On walkabout in life and technology

US Dining Etiquette Failures

I’ve been living in New York for almost nine years, and I love to go out and eat at all the myriad of restaurants that pepper this town. The variety, quality and prices of food is amazing. But there are still things about the dining experience here that drive me insane. Here are some of my annoyances, with proposed solutions to each of them.

Clearing before we’re finished eating

I was taught the Queen’s table manners as a child growing up in the Commonwealth. When one is finished eating, one places the knife and fork parallel on the plate with the handles at the four o'clock position on the edge of the plate and the other ends at the ten o'clock position resting in the well of the plate. The napkin is folded and placed to the side of the plate, or back in the ring if one was provided. If chopsticks are used, they are placed back on the table between the plate and the diner, on top of the rest, paper cover or napkin if these are available. This signals to others as well as the wait staff that you have finished eating.

When all of the diners have finished eating, only then do you clear the table. This rule applies at home too, no-one was allowed to get up until all had rested their cutlery. My mother, from her seat at the table, could reach anywhere in the house to slap us if we tried to leave early.

Yet in the USA, there seems to be an insane eagerness to clear the plate. There is no waiting for other diners to finish, they do not even wait for the cutlery to indicate completion. Instead, someone comes and just takes it away, or worse, interrupts the conversation to ask if one of us is finished. Many a time I have been paused in thought preparing a witty response to the current conversation point, or just chewing with the cutlery open on the plate, and this pause has been seen as an indicator to remove my plate, food and all.

Firstly, it’s respectful to wait until all diners have finished. Secondly, it’s rude to interrupt the table conversation to determine if the plate can be cleared. And thirdly, it’s unconscionable to take away food that the diner still wants to eat.

I don’t totally blame the service staff for this. Most American diners that I have been out with do not indicate when they are finished, so the wait staff have no signal to work with. Some even ask for the plate to be cleared while others are eating, and some place their napkins on the plate, an even bigger no-no. I feel my mother reaching out from Australia when that happens.

The rules are simple, diners indicate completion with the placement of cutlery, and wait staff wait until all diners have done so before clearing.

Leaving the payment on the table

When the meal is done, and the bill (or check) is delivered, the diners pay. So far so good. When the diners have paid, most restaurants do not come and collect the payment unless called. In the case of a cash payment, I assume they don’t want to ask about change so as to maximize the tip. In the case of a credit transaction, I have no idea why. Instead, they collect the payment after the guests leave the table.

I am uncomfortable leaving money on a table (or on a dresser if you know what I mean). In the case of a cash payment, anyone can remove the cash between the time the guests leave and the staff come to reset the table. In the case of credit cards, well, there is a copy of my credit card number, expiry date and signature sitting pretty on an empty table, a great opportunity for malicious activity. And finally, what if the guest screwed up and failed to sign, or paid the wrong amount?

The correct behavior is to collect the payment whilst the guests are still present, and thank them for coming. This simple act brings the meal transaction to an end. The server should also check the payment as they walk away. Many a time I have held myself up in a restaurant when all I was doing was waiting for the staff to take the payment away so that I could leave.

As an aside, I really do prefer the international process of bringing the card reader to the table to pay instead of the server running off with my credit card. Double swiping and card copying are on the rise, doing the transaction at the table in full view of the customer is much better.

How is everything?

If there is one thing that really gets me, it’s the “How is everything” question that seems obligatory in US service. This annoys me in several ways.

The first is that it interrupts the conversation. We’re merrily eating and conversing when the server bustles up and jumps in, interrupting us with the question. That’s just plain rude. If the server really wants to know, wait for us to stop talking, then jump in. Oh, and wait for all diners to reply, the first to grunt something is not the final answer.

The second is that this question is usually asked about five seconds after the food has arrived and before anyone has had a taste. How in the blazes am I supposed to know if the food is any good if I have not yet had the opportunity to taste it, huh?

The third annoyance is when the question is asked at a moment that coincides with me having just taken a mouthful and started chewing. Now what? It’s polite to answer, but rude to talk with your mouth full. And then it gets awkward as the server stands and waits impatiently, and you chew and chew and chew and then try not to choke while you swallow the bite whole, then splutter some inane answer. It’s unpleasant for all.

If there is something wrong, diners will always signal the wait staff and declare the problem. If they start eating and enjoying, either leave them alone, or if you really have to, ask when the conversation is paused. Or come back later. And at least let them take a few bites first.

Walking the beat

The mystery of the disappearing wait staff has vexed me since I first started dining in the USA. And I have yet to find out where they go. Initially, we had no idea that the majority of the staff on the floor who were delivering food and drinks, or clearing tables, were these magical mythical creatures called “bus” people. We did not know that you are not supposed to ask them questions, tell them your needs or even notice their existence, unless gesturing at the bread or telling them not to clear the plate.

Instead, when you want something, you have to wait until your server returns from wherever they have disappeared to, somehow get their attention and then ask your question or make your request. They are never there when you need them, and always there when you don’t, to ask how things are.

The correct behavior, as taught to me when I worked in a bar, is for the wait staff to walk the beat, to be continually moving between tables keeping an eye on the diners, looking for signs of need or puzzlement. If any of your diners make eye contact, hustle on over. They should never have to wait for the wait staff. This is also good for revenue as eagle-eyed wait staff will invariably be on hand when drinks empty, and diners when faced with attentive staff invariably order an additional, and very profitable, drink. Perception of service is better, and so is the tip.

