Going out to eat is a popular activity for many people–but it can present a number of etiquette issues! Today, we’ll cover how to dine out like a gentleman without embarrassing yourself or committing any faux pas.
How Should You Behave When Dining Out?
Restaurant dining presents an interesting human dynamic; similar to flying in an airplane, you’re in a public space and you have to behave in a way that you and those around you are comfortable. Dining in a restaurant requires a lot of a person’s etiquette and social skills and because of that, it’s very popular with employers to take potential employees or key leadership people out to a restaurant to see how they behave. Let’s walk through the essential restaurant etiquette that you can apply for business dinners, celebrations, events, or dates.
Before you even step inside the restaurant, there are a few things to consider beforehand.
Make sure you can afford it so you don’t stretch yourself too thin financially. Eating out isn’t cheap, especially in a group situation; it can sometimes be awkward to split bills, and just going to a restaurant with the mindset of ordering water and the cheapest appetizers won’t always work. Ideally, your budget should cover a small appetizer, a main course, and a beverage.
Make sure you have enough for a tip according to local conventions. In the US, that’s anywhere from 15 to 25%. If you realize a restaurant is not within your budget, either decline the invitation or try to find another restaurant if that’s in your power. You can simply say “I can’t make it,” or if you’re comfortable, you can say “Honestly, it’s not within my budget. I’d be more comfortable with going to X restaurant or spending X at the most.”
Make sure the restaurant can accommodate specific food preferences like gluten-free or allergy-sensitive options. If you’re allergic to seafood or anything else, having a long ordeal with the waiter isn’t the best solution.
Most importantly, make a reservation. It’s the easiest way to skip a line. If the restaurant doesn’t accept reservations, it’s maybe not the best place to go out for a business dinner or a date. Once you’ve made a reservation, it’s important to show up on time. Restaurants typically can just give your table away after 15 minutes or so. If you’re running late, it pays to call, because most restaurants will hold your table. At its core, showing up on time means you respect other people’s time, and don’t just look at yourself as the most important person in the room.
Obviously, at the Gentleman’s Gazette, we’re big sticklers on this point, but in this day and age, it’s not that hard to look appropriately dressed for a venue. So what does that mean? At nicer establishments, you should skip the jeans and sneakers. Other than that, you’re probably going to be fine, even without a jacket. These days, most establishments that require a jacket or have an even more formal dress code will have loaner jackets, but honestly, you don’t want to wear a jacket that’s a size too big and has been worn by sweaty people before you.
In today’s day and age, it doesn’t really matter if the man or the woman enters the restaurant first, though some women may like it if you hold open the door for them. If there is a host, they will lead when entering the restaurant, followed by the lady, then followed by the gentleman. Traditionally, if there’s no host, the gentleman takes the lead, walks in first, and pulls away the chair for the lady so she can sit. In more traditional places like Germany or Austria, you’re more likely to see this kind of etiquette today. In the US, not necessarily so.
Removing Coats and Hats
If you live in a colder place, in the winter, people holding onto their coats and hats at the table can create an environment that’s crowded and it’s uncomfortable. Traditionally, the gentleman takes the lead, helps the lady to take off her overcoat, takes off his own, and then goes to the waiter and hands them over to be put it up in a wardrobe. If someone at the restaurant asks if they can take your coat and hat, just hand it to them; they may hand you a little ticket so you can get it back afterward.
If no one asks to take your coat, simply ask where you can hang it. Most restaurants will have a place for that. Ideally, outerwear is away from the table so it doesn’t get in the way. If you’re leaving, in a good restaurant, they’ll hand you the coats at the table. If that’s not the case, as a gentleman, you quickly walk to the wardrobe, you put on your overcoat first and then you help the lady into hers.
Meeting Your Fellow Diners
Let’s say you’re already waiting at a restaurant. When the other party arrives, get up from your seat, stand up, and shake their hand. If you arrive in advance of your dining mates, maybe because they’re late or simply because you made it there earlier, you always stand up to greet them and come over. In most Western cultures, that means you give them a handshake–sometimes it means a hug, but it all depends on the culture you’re in, so be aware of the local habits. In any case, never stay seated to give a handshake, because that’s not the proper way to do it. Of course, a nice smile also goes along with it, and it’s much better than someone just stoically looking at you and giving you a handshake without any kindness whatsoever.
