Observations on Restaurants, Tips, and Bread Baskets

21 million Americans eat at a full service restaurant every day, so I suspect some of these observations on the dining out experience will resonate:

# After I gave my order to my waiter, he said, "Good choice, you're going to love it." Ill-advised, right? Satisfaction with an experience depends significantly on our expectations going into it, and by telling me I'm going to love the food before I've tried it, I have very high expectations. However, with food I believe there's more of a self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic, and our enjoyment of food isn't even mostly dependent on the quality of the food itself. For this reason I think the waiter's statement works.

# Restaurant etiquette dictates that you are not supposed to use your hands to break off a piece of bread and put the other half back in the basket. Also, no one wants to be seen as selfish by taking the last piece of bread or the last appetizer. My advice: take the initiative. Break the bread in half (even with your hands) and offer it to the other person. Offer the last bit of appetizer to your partner, and if he declines, eat it. Many a good piece of bread and appetizer have been left in the center of the table due to excessive deference or fear of perceived selfishness. (For better or worse I'm not blessed with such selflessness — I crush bread baskets, especially if there's olive oil nearby.)Breadbasket

# Why do waiters ask if you want to see the desert menu? This requires two "Yes" affirmations from the patron to place an order. Just give the desert menu and make the person say "No" to desert after seeing the description of chocolate cake.

# I have laughter control issues when eating at a high end restaurant where the waiter offers a range of meaningless adjectives to describe the food. The cheese is subtly fruity. The fish is prepared with a punchy tang to give it just a bit of Alaskan kick.

# The next time you eat at a restaurant with a friend who's been there before and chose the place, ask him, "What do you recommend?" I guarantee you the response will be, "Oh, everything's good here." Really? Have you tried everything on the menu?!

# If I were a restaurant manager I would spend 30 minutes with each of my waiters explaining the research around how to maximize tips from patrons. For example, leaving a mint with the bill or drawing a smiley face on the bill have been shown to increase tip. Research also suggests that the tip amount is only marginally connected with the actual quality of wait service. Bottom line is that many waiters miss out on easy psychological hacks that would increase their tips.

# Does disclosing your newness to a job help or hurt you? "It's my first day." Is this is a smart thing to say? Declared preemptively, no. If the waiter happens to mess up the order, then it might be a good explanatory device to win sympathy. But before anything happens, it's irrelevant and might even offend (I've been assigned the new waiter — I must not look like a high roller). Elsewhere in the world of sales, regardless of whether an error is committed, be wary of disclosing your newness. I was recently helping a salesperson on his pitch and in response to a question for which he didn't know the answer he said, "Sorry, it's my first week, I'll get back to you." Again — the prospect feels like he's been assigned the junior rep.

Since we're on the topic, here are Tyler Cowen's tips for ordering in a restaurant:

  • At fancy and expensive restaurants, order the item that sounds least appetizing and the dish you're least likely to want to order. An item won't be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good. Most popular-sounding items can be just slightly below the menu's average quality. Beware roast chicken. Too many people like roast chicken, so it will be on the menu, but it doesn't hit the highest peaks of taste. The flip side: when cooking at home, be wary of trying something new.
  • When at a restaurant, ask a waiter, "What is best?" Don't ask, "What should I get?"
  • Tips for ethnic restaurants: appetizers are often better than main courses; avoid desserts at ethnic restaurants in America.
  • Eat unhealthy food outside the home. Restaurants know how to make good unhealthy food. At home, eat healthy. And don't take recipes too seriously.
12 comments on “Observations on Restaurants, Tips, and Bread Baskets
  • Having been a waiter for many years, I can tell you that if I had to sum up what it takes to get better tips – it’s listening.

    Just like in any other sales interaction, it’s all about your ability to “read” connect to the person very very quickly – do they want to be left alone? do they want to engage in witty banter? etc..

    The key is to able to make a connection within a seconds of meeting them, and then execute according to what they want.

    It’s also easier said than done.

  • Excellent post, Ben, as usual. But Tyler Cowen’s “ethnic restaurants” bit has me scratching my head at its all-encompassing generalization.

    I imagine that by “ethnic” you mean “exotic” – food from the sub-continent, Asia and Africa? In which case I’m inclined to agree with you on the dessert issue. But that “appetisers are often better main courses” doesn’t hold water.

    If by ethnic you mean non-American, then you include Italian, French, Spanish food. My life is made measurably better by Italian dessert and French main courses.

    Advice that begins with “avoid” can have the positively un-sexy effect of stifling natural intellectual (and culinary!) curiosity, a consequence I imagine you will be keen to … avoid!

  • Is “what’s best” the right question to a waiter? I think it’s a bit risky if the restaurant has some high margin, slow moving inventory and the waiters have targets to bring’em down before the night ends.

    Better ask “which is the most ordered today” !

  • My two cents from jameystegmaier.com (and I was also a waiter for a few summers, so I’m fine with telling other waiters how it should be done):

    Waiters and waitresses of the world, if your restaurant doesn’t serve sweet tea, the answer to the question “Do you have sweet ice tea?” is NO. It’s very simple. If you have it, you say yes. If you don’t, you say no. I know there’s sugar on the table. If I wanted to add that sugar to my tea, I wouldn’t be asking if you serve sweet tea. Pointing out that there’s sugar on the table is like pointing out that you serve food.

  • “Oh, everything is good here.”