The dreaded pepper guy

This one comes from my wife, it drives her batty. You order a dish, and shortly thereafter, it arrives at the table. This is quickly followed by a person holding an oversized pepper grinder who brandishes it in your face and demands to know if you want pepper on this untouched dish.

Here are the thoughts that run through my head in this situation, simultaneously. I don’t know if the dish needs pepper because I have not yet tasted it. Should I flee as this person may be about to bonk me on the head with this large wooden club? Did the chef forget to put pepper in the dish and sent this poor person to chase the dish? Is the restaurant trying to make up for some deficiency by having such a large pepper grinder? What has zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance got to do with each other? Why is the pepper guy always short? Is there something else in the pepper grinder? Is it rude to make the poor pepper guy stand around and wait while I make up my mind?

Usually, I proceed to flip a mental coin, heads I say yes, tails I say no, as I have no frame of reference as to what is the correct answer to the pepper guy’s strident and insistent demand.

If the coin toss results in a yes, I then seem to encounter an even more stressful situation, when and how to tell the eager pepper guy to stop. On my agreeing to accept pepper from the oversized grinder hovering dangerously close to my nose, the pepper guy springs into action, vigorously and aggressively jerking the grinding head causing a rain of pepper onto the dish, table and my lap. Fortunately, I always place my napkin on my lap, so that is saved. But when to stop the exuberant grinding process? Too soon and maybe there is insufficient pepper to make the dish tasty, too long and I’ll land up with some dish in my bowl of pepper. This is really hard, people.

I believe the correct answer is to trust the chef to pepper my dishes.. That is what they do, determine by their professional taste if pepper is needed and to apply the proper amount. If they decide that pepper is optional, or that guests are permitted to add it to taste, place a small pepper-mill on the table and allow the diner to decide whether to use it or not. And give the pepper guy a break.

The spoken specials

This one really applies only to those restaurants that have loud music, raucous bars or packed in guests where conversation requires raised voices, arm waving or semaphore flags. I don’t mind a noisy restaurant, sometimes they too are fun. But when the server comes over at the start of the meal in a noisy restaurant and begins to drone the litany of the specials, it all comes together in an epic failure.

Firstly, the server rattles the specials off too quickly for anyone to follow. Secondly, the noise level in the restaurant means that only the diner closest to the server actually hears a few of the words spoken, which means that the remaining diners are forced to smile blankly and wait for the server’s lips to stop moving. Thirdly, there are usually several specials, and even if you can hear the litany, you have forgotten what was said by the time they get to the third item. And finally, the cost of the specials remains a mystery, and therefore a risky proposition.

Dear restaurants, the laser printer has been in existence for more than 20 years, and they are very cheap. Nice textured paper is available everywhere, and it’s cheap too. Take the five minutes to layout and print the daily specials and attach them to the menu, or put them on a board. It saves the server from memorizing a boring speech, diners from having to be patient and smile blankly during the litany and takes the guesswork out of choosing and pricing.

The terminating tip

This one we have gotten used to, but it’s much easier in other countries. Once the meal is done, the bill (or check) shows the amount due plus tax and a total. Since servers do not really get paid here, we, the diner, are now expected to add the gratuity (a.k.a. baksheesh or tip). The issue is how much to add, or more likely whether we’re in a state to perform simple mathematics.

If the service was terrible, say the server rarely visited and was unpleasant to talk to, well, theoretically, you should not tip at all. But the magical mythical “bus” people also partake of the tip, and their service may have been good, the water remained full, the bread arrived, the pepper guy did not draw blood, and the plates were cleared away properly. You need to tip them, so what to do? Since the server gets the majority of the tip, we, as diners, cannot separate the “bus” tip from the server tip, we have to give a proper amount, even for bad servers' service.

And what if the service was beyond excellent, the server attentive, knowledgeable and guided us to an even more spectacular meal? They should get a bigger tip. But in the US service business, the floor captain gets a vig, the “bus” staff take their vig, or maybe all the tips are pooled and shared. We don’t know and cannot point the tip at the great server.

And if we’ve had a few drinks and are not in a state to operate heavy machinery, simple mathematics are usually beyond us. Instead, we diners have to dance with each other to determine which of us has to handle the determination of the gratuity percentage and then perform the simple calculations to come up with the final bill total. I’m very good at finding the need to go to the bathroom at this point, leaving my dinner companions to sort this out.

In short, two things help us diners at the table. Firstly, you can add the gratuity to the bill, making it easy on us, we just pay the total, the same as we do in all other countries where the staff actually gets paid. Or, you can display a a set of recommended tip amounts on the bill with pre-calculated totals to help us choose our final payment amount. If you assume most of us are bad at mathematics, or too drunk or addled to calculate it ourselves, you make it easier on us, and less likely that you’ll be under-tipped.

It’s all about the food

But no matter the oddities of the US dining experience, we’re all about the food. The preparation, the quality, the freshness, the ingredients and the execution. And in my adopted town of New York city, it’s just brilliant. So come on over, face down your own pepper guy, and we shall eat, converse and be merry together.