Sitting at A Restaurant
At home, you may be slouching or just sitting in a way that’s comfortable for you. At a restaurant, ideally, you should sit upright (but it shouldn’t look uptight). So what exactly does that mean? Ideally, you sit on the entire chair, you have both feet firmly on the ground, and you’re not slouching. Your arms should be kept close to your body and not wander around the table. You can rest your hands on the table, but only up to about the wrists; further down is traditionally not acceptable. Under no circumstances should you have your elbows on top of the table.
After you sit down, it is typical in higher-end restaurants to receive an amuse-gueule or an amuse-bouche; it’s usually a bite-sized appetizer from the chef that sets the mood for the evening. The worst thing to do is to say, “Oh, but I didn’t order that.” Just accept it for what it is and enjoy it.
Engaging With Staff
Chances are you’ve experienced an unfriendly server who gave you the feeling that you should be lucky to dine in his or her presence. Regardless of their behavior, it’s always best if you react in a calm and polite manner. After all, you belong there, don’t give them a reason to think otherwise. If the server has a nametag or if they introduce themselves, then that is what you should call them. If you don’t know their name (or for some reason you forgot it) and you want to catch their attention mid-dinner, make sure to seek eye contact and give them a very discreet hand gesture. Avoid waving, snapping your fingers, or whistling at them–less is more.
Also, keep in mind that just because you’re paying for a meal doesn’t mean you can disrespectfully treat the staff like they’re worth less than you. Confident men always treat others with respect, no matter if they’re the janitor or if they do any other part of work. As always, remember “the tone makes the music.”
How And What To Order
Ideally, the entire table should have the same number of courses. If you aren’t super hungry, talk to the server to figure out what appetizers or entrees are on the smaller side. A good server will always be able to tell you if something is big and heavy or light and small. If you’ve been invited as a guest to a restaurant, don’t take advantage of that and order the most expensive item on the menu. Instead, mirror what your host orders. If he orders three courses in the mid-price segment, do the same. If they insist on you ordering first, I would always ask the host if they can recommend anything, if they’ve been there before. If not, ask the server what’s a popular item that’s in a medium price range and go from there. Once you’ve made your selection, close the menu and put it down.
In a good restaurant, that is the subtle hint for the server that you’ve made your choice and he will come to your table. Often, slow service at better restaurants is simply based on this misunderstanding of menus still being open. Ideally, you should order off the menu without modifications. Chefs often put a lot of effort into the delicate flavors and the combinations of meals. If you just change it out and want fried chicken or ketchup on top, it just throws it all off. Now, if you have an allergy, it’s a different story–but again, ideally you’ve made sure that they can accommodate you before you even visit the restaurant. Even though the restaurant is not your personal chef, in the US, they will likely try to accommodate your requests to the best of their abilities. On the flipside, in Europe, they might just tell you, “No, that’s not what we do,” and they may even tell you if you don’t like it, leave.
On Phones and Watches
Keep your phone off of the table, and don’t look at your watch all the time. If you do so, you send a clear message that you have other things on your mind, and that the time with this other person is not important to you. Don’t pull out your cell phone to “quickly” check on something, send a text, or check on that email, because when you do, it takes your attention away and it takes a while before you’re fully present again.
Table Manners and Utensils
If we were to go through the whole spiel, it’d probably take us 45 minutes! However, we’ve already done an extensive guide about table manners, all of which applies here. Regarding utensils: in a restaurant, there are typically a few modifications. First of all, while at a private home, the silverware for the entire meal will be laid out on the table, that’s not the case at a restaurant. Typically, servers will bring you the appropriate silverware for your course, and maybe the spoon for the soup or a steak knife for the meat. If there is a lot of silverware on the table, it means you start from the outside and work your way in. In the US, you will often find two forks and one knife; that means they’ll bring you another knife for your main course (or sometimes they want you to reuse your knife).
