Illustration by Christina Ung
When you dine out, do you find that your waiter interrupts too often or grabs at your plate before you’ve finished eating? Do you have a lot of trouble getting his attention? Or, when you sit, does he take an unreasonably long time to come and take your order? And have you ever considered that it might be all your fault?
It comes down to restaurant sign language: you could be sending the wrong signals. Waiters rely on a system of nonverbal cues to do their jobs effectively and with the minimum of interruptions. While you speak to your waiter only a few times during a meal, in a good restaurant, your server’s eyes are always upon you. Are you ready to order? Have you finished eating? Do you need wine or water? Are you ready to pay your bill? If you’re a savvy diner, you can communicate your needs effectively—even across a noisy dining room—with a minimum of confusion and interruption. Of course, it works only if you know the (nonverbal) lingo.
We’ve gathered all the silent diner/waiter signs to make your next meal out run smoothly. Before you consider standing on your chair and waving, try these subtle signals instead—Miss Manners, your waiter, and your dining partners will thank you.
Don’t assume that your waiter can intuit when you are ready to place your order.
Do close your bi-fold menu (or place your single-page menu face down) on the table to signal, “We are ready to order.” If you need to, you can always refer to your menu again when your waiter re-appears.
Don’t wave, snap, or shout to get your waiter’s attention. This is the height of boorishness, even at ultra-casual restaurants
Do maintain persistent eye contact from across the room as soon as you see your waiter. If the server is even passably good, he’ll notice within a few moments and approach your table.
Don’t resort to waving, shouting, and snapping if he still doesn’t see you.
Do get subtly more insistent. A slight, bent-at-the-elbow raised hand with an up-pointed index finger means, “When you have a moment…”
Don’t assume that your waiter knows when you’ve finished eating if your plate isn’t clean and your silverware is scattered haphazardly across its surface.
Do place your fork and knife (even if you didn’t use it) neatly together at either four or six o’clock on the plate. This means, “Please clear my plate.”
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Don’t assume that your waiter can tell if you’re not finished and are just pausing in the meal.
Do place your knife at four o’clock and your fork at eight o’clock. This means, “Don’t clear my plate yet—I’m still eating.”
Don’t invert your wine glass (or cover it with your hand) if you don’t want wine. This simply invites spills (and is a bit rude).
Do tell your waiter, when he comes to take your drink order, that you won’t be drinking and ask him to remove your wine glass.
Don’t try to tell everyone around you in a crowded bar that you’re only going to the bathroom (or out for a smoke), so no one takes your seat. This is way too much information to share with strangers.
Do simply invert your coaster over your drink. This means, “Save my seat and drink; I’ll be right back.”
Don’t wave, snap, or shout if you’d like another cocktail.
Do catch your waiter’s eye, hold your empty glass slightly aloft (elbow at table height, glass no higher than mid-bicep) and point to it, eyebrows raised. This means, “Another one, please.” In a pinch, this’ll work for water, too.
Don’t wave, snap, or shout if you’d like more water.
Do place your water glass closer to the edge of the table where your waiter or busboy usually appears.
Don’t wave, snap, or shout if you’d like more tea.
Do leave the lid off your teapot. This says, “I need more, please.” It’s an especially useful signal in England and in Chinese restaurants.
Don’t wave, snap, or shout if you’d like your check.
Do catch your waiter’s eye and do a slight pantomime of signing your name in the air (or on the palm of your left hand). This means, “Check, please!” and works all over the world—even, strangely enough, in cash-only restaurants.
Don’t expect your waiter to know that you’ve produced your credit card if you’ve buried it invisibly in the check folder.
Do place your credit card so that it’s visibly sticking out of the folder. If the folder has a tiny card pocket that facilitates this, then be sure to use it
Don’t hold your check folder aloft to signal that you’re ready to pay. This shouts, “Get over here, NOW!”
Do place the check folder so that it juts over the aisle-front edge of the table, with the credit card sticking out. This means, “We’re ready to pay, when you get a chance.”
For more dining info, check out Julia Sexton’s blog EATER on westchetermagazine.com. Or sign up for the EATER newsletter by visiting our website.