    My guess is that this response is based on the fact that everything the person has tried up until that point has been good, so that rather than believing he/she has just been lucky is choosing food that has been good, the person assumes that everything that hasn’t been tried also must be good. Probably not a terrible assumption, though definitely an assumption.

    You’re probably right that the person shouldn’t generalize, but I think it’s a safe bet that if the chefs in the restaurant prepare some items well, it’s likely they’ll prepare most (though maybe not all) items well.

  • Ben,

    Interesting site.

    “After I gave my order to my waiter, he said, “Good choice, you’re going to love it.” Ill-advised, right?”

    As a waiter for 5 years, I’ve learned to avoid qualifications of patron’s orders. I avoid pumping up a dish because the decrease in tip from a bad recommendation is greater than the increase in tip from a good one. A patron expects good food, therefore he won’t tip all the much more if he likes your suggestion. On the other hand, people are easily swayed. If you tell them a dish will be good, more than likely they will enjoy it. It’s human nature.

    “This requires two “Yes” affirmations from the patron to place an order.”

    In serving, I live by the rule of 3 “No’s”. I’m sure it’s the same in all sales endeavors. Don’t let your customer say “No” 3 times. Psychologically, they will associate you with negative feeling.

    “For example, leaving a mint with the bill or drawing a smiley face on the bill have been shown to increase tip.”

    The smiley face is only true for female servers. Research from Cornell University some years ago found that males who put smileys or signed their name had decreased tips while females’ tips increased. Wearing a ribbon in the hair, for women, tends to increase tips as well.

    Other tips for greater tips include: refusing to apologize to patrons unless absolutely necessary. Don’t say, “Sorry your food took so long” if it’s a few minues late. It again triggers negative emotions with your level of service. Communication with your patrons is a must. Let them know you’ll be back with another drink or their salad. The agony and anxiety of waiting for food, not knowing when it’s coming, pisses customers off more than anything.

    Also, don’t let your tables push you around. If they do, and get away with it, their respect for you, along with their tip, will decrease.

    Here’s a blogpost of similar subject matter on my blog:

    Warning, graphic language ahead.

  • Smiley faces for guys may be a negative but writing “Thank you!” on the check increases gratuities for both genders. That same research also showed a tactic I employed throughout my service career: a subtle touch. Touch the guest on the shoulder while dropping the bill, or on the hand when taking money, any slight touch is shown to increase average percentages.

  • I wonder if these smiley faces, thank you’s, and subtle touches, are more effective on customers who do not know the psychology behind these tactics. I’d think that a person aware, might be less inclined to be afffcted by them.

    Then again, even if a customer knows that a waiter isn’t necessarily sincere in his/her gestures (assuming the gestures are used only to increase the likelihood of receiving a higher tip), the customer migth still give a bit more, knowing that the waiter is putting in a bit of an extra effort.

    My opinion is that none of these extras should amount to much. If the waiter does well those things that are under his/her control, he/she should be tipped accordingly.

  • I hate to be a late-arriving party pooper, but having been a waiter in several high-end restaurants for over a decade when I was younger, a few of these suggestions seem offbase to me.

    1) Why do waiters ask if you want to see the desert menu?

    Waiters do that because many patrons do not order dessert, even in places where the desserts are sublime, and a significant number of people simply want to pay the check at that point. Anything that delays their ability to do that — particularly if it’s seen as a blatant profit-maximization strategy by the waiter — will annoy them. The moment before dessert is a natural inflection point in the meals of many people; the question suits that moment.

    2) At fancy and expensive restaurants, order the item that sounds least appetizing and the dish you’re least likely to want to order. An item won’t be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence

    This strikes me as the kind of idea that sounds provocative and clued-in, but isn’t. Sure, for someone who has a very broad range of taste, trying the counter-intuitive dish might yield some interesting discoveries. But most people, in my experience, have a pretty good sense of what they like, and there’s no reason to think that the sweetbreads with sea-urchin beurre blanc will be consistently better than the veal steak grilled over rosemary branches with garlic-roasted potatoes.

    For example, leaving a mint with the bill or drawing a smiley face on the bill have been shown to increase tip. Research also suggests that the tip amount is only marginally connected with the actual quality of wait service

    The first two strategies would seem extremely tacky at a really high-end restaurant, and tips in such places are intimately connected with the quality of service. Note that some of the research in the study you cited was based on studies performed in branches of “a large restaurant chain.” It’s precisely in a Chili’s or a TGIF’s where tips are apt to be the by-the-book 15 percent; Heaven help you if you’re a waiter in the kind of restaurant that well-heeled San Franciscans like to eat in and you get it in your mind that tips are only weakly related to the quality of service.

  • According to an etiquette presentation I attended, for the last piece of bread in a basket, the person who wants it is supposed to ask the table if anyone else would like it. This should be (for diners well-versed in etiquette classes I suppose) code to the other guests that the person offering would like the bread, and that all others should decline.

  • After years of eating out and observing waiters, menus and operations; I laughingly agree with your comments. Some of my favorite selections came from ordering the least appetizing item.

    My favorite restaurant that displays the microcosm of the business cycle from sale through payment in a small space/time continuum is the Waffle House. One could write a book with Waffle House observations.

    One observation many find counter intuitive until I point it out is the New York waiter. The iconic New York waiter with their abrupt and sometimes disinterested attitude would never think of interrupting a dinner conversation with a pencil poised, “What can I get for you?” While the presumably, “Midwest nice” servers with their sappy,sweet smile constantly interrupt getting their needs met without concern for the customer.

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