Personally, I always like to have new utensil for every course so I don’t mix any flavors. If you need more silverware, simply ask! Just like with many things in life, it pays to understand the culture you’re in. For example: in the UK, it is unacceptable to point the tines of your fork upward while you eat, while in Continental Europe or the US, that’s perfectly normal and acceptable. There’s no absolute right or wrong, it is just something that developed historically over time, and it’s good for you to be aware of it. Also historically, the material of blades would give potatoes and particularly fish an “off” flavor and because of that, in Europe, they developed a fish knife which was made from a different material. To this day, it is the proper etiquette to cut your potatoes with your fork, and to use a fish knife with fish. Now, in the US, I haven’t really observed this kind of etiquette.
Today’s blades are all made of stainless steel, there’s no off flavoring and so the original reason is not really valid anymore. That being said, when you cut your potatoes with your fork, it leaves an uneven edge which makes it easier to absorb the sauce that comes with it. Now, no matter how you eat or what direction the tines of your fork are pointing, the fork always moves your food to the mouth and not your mouth to your fork. Frankly, I find this rule to be the most difficult part of dining and restaurant etiquette, because there is a tendency to naturally want to lean forward and meet somewhere in the middle. Also, if you remain upright and you just move your fork to your mouth, it is a lot more difficult to balance, so it always pays to put a napkin onto your lap.
Proper Timing, and Handling Soup
You should never start eating or drinking until everyone has been served. Typically, the host or the person who invited you will have the first sip, and maybe say a toast or thank you for coming. When you toast and clink, you say “cheers.” In Germany and Austria, it is essential to look into each other’s eyes–otherwise, the legend goes that you’ll have bad sex for seven years! I don’t know of any empiric studies on this, but I always look into the other person’s eyes, because it creates a more personal connection. If your glass has a stem, hold it there; the clink sounds nicer and the wine or beverage doesn’t heat up as quickly.
If you eat soup, chances are that it will come out very hot from the kitchen. If it’s too hot, don’t just forcefully blow on it, because it may end up on your neighbor’s tie or face. Also, never slurp your soup or make any loud noises, even if the soup was really delicious. Don’t angle the bowl and try to get out every last drop–leave the bowl on the table. Remember: the spoon moves to your mouth, not your mouth to the spoon. Honestly, it sounds easy but if your spoon is filled to the brim, chances increase dramatically that you’ll spill. So try to give yourself a little bit of leeway so you don’t make a mess of yourself.
How About Some Drinks?
We’ve got a lot of questions about what to do when you drink alcohol. In a nutshell, the two most important rules are: know your limits, and don’t give in to peer pressure or pressure others to drink more than they want. When you order a bottle of wine, a taste test is usually offered to the person who ordered it. In this stage, you simply try to determine if the wine is “corked” and at the right temperature. This is not about whether you like the wine or not. If the wine is corked, it will smell like a wet dog or wet cardboard, and you can smell it distinctly. It actually results from a mold that’s reacted with a cleaning agent in the bottle. If you think the wine is corked, offer your server a taste test. Most of the time, they will just take the bottle away and bring you a new one. If you order wine by the glass (or if you order champagne), there’s typically no taste test involved.
A few decades ago, it would have been considered a faux pas to order red wine with fish dishes. In this day and age, things have changed a bit. At the end of the day, you can order whatever you like–but if you want to follow traditional wine etiquette, especially as the host, here is how you should pair wines with food: lighter wines are always served before heavier wines, dry ones are served before sweeter ones, younger ones are served before older ones, and whites are served before reds. If for whatever reason, you don’t want to drink alcohol, a simple “No, thank you” is all you need. No explanation is necessary.
If you feel a need to complain, do so politely and calmly with your server. If the service is the issue, ask to speak to a manager. So how about sending back food or cocktails? You’re totally within your right if the restaurant misrepresented something that was on a menu. For example, if your curry contains peanuts even though it said it would be made with cashews, or if you receive a well-done steak when you ordered medium-rare. On the other hand, if you just didn’t read the menu, you ordered the crudo, and you ended up with raw fish, then you’re getting exactly what you ordered (even though you may not have known), and sending that back is just unfair to the restaurant.
Now in the US, most servers will ask you after the first few bites how everything is tasting and if you’re honest and you say you don’t like something, they will typically take it away and offer you something else. Often there’s no charge for that–but if the fault is on your end, you should eat it and not complain.
