The Four Worst Restaurant Etiquette Gaffes

There is no reader question this week. Instead, Helena has a few restaurant-related rules to relate.

When we speak of etiquette, we’re generally talking about ways we can treat friends and family better. For instance, we should always RSVP promptly when invited to parties. The last place we generally think of improving our manners is in a restaurant, unless it’s to assist in the enjoyment of fellow diners. After all, when you’re out to eat, you’re the one being served. You’re paying for the meal, so why should you have to consider anything beyond that?

But anybody who’s ever worked in a restaurant can vouch that rude customer behavior is at best a drag, and at worst harmful to the business. If you’re going to eat out, why not do so courteously? According to restaurateurs I spoke with, these are the top four ways in which customers can improve their manners.

Call If You Have to Cancel
Canceling a reservation ought to be a no-brainer, yet people still forget to do it. Some people even make multiple reservations for a single night, so that whether they’re craving sushi or Mexican or Cal-Mediterranean, they’ve got it covered. Paul Einbund, beverage director of San Francisco restaurant Frances, says, “I have a friend who does that because he does a lot of entertaining and wants to make sure the place is convenient and the whole group will agree on it.” If you can’t honor a reservation, cancel as far in advance as possible, so the restaurant has a better chance to fill your table. Christopher Losa, owner of San Francisco restaurant Bar Bambino, advises, “If not 24 hours’ notice, give at least 6—not 20 minutes. We could have just turned away a four-top, and that hurts a lot.”

Think Twice Before Bringing Your Own Wine
Most of the time when customers bring in their own wine, it isn’t because they have a special vintage they wish to sample, but to save a buck, according to Einbund. Bring your own wine as a backup if you must, but at least look at the restaurant’s selection first. Once you’ve factored in a $15 corkage fee, a bottle from the wine list might be a better deal. “If you’re strapped for cash, I’ve got bottles for $19, and they’re really, really good wines,” says Einbund.

If you have a bottle you must bring, the classy way to do it is to call ahead to inquire about the corkage policy, Einbund explains. If it’s a Burgundy grand cru, offer the sommelier a glass. Losa asks patrons to limit how much they bring (no more than two bottles per table). And whatever you do, don’t expect the restaurant to waive the corkage fee.

Communicate with Your Sommelier
When ordering wine, too many patrons, instead of revealing their selection parameters upfront, expect their sommelier or waiter to play a “guessing game,” says Evan Goldstein, president of Full Circle Wine Solutions. “If you have specific likes and dislikes (grapes, styles, colors, countries), let them be known so you don’t waste each other’s time.” According to Goldstein, good questions to elicit insider information from your sommelier include: “What do you love on your list right now?” and “Is there anything not on the list that I should know about?”

Complain to the Restaurant Before Spewing Online
Many people don’t realize the power of a bad review, even in an online forum. If you’ve had a really terrible meal, you have every right to spare others from suffering the same fate. But use your power wisely and justly. Even the best restaurants have off nights, which is why professional reviewers will typically eat at the same place several times before they publish their opinions. Be sure to get your facts straight. Restaurateurs say that online reviewers often misremember details, to the point of criticizing items that aren’t even on the menu. Losa is still smarting because one reviewer claimed to have had a bad “bread pudding” at Bar Bambino, which the restaurant doesn’t serve.

You can browse all of Helena's Table Manners columns by topic here. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.