Magazine cover image Get the Fall Issue

20 Restaurant Secrets Only Servers Know

Seriously, stop putting napkins in your cup.
20 Restaurant Secrets Only Servers Know

Part of the fun of going out to eat is having other people prepare your food and bring it out to your table. Servers do a lot more than taking orders and carrying food, though, and knowing what goes on behind the scenes is the key to a great restaurant experience. But servers are also privy to the restaurant secrets you might not know about—and some of them are less than savory.

These 20 restaurant secrets and insider tips will teach you to order smarter and make you a better patron in the process. Read on to find out why you should never leave your phone on the table or hand a server dirty plates, as well as the drink order that all servers dread.

1

That bread on your table might have come from someone else’s basket.

Bread basket Shutterstock

“The complimentary bread? If another table doesn’t finish theirs, the ‘untouched’ bread goes into whatever new breadbaskets are being served,” wrote Reddit user tina_groan in a thread about restaurant workers. She described working at an “upscale, local Italian restaurant,” so that might not be a universal thing, but it’s still a possibility, so keep it in mind next time you reach for a piece of bread.

2

Your server actually does care how you’re doing today.

Waiter pouring glass wine at restaurant Shutterstock

“I hate when I go to a table and ask how everyone’s doing and no one answers,” wrote Reddit user THEnicole in a thread about annoying patron habits. “One time I just giggled and said ‘Alright’ and nodded my head. It made them laugh.”

Another Reddit user, speck317, wrote that they didn’t like when customers responded to “How are you doing tonight?” with “I’ll have an iced tea.” A little bit of common courtesy goes a long way.

3

Servers want you to speak up when you’re unhappy.

woman angry restaurant

“This might seem counter-intuitive, but I hate it when customers don’t complain about something, at least not until after the fact when it comes time for the bill and it’s too late to try and fix their issue,” Reddit user PinkWhiteandGreen wrote in the same thread. “I’d rather have you happy with my ability to accommodate you when it comes time for the tip than to have nothing to do.”

If something goes wrong with your meal (whether or not it’s your server’s fault), it’s better to address it earlier on. That way, they can understand and help rectify the situation, rather than wondering why they got a lower tip.

4

Everyone at the restaurant has to scramble when you order “off-menu.”

woman looking over menu outside Shutterstock

“Ordering something that’s ‘off menu’ or trying to tweak a certain item can be a real pain for the cooks and serving staff, especially during a busy shift,” Reddit user croakedtn wrote in a thread about restaurant secrets. “A. Communication between front of house and back of house can easily get misunderstood. B. The cook has to ditch their position to prep your request, and this can cause many problems. C. It also encourages like behavior from other patrons.”

If a restaurant is particularly busy, you might want to stick with ordering a regular on-menu item. Yes, it’s nice to get something that’s custom-made for your taste, but it also holds up the production line for everyone else.

RELATED: Easy, healthy, 350-calorie recipe ideas you can make at home.

5

Servers hate it when you treat the restaurant like it’s your home.

Waiter at restaurant Shutterstock

“You’re a paying customer. We get that, and we respect that. But do not forget that you are a guest. In addition, you are not the only guest,” wrote Quora user Maxwell Arnold. “There are other people here too. So when you request that we turn down the music, turn up the lights, or adjust the heat/air conditioning, you should know that we may not be able to make this accommodation, even if you ask nicely.”

If you’re really cold, say, beneath an air vent, you can ask your server to move you to a different spot. They might not be able to accommodate you if it’s busy, but it’s a lot easier than changing the temperature of the entire restaurant.

6

It’s a headache for your server when you order hot tea.

Steep tea bag Shutterstock

“At least in the restaurants I’ve worked in, the tea service is a two-step process. First, present the tea box and stand there smiling while the customer casually makes their selection and then head back to the kitchen to get the hot water and all the accouterments that go with it,” explained Reddit user Smallmeadow83. “Meanwhile table 52 wants me to drop their check, table 45 is ready to order their meals, and I have to clear the plates from table 55. Oh, and it’s 7:30 on a Friday and there’s an hour wait at the host stand so everyone is hangry and I’m about to get seated. It’s stressful, man! Don’t get hot tea.”

7

Patrons should never take something off a server’s tray.

server with drinks and salad on tray standing by table Shutterstock

“Don’t take things off the tray. I get when people do that they are trying to be helpful, but it’s not,” wrote Reddit user 330393606 in a thread about how customers can help their waiters. “It throws off the balance of the tray and if I can’t catch it in time you may end up with drinks and food in your lap.”

Your server’s job is to hand you the food, so just sit back and let them bring your dish to you. It’s easier for everyone.

8

Customers need to leave enough room on the table for plates.

considerate waitress asking table question Shutterstock

“Leaving all your sundry personal effects scattered on the table like so much confetti should generally be a no-no,” noted Reddit user dt403. “I’ve approached a table with 5-6 plates of food, and there are cell phones, wallets, sunglasses, game boys, huge Fendi purses, keychains, etc. scattered everywhere and they look at me like im the idiot because I have nowhere to place the food.”

Restaurant tables are already small enough—don’t add to your server’s stress by putting more stuff on them.

9

Servers also hate it when you leave your phone on the table.

Phone sunglasses left on table Shutterstock

“Leaving your cellphone on the table makes me on edge, I might spill something on it,” wrote Reddit user Sunny_.

Even if there is plenty of room for your phone on the table, you still might want to think twice before leaving it there. No waiter wants an irate customer complaining about how water got onto their phone because it was on the table.

10

Your server’s manager is more likely to take his or her side than yours.