Dealing with Kids
Dining with kids is never easy, and in certain situations, it’s downright impossible! That being said, I have a two-year-old toddler, and we still want to go out and dine. That means we don’t go out when she’s sick or cranky, because ideally, your children should be able to sit down during the duration of the meal and be able to have an inside voice.
Kids running around the restaurant pose a risk to the staff, and they ruin the experience for the other diners. Also, if you want to go out with your kids, a white-tablecloth restaurant is not the best choice. Maybe the lower-end restaurant where things are not as neat is much better suited to kids. If you’re concerned that it might be difficult, maybe takeout is the better option for you.
Paying the Bill
The old rule of the gentleman always paying the bill for the lady is a bit outdated these days. It’s best to have a very clear understanding upfront if the host invites you or if everyone pays for themselves. In countries like Italy, it’s totally normal that at the end of the meal, you split the total sum by the number of heads, even though some people may have drunk more and consumed much more expensive meals than others. Again, understanding your culture and surroundings is key.
As a rule of thumb, I’d say always expect to pay for yourself, even though someone may have invited you. I find this to be particularly true in the US, where an invitation doesn’t mean that they’re going to host and pay for it. That being said, I’m of the firm belief that if you invite someone to a restaurant, you should always pay for it. Also, if you or your partner ordered significantly more than the other diners at the table, never just suggest to split the bill, because that may be uncomfortable for them. Whenever you pay, do so discreetly. With a credit card, it’s always discreet but don’t wave your “Benjamin Franklins” one after another, because that’s just posing. If you’re the host, maybe even arrange to pay beforehand, so nothing has to actually happen at the table.
Now, what about tipping?
Tipping your server is definitely controversial for many reasons; in some cultures, it is completely unacceptable, while in others, it is expected to the degree of 20 or 25 percent. In the US, I’d say there are very few circumstances where a tip is not appropriate. It has become an industry standard, and servers even pay taxes on expected tips. Unless your food or service were truly terrible, you should probably tip at least 10% even if you received unsatisfactory service, 15% for good service, and 20% (or more) for exceptional service. Sometimes people take the percentage post-tax, but you can also do it pre-tax. Also, let’s say you have a very regular meal, but you ordered a $500 bottle of wine–then the work the server had to do wasn’t really more than if you had ordered a $50 bottle of wine. In those cases, you may feel like you want to adjust the tip so it’s more representative of the work that was done–it’s up to you. Likewise, if you go to a restaurant with your two kids and the total bill is $50, but your kids threw rice all over, you may want to tip $15 or $20; you just made a mess and they have to spend a lot more time cleaning it up.
If you travel abroad, try to understand tipping cultures. In Germany, it’s okay to round up and more is not expected. In Japan, it’s downright rude to tip, and people won’t accept it. Once you’ve paid, depart in a reasonable amount of time. In the US, typically, restaurants have multiple seatings each night, so I would say 30 minutes after you paid is a good time to leave. If they’re not busy and there are many open tables, you can stay as long as you want.
If you’re unhappy with something, it’s best to voice a concern in person. Also, if the restaurant has the menu online and you know an entree costs $80 on average, it’s unfair to complain that the restaurant is too expensive, because you know exactly what you’re getting from the get-go. Even if they don’t provide prices, you know that a two-star Michelin restaurant is going to cost you a little bit of money. Typically, such restaurants also don’t offer gigantic portions, so expecting that and complaining about it just shows that you have no clue about this kind of establishment, and it’s not really helpful to the people who frequent this kind of a restaurant.
Same goes for the wait. If you don’t have a reservation, and others walk in after you and receive a table before you, it’s because they planned ahead–that’s life! Also, give people specific feedback rather than general feedback. Instead of saying, “this pizza was great,” you can say, “this pizza had a really thin, crispy crust with a low-acidity tomato sauce, and just the right balance between mozzarella and prosciutto di Parma.”
With these tips at your disposal, you should be well prepared to handle any restaurant experience, be that with family, friends, coworkers, or others; with kids along or not; and at whatever level of formality you’ve decided to engage in. Bon appétit!
*By the way: a special thanks to Manny’s Steakhouse in Minneapolis for their gracious allowance of our filming, and to our waiter, Patrick Warden!