The 19 Unwritten Restaurant Rules You're Probably Breaking

unwritten rules of dining in restaurants
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Whether you're dining among Michelin Stars or 5 feet away from a rustic handcrafted backgammon set at a Cracker Barrel, it's a combo of common courtesy and modest respect for unspoken social contracts that keeps our collective dining culture intact. As Cracker Barrel Founder Dan Evins himself once famously quipped, "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

Actually, that might have been Emily Post.

At any rate, after weeks of deliberation, presented are the 19 unwritten rules of dining in restaurants... except, I guess now they are actually written. So, this is kind of embarrassing. Look, maybe you should just go ahead and start reading the list. And remember before you comment: Judge not lest ye be judged even harder, OK?

1. Know the difference between a server and a busboy

A busser's job is best described as "overall mucky." Which is to say, not good. And while they attempt to drag a bus bucket filled with lobster guts and soiled napkins back to the kitchen, they don't need the added weight of some slack-jawed sweater jackal grabbing them by the elbow and starting to ramble off an order. This is pretty much the most "dad" thing you can do at a restaurant -- aside from replying, "It's OK, so am I," when the server warns that your incoming plate might be too hot to handle.

2. Never snap your fingers at a server. Or busboy. Or anyone.

Unless you're choking, trying to wake someone up, or thoroughly enjoying a new bossa nova-themed Cuban fusion concept, there is absolutely no excuse for snapping your fingers at anyone or anything in a restaurant setting. But normally, it's No. 1 on "shit that pisses servers off," so this is as much an unwritten rule as an outright warning. Simply put: If you do it, you might be asking for a loogie glaze on your creme brulee. Also, if you're choking, just use the international hand symbol or hope there's an imposter British nanny around.

3. Respect your reservation time

If you are more than 15 minutes late on your reservation, there is absolutely no room to get indignant if a restaurant gives your table away. Ninety-five percent of Americans own mobile phones (so, you can give them a heads up, en route), and 100% of Americans who are cognizant enough to plan ahead and make reservations should be able to follow through on this very-much-so important social contract. Ghosting on your res is even worse, and a cardinal sin in the service industry: It really screws things up for everyone. Just call them! Even made-up excuses will suffice. Tell them either: A) Your sister is giving birth (!) or B) Your date has diarrhea. Either way, they won't ask anymore questions.

4. You can't treat wait times as an exact science

There's a reason why every host/hostess ever will immediately precede their estimated wait time with a hard "umm, about... " There's no way to know exactly how long it will take Great Aunt Linda to polish off her lima beans. Not even Great Aunt Linda really knows. And "about 10-15 minutes" can easily turn into 45. It's simply one of the many inconvenient truths of dining out. Remember: Patience is a virtue, and yelling at restaurant employees is a one-way ticket to never getting a table. And if you are truly too important to even waste a few minutes on a lagging restaurant, there's an app for that, naturally. Luckily, many restaurants have long-implemented a "hold this buzzer-thing till it flashes red" system to give diners-in-waiting a slice of hope to literally hold onto.

5. Don't be that couple that sits in the same side of an otherwise empty booth

A restaurant is not a venue for your performative cuteness. What's the endgame here? Under-the-table hand-holding? Lady and the Tramp-ing your way through a plate of pasta? You're weirding out the entire establishment, and, as Steve Carell knows, subjecting yourself to cripplingly weird neck angles.

couple making out
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

6. Definitely don't be that couple that sits in the same side of a booth and starts aggressively making out

Because it's really not the appropriate venue. Though if you DO witness such a happening, don't make it worse by making a scene, like this lady. It's SO much worse to be that lady. Just snicker about it quietly and talk about them later like a normal person.

7. A communal table is not an invitation to make new friends

While the virtues of "communal seating" (and its slightly less annoying cousin, the super-close table arrangement) are still up in the air, one thing is certain: Group and/or tight seating means you'll be eating uncomfortably close to other people. But there's a big difference between eating next to someone and with someone. Exchanging pleasantries with the stranger you happen to be rubbing elbows with is fine... and maybe even courteous. Acting like you're at the kids table at grandma's can interrupt other diners' experiences. The whole point of going out to restaurants is to be around people without actually having to interact with them, right? Read the room. Be aware of your surroundings. And for God's sake, never broach a private convo with "I couldn't help but overhear you, but... "

8. If your phone is distracting other tables, it's a problem

It's 2017, and complaining about people Instagramming their food and other conventional mid-meal smartphone uses reached "old man yells at cloud" status a long time ago. That said, if your flash is popping off repeatedly in a darkened restaurant, your 15-person birthday dinner is pausing mid-meal to take 150 different variations of a group photo on 12 different phones, or your conversation with your sister about her thyroid problem is grabbing the attention of wide swaths of the restaurant, well, maybe you're a cloud who deserves to be yelled at.