“What we tell the manager about how you’re acting or treating people will affect how willing they are to give you free food. It is easy to tell when people are causing a stink just to get something free and when people are genuinely upset,” explained Quora user Emily Carver. “If we make it clear to the manager that you’re just looking for a comp, the manager acts accordingly.”

Yes, a manager might choose not to charge you for your meal if something went wrong with your dining experience. But if you’re just trying to take advantage of a restaurant’s policy, you might not get the result you’d hoped for.

11

Servers hate it when you hand them dirty plates.

server taking notes for group of friends with drinks Shutterstock

“If you hand me something from the table I pretty much have to accept it so I don’t appear rude,” wrote Reddit user autopsycho. “There’s usually a method to clearing the table of dishes, and if I’m handed a plate when I’m not prepared for it, it throws off my rhythm and I won’t be able to achieve maximum dirty dish carrying efficiency and I might even end up dropping something.”

There is one thing you can do to make things easier for your server, though. If you’re finished with one plate or bowl, you can leave it at the edge of the table, rather than tucked away. That way, your server won’t have to reach around you to grab it.

12

Leaving napkins, straw wrappers, and other trash in cups also makes servers’ lives miserable.

“I spent much of my adult life working in pubs (UK) and something that I always wished people wouldn’t do was put empty crisp packets, tissues, and any other general rubbish into their empty glasses,” wrote Reddit user elalmohada26. “I get that they were trying to be helpful, but it’s such a misguided gesture. It is so much harder and more gross to scrape now-wet tissue out of a pint glass than pick up dry tissue off a table.”

You might think that consolidating all of your trash into one place is helpful, but if that place is your cup, you’re just creating more work for the people cleaning up after you.

13

Your reservation is more of an estimate than a guarantee.

Restaurant hostess

“OpenTable means next to nothing in regards to reservations,” wrote Quora user Mandi. “We consider reservations an estimate of how busy we will be (you will still have to wait more than likely).”

Restaurants can’t control how busy they are on a certain day, so try not to complain if you have to wait a few minutes before you’re seated.

14

There are ways to signal your server that aren’t flagging them down.

“Ready to order? Close your menus and put them to the side of the table,” suggested Reddit user AMPsaysWOO. “Need a drink refill? Put it to the side of the table. Done with your food? Put your silver and napkin on top of your plate and push it to the side of the table.”

Your server has an eye on your table, even if they’re across the restaurant. So if they see an empty cup on the edge of your table, they’ll do what they can to get you a refill.

15

Even if you’re a monster, your server isn’t going to spit in your food.

“It is extremely rare that someone will ever mess with your food,” wrote Quora user Nikki Elliot. “If you are polite about your complaint, we will do our utmost to rectify the mistake, cook you a fresh dinner as fast as possible and take it off the bill. Even if you are a total [jerk] about your complaint, we still won’t spit in or mess with your food, your service may rapidly go downhill, but your food will always be clean.”

16

Restaurants’ substitution policies aren’t usually set in stone.

waiter checking on customer Shutterstock

“If you ask to have the onions taken out of something we usually can—we just say we can’t if it’s a busy night so the kitchen doesn’t get slowed down,” wrote Quora user Mandi.

There are any number of reasons why substituting something might be a headache. Sauces might come pre-made with the ingredient you want to be removed, or chopped vegetables might be stored together. The easiest thing for the restaurant staff is if you find something on the menu you can order as-is.

17

Servers don’t really want you to “sit anywhere.”

Restaurant booths Shutterstock

“Please don’t sit down on a dirty table—The other customers may have just left and/or I’ve been too busy to turn it around properly. Please be patient,” wrote Reddit user Misty_Chaos. “I’ve had people sit down at dirty tables when there have been other clean tables around the area, and it also distracts me, as I’ll have to immediately stop what I’m doing to clear your table.”

This was a common complaint among restaurant workers on various Reddit threads about restaurant secrets. Just because you see an open table doesn’t mean it’s fair game. It’s best for everyone if you wait for the hostess to seat you.

18

When you come in at the end of the night, everyone has to stay late.

Waiters hands full Shutterstock

“Don’t walk into a restaurant when there are 5 minutes left until they close. We cannot close the restaurant until you leave,” wrote Reddit user clivodimars. “This means that the cooks, the bus staff, the waiters, and the managers all have to wait on you to get your hamburger you so desperately needed before we can close.”

If you see the staff members start cleaning the floor, that’s a sign it’s time to head home for the night. And if the restaurant switches the music off, that’s another clue.

19

Servers hate when big parties come in and everyone switches seats.

Waiter and guest Shutterstock

“My only gripe is when people move around. I usually tell my tables from the start that if you want separate checks for a table of 20 you can’t play musical chairs on me,” wrote Reddit user Chriskills. “When I do have a section with the table of 20, I usually have 2-3 tables on top of that large party. So going through and writing descriptions of each person and what they order isn’t really viable for me.”

It’s definitely helpful for your server to know ahead of time that you’ll be getting separate checks. But it’s also useful for them to remember your order based on your seat. So once you’re sitting down, stay there.

20

When you order a drink, servers really do need to see your ID.

cosmopolitan cocktail on bar in tall glass Shutterstock

“Bad things happen to servers who serve guests who don’t have their IDs,” wrote Quora user Edith Deween. “We like you, but we like our jobs more. If you want to drink, bring your ID especially if you look under 30.”

Your server isn’t just flattering you—they really do need to see your ID if it’s company policy.

Now that you know what kind of headaches restaurant servers have to deal with, you can appreciate everything that goes into delivering great service. Armed with these tips and restaurant secrets, you’re sure to have a great time during your next dinner out on the town.

Get the Fall Issue

Featuring delicious weight loss recipes, quick and easy sheet pan suppers, slow cooker tips and much more!

Filed Under