentation is key: The server places the check on the table face-down, and lets the guests know there’s no rush to pay. She then circulates through her section, without hovering, so she’s ready to take the payment when the guests lay the cash or card on the tray.
The expression “service with a smile” doesn’t refer only to employees — if a server knows how to end a meal with a sense of positivity and graciousness, your guests will have smiles on their faces, too.
*Answer: Three. The server left the appetizer plates on the table all through the main course, commented on how much the guests had eaten, and made them feel rushed by presenting the check too quickly.
Being able to “read” a table is a valuable skill for servers. We talked with our experts to compile the most common signals guests send.
- The guests have closed (and perhaps stacked) the menus: “We’re ready to order.”
- The guest is looking around the restaurant: “I need a server.”
- The guest is looking around the restaurant, but with a desperate look on their face: “Where’s the restroom?”
- The guest makes eye contact and taps their glass: “I need more water/wine/soda.”
- The guest makes eye contact and nods upwards: “I need something, can you come over?”
- The knife and fork are in the center of the plate with the tips together, making an inverted “V”: “I’m still eating.”
- The knife and fork are together, with the handles extended over the right hand side of the plate in the 4-o’clock position: “I’m finished eating.”
- The guest has placed a crumpled napkin over what’s left of the food: “I’m finished eating.”
- The guest has started stacking plates: “I would like these plates removed.”
- The guest makes eye contact and pretends to scribble in the air: “Can I have the check?”
Linda Formichelli is a North Carolina-based freelance writer.