Going out to eat is one of the ultimate social experiences. Unless we’re traveling solo or just happen to like dining alone, we’re with friends or family or romantic partners (actual or potential) when we sit down at a table — but we’re also with a whole roomful of people, talking, laughing, enjoying good food and drink, theoretically at least. (Here’s a look at the one can’t-miss restaurant in every state.)
Because we’re not the only ones in a dining room, though, we should do our best not to do anything that might lessen the pleasure of others.
Restaurant etiquette, or just plain good manners, is a set of (highly variable) rules and suggestions about how we should behave in order to bring the least offense to our fellow diners.
Upscale restaurants, like high-end steakhouses or temples of French or Italian gastronomy, have their own sets of rules or customs, not all of which apply to more casual places. It’s likely that nobody will much care if you put your elbows on the table or tuck your napkin into your collar at Applebee’s or Denny’s, though you’ll likely look out of place doing those things at Spago or Le Bernardin. (For comparison’s sake, these are 25 things you should never, ever do in a fancy restaurant.)
However, there are certain kinds of behavior that are inappropriate in any kind of eating place, no matter how informal, and most of them come down to simply being considerate of your fellow diners and the restaurant staff.
24/7 Tempo has assembled a list of 16 things you should never do when you go out to eat, based on the podcast “Eating Out” — produced by Emily Post Etiquette, a celebrated authority on good manners — and also on common sense and editorial experience.
Our list is hardly exhaustive, but covers some of the most egregious kinds of behavior that restaurants on every level have endured. Don’t be that person.
Here is a list of things you shouldn’t do when you go out to eat:
Dress like a slob
There are beachfront restaurants where people eat in their bathing suits and gym snack bars where sweaty exercise attire is okay, but if you’re going someplace with tables and chairs, show a little respect for the other customers and dress with at least a modicum of modesty and decorum.
Seat yourself in a place with a host
Hosts who seat people usually try to spread them around a place, even if it’s a casual diner, so that all the servers have an equal shot at the tips. If you’re asked, by sign or verbally, to wait a moment, you should. If it’s a “Sit anywhere, hon” kind of place, then feel free to perch wherever you want.
Sure, you need some food after a lot of partying, but if you’ve had so much to drink that you can’t really hold it together and are likely to make a spectacle of yourself by knocking over a chair or spilling your wine, just stop for fast food or head back to your place and boil some ramen.
Have one too many
Some people arrive at restaurants in good shape but then proceed to have so many cocktails or so much beer or wine that they can hardly stand up when their meal is done. If you’re old enough to drink, you should be old enough to know when you’ve hit your limit.
Talk too loudly
We’re sure that whatever you’re holding forth about is fascinating, but trust us: Not everybody in the restaurant wants to hear it.
Let your kids run wild
Youngsters tend to be easily bored and bursting with energy, and unless they’re strapped into a highchair at a restaurant, they’ll probably want to run around and play and bother other diners. Besides not doing any favors for the ambiance of a place, unruly kids can easily get hurt or pick up germs from dirty floors, and can potentially harm others, too, by getting in the way.
Over-customize your order
Everybody asks for substitutions sometimes — dressing on the side, French fries instead of mashed, no mustard on the sandwich. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if, for instance, you want that patty melt, but on multigrain toast instead of rye, with provolone instead of Swiss, with raw onions instead of caramelized ones, and, oh, a turkey patty instead of beef…well, maybe you should have just stayed home and made it yourself, and not made life more difficult for a busy server and a busy cook.
Order the most expensive thing on the menu
If you’re somebody’s guest, follow their lead in ordering — and if they insist that you order first, chose something in the medium price range. If you’re the host, or you’re dining alone, of course, this rule doesn’t apply. Get the lobster. Start with some caviar, too, if you like.
Season your food before you taste it
One reason a lot of restaurant food tastes better than what you make at home is that chefs tend to add lots and lots of salt and sometimes a good dose of pepper. Unless you’re trying to raise your low blood pressure, salting something before you taste it might end up producing a real sodium bomb, and too much pepper can cause inflammation, and you’ll probably be up all night chugging water.
Talk with your mouth full
Food that looks nice on the plate usually ends up looking pretty disgusting when it’s been pulverized by your molars and mixed with saliva. Swallow your food before you speak, please.
Do your makeup at the table
If you really feel the need to brush up your mascara or your lipstick while you’re out to eat, hit the rest room — which will usually have nice big mirrors and bright lights to aid you in your beautifying ritual. People don’t want to see you putting makeup on while they’re eating — and, anyway, don’t you want to preserve an air of mystery about why you look so good?
Pick your teeth at the table
Prying bits of food out of your teeth with little pieces or wood or plastic is not something other people want to see when they’re trying to enjoy their food. If you really can’t wait, try the rest room solution — or, at the very least, shield your excavations with your hand.
Nickel and dime the check
Your sea bass was $28 and my orange roughy was only $25. You ate two-thirds of our shared pasta. I only had two glasses of house wine and you had three. Let me get out my calculator so we can figure out who owes what, down to the penny. Really? Okay, if your friend has the filet mignon and you’re on a diet so just had a small house salad, maybe this kind of math makes sense. But nickel-and-diming a friend or a date for a few bucks? That’s the sign of a cheapskate. So what if you pay a little more? You’re presumably out with somebody you like, so give them this little gift.
Touch your server
This really shouldn’t even need saying. Don’t touch your server (or anyone else you don’t know or who doesn’t want to be touched). And this isn’t just a matter of not groping or grabbing: Even a hand laid lightly on an arm can be offensive.
Stiff your server
If you can’t afford to leave a tip, you can’t afford to eat out. And tipping only on the food, or deducting the tax from the amount you tip on, puts you in nickel-and-diming-the-check territory. What if the service is bad, and you’re sure it’s the fault of the server and not the kitchen? Okay, leave a mere 10% or less if you want, but the server probably won’t get the message. If your experience was really awful, leave a token tip and then talk to the manager, either before you leave or the next day.
Break up with somebody
Relationships do come to an end, often when one of the parties involved doesn’t want them to. We’re sorry to hear it didn’t work out. But a restaurant just isn’t the proper venue to announce the split. Pleading voices, sobs, curses, awkward body language…. None of it is anything the rest of the room needs to witness.