Mind Your Manners: 10 things you do at restaurants that chefs and owners can’t stand

Mind Your Manners: 10 things you do at restaurants that chefs and owners can’t stand

(Illustration: Brett Lamb)

When a restaurant fails on any level, everyone hears about it on social media, or Yelp, or from the latest disgruntled food critic. But when a customer acts like a jerk, restaurants are just supposed to suck it up—which seems a bit unfair. In the interests of leveling the playing field, we talked to chefs and restaurateurs across the city to find out how patrons (either knowingly or not) make things difficult for everyone. Maybe, don’t do these things.

1. Seating yourself. DIY is cool when you’re putting together a zine, but host duties are best left to the pros. If you’ve just walked into a busy restaurant and there happens to be an empty seat, it’s probably spoken for. “Some people expect that they can just sit anywhere,” says Fan Zhang, chef and co-owner at Mr. Flamingo on Dundas West. “It’s like stealing someone’s seat at the movies.”

2. Asking “What’s the best thing on the menu?” People ask this inane question all the time. (And it is inane, because since when are you soul mates with your server?) It’s also awkward, because it puts pressure on servers to comp recommended dishes that don’t go over well. “It’s a trap,” says Black Hoof and Rhum Corner owner Jen Agg. “When someone asks what’s the best thing, I’ll always joke and say, ‘oh, the whole menu is terrible.’” If guidance is absolutely necessary, “what’s popular” might be a better question.

3. Thinking you’re Nathan Myhrvold or something. Just because you have a subscription to Lucky Peach, that doesn’t mean you know better than the chef. “I’ve had people ask for their steak tartare medium rare, or for their medium-rare steak to be hot all the way through,” says Chris Kalisperas, chef at The Forth. The kitchen usually knows what it’s doing. And if you insist on choosing your own dining adventure, don’t expect a free meal when things don’t work out.

4. Fad diets/Fake allergies. Maybe you’re so allergic to onions that your face melts off when you’re near them. Maybe you’ll die prematurely if you don’t eat the way cavemen used to eat. Or maybe you’re just being difficult and putting the kitchen on high alert for no good reason. “You’re going to tell me you have a shellfish allergy, and then you’re going to eat oysters and lobster?” says Jonathan Poon, chef and co-owner at Chantecler. And if you’re going to request a meal that’s whatever-free, you probably shouldn’t complain about it on Yelp when you realize that whatever-free food sucks. “You’re complaining about what you asked for,” Poon says.

5. Being a flake. When people are flaky with their friends, it’s inconvenient. When people are flaky with restaurants, it literally robs people of money. “Have the courtesy just to call and advise us,” Kalisperas says. “We don’t only lose revenue; it costs us money, because we’ve scheduled staff according to our reservations.” Being late isn’t cool, either. Says Zhang: “We’re a small restaurant, so everything has to run like clockwork. If a table is late, it throws everything off.”

6. Flash photography. If there’s one thing Martha Stewart has taught us, other than the whole “jail is bad” thing, it’s that food rarely looks nice when photographed with a flash. Impromptu strobe lights also ruin ambiance. “People want to share their excitement, and that’s great,” says Agg. “But if someone starts using flash photography, I’ll ask them to stop.”

7. Asking for split bills after the fact. Split bills are always going to happen, but they’re worse when you don’t tell your server beforehand. “There are always complications with split bills, especially after people have had a few drinks,” says Adrian Ravinsky, co-owner of 416 Snack Bar and Peoples Eatery. “There are usually items left over.”

8. Silly substitutions. So there’s this chain restaurant called Subway, and when you go there, you can customize your entire sandwich so that you end up with the grossest, most unbalanced thing in the entire world. At good restaurants, though, chefs put careful thought into composing each dish. Anyone who asks for something added or removed is actually wrecking a lot of hard work. “Generally speaking, the dishes are created to be balanced in a certain way. There’s nothing superfluous on the plate,” Agg says.

9. Stacking empty plates. Bussing your own table might seem like a noble thing to do, but it doesn’t actually help anyone. Servers (just like customers) can be weird, and they have their own ways of cleaning tables and stacking dishes, so it’s best not to mess with their rhythm. “If the plates are stacked in a way that’s not efficient, it’s really annoying,” Poon says. “It’s the server’s job. Just let them do it.”

10. Camping. Remember that time you stayed at that house party way after everyone left, and the host gave you every form of body signal that exists to communicate that it was time to leave, and you just kept drinking, and everyone had the best time ever? Overstaying your welcome is always a faux pas. You can try sticking around long after you’ve paid the bill, but if you’re at a busy restaurant, lots of people are going to get ticked off. “It’s so inconsiderate,” Ravinsky says. “People are waiting for that table, and they get angry when they have to wait.”