“Garçon!” A snap of the fingers from the customer and the waiter comes running, ready to serve. Maybe not. Waiters consider it poor etiquette to be snapped at with either words or fingers.

Generally, when dining out, people think of how they should behave toward their table mates and other diners in a restaurant. They do not think much about their manners toward their server, unless they’ve worked in a restaurant at some point. Servers also have a code of conduct to follow while waiting tables. The interplay of manners between diner and server can create a fine or disastrous dining situation.

Much of our formal dining etiquette has been handed to us from the Victorian Era (1837-1901). These include the picky rules of how to set the table, what food to serve and how to serve it, and what to wear when dining out. Some rules of etiquette from the Household Companion of Instructive Literature and Wholesome Amusement (1902) include: “Never use a spoon to eat vegetables. A fork is the proper thing.” — “The fork should be held in the palm of the left hand. If in the right, it should be used with the prongs upward, and held between fingers and thumb.”

The formality of the restaurant dictates how closely formal etiquette is followed – although I hope no one is ever checking how I hold my fork! I’ve eaten in restaurants where it seems that no etiquette is followed. Wrapped silverware is thrown across the table at diners. Toilet paper is wound around diners. Servers verbally insult diners. The novelty of this dining atmosphere is what makes these places popular. It also helps if the food is excellent.

Of course, the total lack of manners gets old and people want to be waited on. What should you expect from your server? Respect for one thing. Snooty or inattentive waiters and waitresses should not be in the business. Servers should have a friendly attitude toward diners. Waiting tables is such a physically demanding job, that servers should enjoy what they are doing. This enjoyment will be subconsciously communicated to diners, who will return to a restaurant just to be waited on by their favorite server.

Servers have particular rules of etiquette that dictate how they are supposed to serve food. From the website, A Waiter’s Guide, some of these rules include:

“Place and remove all food from the left of the guest.”
“Place and remove all beverages, including water, from the right of the guest.”
“Never reach in front of a guest, nor across one person in order to serve another.”
“Do not place soiled, chipped, or cracked glassware and china or bent or tarnished silverware before a guest.”
“The guest should never be kept waiting for his check.”

There are many more rules for waiters and waitresses on this website, including the order of service for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For dinner, the order of service starts with serving the appetizer, then the soup, then the entrée and beverage and rolls, then dessert and coffee, removing dishes between each course. Many restaurants alter this order by offering the beverage first. By knowing what to expect of your waiter or waitress, you can gauge how well they are doing their jobs. Of course, if they lead with kindness, it is easier to overlook mistakes in etiquette.

What do servers expect from diners? This may sound familiar, but respect, not snobbery, is on the top of the list. Look your waiter or waitress in the eye when ordering. Make requests with a friendly tone. Barking orders at your server is no way to get what you want. If something is wrong with your food, politely ask your server to return it to the kitchen. When the server heads to the kitchen, you can bet that any bad attitude from a diner will get communicated to the chef. Who knows where that will lead?

Waiters and waitresses hope that their diners will be patient when a restaurant is busy. They also appreciate a little sincere praise when they have done a good job. And, then there is the tip. Fifteen to twenty percent (edging toward the twenty) is standard now.

Servers know which diners are cheapskates. Word gets around among wait-staff about those who don’t leave enough of a tip or any tip at all. Gossiping about tip-stiffs may be poor etiquette, but diners better expect it. Those who fall into this category shouldn’t be surprised to find the servers at their favorite restaurants avoiding them. If a customer is truly boorish, the wait-staff may take turns serving him or her so that one of them isn’t stuck with the offending person all the time. Servers can also talk to restaurant owners or managers and have them deal with the situation.

If you, as a customer, have difficulty with a poor server, this last piece of advice will help you. Restaurant owners and managers want to know if one of their servers is exhibiting egregious behavior because they know that this may drive away diners.

In the end, customers and servers should treat each other with dignity, which is the whole point of etiquette.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2003, Morrison County Historical Society

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