9. If your kids are distracting other tables, you're a problem

Kids and restaurants are way too varied to make a one-size-fits-all proclamation as to whether or not they ought to be present -- that's up to individual restaurants. But if precious little Braxton throws a category-five tantrum and you haven't whisked him outside in the first 30 seconds, you're making him everyone's problem. And if that's a regular occurrence with Braxton, maybe wait a few years before making Friday night steakhouse dinners a regular thing.

10. The menu is not a blank canvas for your creativity

Substituting a side salad with rice alongside your duck à l'orange is probably fine. Asking to substitute fresh ground beef for the duck and a pack of melted green Skittles for the citrus sauce is going too far. While that's an unrealistic scenario, there's a line here that can't be crossed. If you are augmenting more than half of an order's ingredients, maybe you should opt for something else. Restaurants should be willing to cater to you, of course, but you can't expect them to act like your own personal chef. If you want that, get rich.

check splitting
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

11. Don't make servers split the check 15 ways

Entire articles could be written on this very topic (and actually have) but it boils down to this: You're an adult, you probably have Venmo, and you definitely have access to an ATM. Just use modern technology to your advantage, dude.

12. You can't send food back just because you suck at ordering

There are real, legitimate reasons for sending a plate of food back to the kitchen. The fact that you were too distracted thinking about your sister's thyroid problem to ask what "chitarra" was and it turned out to be pasta and even though you're not "gluten-free" or anything you've been trying to avoid carbs on every other weekday is... definitely not one of them.

13. Never blame a server for a kitchen mistake

If your server accidentally told the kitchen to make your ribeye a teeth-shattering, flames of Hades "super-well-done" instead of the requested "medium-rare," that's one thing. But it's highly unlikely they asked the cooks to make your broccoli soggy, and it's certainly not their fault if the restaurant runs out of salmon. That's like berating the dude who sells popcorn at the movie theater because you thought Suicide Squad sucked.

14. Fibbing to get free food is not OK

Some well-meaning restaurants give out free food (or discounts) based on birthdays, military service, or just because they're good people. If you try to score some of said free food through some manipulation of the truth, you're either a shitty teenager showing off for his shitty friends (Braxton's future?), or an even worse adult. The servers already have to sacrifice their dignity when they halfheartedly serenade you around your one-candle sundae. Don't sacrifice yours.

15. Don't use the restaurant as your personal supermarket

If you are taking more than three packets of condiments in your to-go box and/or purse, you are the reason we can't have nice things -- or in this case, freely available ketchup -- anymore. And yes, this rule applies even if you are old. Sorry, grandma. Your days of stocking up on jelly at the IHOP are over.

16. No lingering in a busy restaurant

While restaurants shouldn't be trying to hurry you through your meal in the interest of turning tables over, it goes both ways. If it goes a way that involves a 20-minute conversation after the bill is paid when no one has anything but water in front of them as people salivate hungrily in the waiting area for your table, it's gone a bad, bad way.

cheap tip
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

17. Cheap food does not equal a cheap tip

This issue was most pronounced in the heyday of Groupon and other imitators like the one your friend's cousin was trying to get you to invest in (dodged a bullet there). But the fact remains: Whether it's a coupon, a gift card, or 10-cent wing night, if you paid less for the food, the server didn't do any less work. Tip on the full amount. Especially if the establishment in question has low prices to begin with. If you're busting out the old tip calculator to figure out what exactly 15% of a $19 tab is, you're a mathematically precise monster. Put another way: If you received table service you shouldn't ever be tipping less than two bucks.

18. Don't show up and order food five minutes before closing

Picture this: You've worked a long, hard day at the office, but now you are literally five minutes away from heading home. Yay! Then, all of a sudden, your boss dumps a DJ Khaled-high stack of documents on your desk and tells you to parse through them all and create a brief powerpoint on what you've learned... immediately. This is what it's like when you waltz into a restaurant five minutes before the designated closing time expecting to be served. Just because Google says they are open till 11 doesn't mean it's cool to order the rack of lamb at 10:57. Remember: Restaurant workers are people with lives, families, and breaking points, too.

19. Coffee and desserts are group decisions. Always.

If an entire table was prepared to forego dessert and move on with their lives and then you chime in to order yourself some tiramisu and an espresso, you deserve to have the whole crew desert you. Get it?! But for real, hopefully they leave you alone with just the one make-out couple and the piercing shrieks of little Braxton. Dessert is a "we" decision, not an "I" decision.

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. If you told him he could only eat at one restaurant for the rest of his life, he'd be frightened and confused. Follow him: @wilfulton.
Deputy features editor Matt Lynch doesn't actually have anything against kids named Braxton or Toni Braxton. Follow him: @mlynchchi.