Tips on How to Behave When Dining Out

Ever go to a nice restaurant and order your favorite dish, only to have it served out of whack? What's the best way to handle this?

Click here for 8 Tips on How to Behave When Dining Out Slideshow.

I recently faced such a conundrum at a swanky, old-school Beverly Hills bar that seemed to have neither a right or wrong answer, just a good chance of me getting looked down upon. The drink I ordered, a dry Rob Roy — an obscure two parts-scotch, one part-vermouth cocktail — tasted overloaded with vermouth. Rarely do I pass on a libation, but this was one of those times where I wanted to send it back, especially since it cost $17.

However, I felt so foolish returning it to the bartender who obviously knew way more than me about mixing drinks. Finally, though, I said to the waiter, “I usually never do this, but…” To my surprise he said he’d bring me a new one. “We want to make sure you’re happy,” he noted. I couldn’t believe it, and reveled in the wonderful service as I sipped the second, spot-on rendition at no extra charge.  

Does a sticky situation like this always work out this well? No.

Dining is like theater, where a graceful back and forth dialogue between the audience (diner) and actors (waitstaff) is key. Occasionally, setbacks happen during the course of an evening. To help you delicately dance through them, this article polled seven restaurant veterans to get their take on proper restaurant etiquette.

How should you ask about a dish that you think is taking too long to arrive? 

Dan Latimer, the general manager of Husk in Charleston, S.C., says it's okay to ask about it, but don't embellish the wait time — after all, they have computers to track dishes these days. What about asking to move from one table to another? Carl Walker, the general manager at Brennan's in Houston, Texas, recommends being as specific as possible about what you're looking for so the staff can find the best match available.

Latimer, Walker, and other restaurant veterans dish on everything from how to send back a corked wine bottle and how to dispute an item on the bill to how to get the attention of the waiter, and more.

What's the Best Way to Check on a Reservation That's Running Late?

"We have campers (people on first turn who aren’t moving)," explains Carl Walker, the general manager at Brennan's in Houston, Texas. "If that’s the case, ask if there is another table that’s similar to where you were going to be seated."

"It’s totally appropriate to check in and see how much longer it will be," advises Tobias Peach, general manager of Restaurant 1833 in Monterey, Calif. "Try to be pleasant and understanding. Taking reservations is not a science. Just like a doctor’s office, airplane, and bus stop, sometimes we are just running behind."

How Should You Ask to be Seated at a Different Table?

"Everyone has seating preferences and it works to the guests’ advantage, as well as the restaurant's when they are taken into account," explains Robert Wailes, general manager of Café Adelaide & The Swizzle Stick Bar in New Orleans. "A simple, 'I don't necessarily feel comfortable at this table, is there something else available?' usually does the trick."

"Ask for a different table from whoever is seating you with a quick description of what you would like or want to stay away from," advises Carl Walker, general manager for Brennan's. "Like, 'Could I get something in a quieter spot, warmer, or another dining room?'"

"Tell the maître d' in the most gracious manner that you are uncomfortable at the table and would be happy to wait for another," says chef Clark Frasier of Arrows and MC Perkins, in Ogunquit, Maine. "There is no need to be angry. The host wants the guest's experience to be the best possible, but they may only have one table at that moment. Offer to retire to the bar and wait for the requested table."

How Should You Ask for Menu Recommendations?

"Ask the server what their favorites are or inquire about what the chef is excited about," advises Robert Wailes, general manager of Café Adelaide & The Swizzle Stick Bar. "Generally, you will get an honest answer. It also helps to be a bit specific in regards to what you're in the mood for. 'I think I'd like some seafood, but I am not crazy about cream-based dishes.' This gives your server some parameters to work with and gives them the ability to get a glimpse of your likes and dislikes, allowing them to help guide you through your meal. Believe it or not, most servers find this fun."

How Should You Send Back a Bottle of Wine?

"Address your issues with it quickly," advises J.T. Stellmach, manager of Queen Anne’s Revenge, on Daniel Island, S.C. "Don't try to 'deal with it.' The sooner you send it back, the sooner you'll get what you like."

What's the Best Way to Send Back a Dish?

"Address the issues quickly and politely," advises J.T. Stellmach of Queen Anne’s Revenge. "Eating a large portion of it will raise eyebrows. The next dish could take 10 minutes to cook, so be patient and everyone will help you out."

"It’s helpful if you can be somewhat specific," explains Rich Garcia, chef at 606 Congress in the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. "For example, rather than, 'I don't like this,' say, 'I don't like the sauce on this dish. It’s too salty for my taste.'  As a chef, I feel better knowing why you've sent it back."

"Be genuine," explains Dan Latimer, general manager at Husk in Charleston, S.C. "If you don't like something, you don't like it, just be nice about it and the server will be nice back. If a dish is cooked improperly, let them know that, too. It is important to understand cooking techniques though. If you order a well-done steak, it is going to be tougher than one that's medium rare. Not being a jerk about it will go a long way. I've been told, 'This is the worst thing I've ever eaten,' before. I highly doubt it. I ate dirt when I was a kid and you probably did too. That's the worst thing you've ever eaten."