Restaurant and wait staff pet peeves

If I had a dollar for every time someone complained to me about the service they received at a restaurant I would be a rich woman. It does seem to be a rare occurrence to get great, attentive service at a dining establishment these days.

Here are some of the complaints I’ve heard.

Clueless Waiters
Waiters, and this includes 90% of them, who don’t know what the server codes are. These are pictures of the codes.

American server codesThe first one means “I’m still eating, don’t take my food.” The second one means “I’m finished. You may take my plate.” If you’re a waiter, I would encourage you to learn these. Whenever I teach this in my dining etiquette seminars the participants who know these codes complain that most wait staff do not know these codes.

Also along the lines of clueless waiters are those who don’t know the menu well. When I ask a basic question about the food the waiter should be able to answer my questions – is the salmon farm raised or wild? Where did the salmon come from – the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean? Is the item gluten free? These are the kinds of questions diners ask and the waiters need to know the answers to.

Walking In Front of the Speaker
This one also falls under oblivious wait staff. At a banquet where there was a panel of speakers, one of the waiters continually walked in front of the panel, keeping the audience from seeing them and blocking the video camera taping the presentation. He could have accessed the tables by walking in the back of the room. The server had to be told by an audience member to stop doing that. Waiters, never walk in front of the room when there is a speaker on stage unless there is no other way to reach the diners.

Are You Still Working On That?
When a waiter asks “Are you still working on that” it makes dining seem like a chore. Dining out should be pleasurable, not work. Waiters, if you don’t see the server codes above ask, “Are you still enjoying your meal?” Or, “May I take your plate?”

 Clearing the Plates Before Everyone is Finished
I know some Americans like to have their plate removed right away when they are finished eating, but it makes those who are still enjoying their meal feel they have to rush. Just as food should be served at the same time, the plates should be removed at the same time – when everyone is finished.

Used Utensils on the Table
Another one that really annoys people is when wait staff remove a diner’s plate and put the used utensil(s) back on the table. There are a few reasons why this is very poor etiquette. As diners we should never put a used utensil back on the table. It keeps the table from getting dirty. So when a waiter picks up my used utensil and puts it on the table not only is he touching my used utensil but he is also getting the table germs on the utensil that I have to use again.

The reason this happens is the restaurant only sets the table with one set of utensils that you’re supposed to use throughout the meal – salad, entrée and dessert. They need to set the table with a salad fork and dinner fork and remove the salad fork with the salad, leaving me a clean fork to use with my entrée. Or they need to remove and replace the used utensils. If dessert is served, they need to either set the table with a dessert fork and spoon or bring them out before dessert is served.

No Salad Fork and Butter Knife
I don’t know if it’s to save money or be trendy, but more and more restaurants are not using salad forks and butter knives or even bread plates. The butter knife is placed on the bread plate and is meant to be used throughout the meal to butter one’s bread. When we have to use our dinner knife to butter our bread it often gets removed when the server clears the salad plate, unless we put it on the bread plate. And, it just looks weird on the bread plate – it’s too big. Or, as stated above, the server places the used knife on the table. If I’m given a butter knife, which is used only to butter my bread and it stays on the bread plate, we don’t have this problem.

I can live without the salad fork as long as the table is set with two forks. However, when I’m teaching dining etiquette, I want the kids and adults to see the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork. The salad fork was created to eat salad – shorter tines that don’t need to secure a piece of meat. I think it looks more elegant to have a salad fork and a dinner fork next to each other on the table rather than two forks of the same size.

Sitting Down and Chatting
One Clise Etiquette Facebook fan said she dislikes it when a waiter sits down at her table to take her order. I’m with her. I appreciate a friendly waiter, but not one that wants to be my best friend. There needs to be a separation of roles – I’m the diner, you’re the waiter. It keeps it more professional.

Talking with Other Wait Staff
Another fan dislikes it when the wait staff chat to each other around the diners. Waiters need to be almost invisible except when needed. They need to ensure the patrons are attended to in the most unobtrusive and efficient way possible. When I go out to dinner I do so to spend time with my friend(s) or spouse while enjoying a nice meal. I don’t want to be interrupted by wait staff bantering with each other or with me.

I’m going to stop there. I know waiting tables is hard work. I truly do as I did it for an afternoon and couldn’t hack it. But, if restaurants want happy, return customers they must think more about the dining experience for the diner, whether that’s how utensils and plates are set and cleared, or who they hire to wait tables. A great dining experience is all in the details. If restaurants and wait staff focus on those details, they’ll have much more success.

Readers, what are your restaurant and wait staff pet peeves? What do you wish they would stop or start doing? Conversely, have you had an amazing dining experience? If so, please share.


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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. BethBuelow on July 1, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Arden, this is great! I have never waited tables, so I can only imagine the amount of information (and dishes!) a server has to juggle during a typical shift. In addition to your excellent list, here’s what my husband and I encounter when dining out:
    My husband always cringes when a server comes by and asks “So, how’s everything tastin’?” We take it more seriously when s/he asks, “How is everything?” It’s a subtle difference, but the former feels too informal and the latter feels like they actually care. 

    We also lament the “amazing disappearing waiter act,” performed both those who are attentive all through the meal then take forever to bring us the check. We’ve taken to asking for the check early, knowing it’ll probably come just when we want it. Along those lines, it’s helpful to clarify if the server takes our payment or if we go up to the register. In finer dining establishments, it’s usually clear, but sometimes it’s not, and it saves confusion if the server automatically says, “I’ll take your bill when you’re ready” or “You can pay up front when you’re ready.”
    I also wish greeters (and by extension, sometimes the wait staff) wouldn’t say, “Just one of you dining this evening?” Sometimes, they’ll say “Just the two of you?” Now this is me being very picky! But it feels more respectful to ask “One for dinner?” or “Two of you for dinner?” I know they make more money with larger parties, but if I feel I’m treated as a valued customer when dining alone, who knows? I might linger for dessert or buy a cocktail. 

    More thoughts come to mind, but I’ll stop there ;-). I’m sure there could easily be a follow-up post (maybe you’ve already done one!) about the many ways diners irritate and make life difficult for servers!

  2. ArdenClise on July 9, 2014 at 9:41 pm

    Beth, great points. I agree, with more casual restaurants it can be confusing as to whether you pay at the table or the register. It would really help if the server clarified. And, the whole, “Just one for dinner” comment is so wrong. It’s hard enough to eat alone, so when the server makes you self-conscious of your oneness it makes it even harder.

    Thanks for sharing your pet peeves. Good fodder for another post.

  3. Nathan on June 24, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    Perhaps if 90% of servers don’t know “the code” then it’s just plain outdated.

  4. Arden on June 24, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    Hi Nathan,

    Thank you for your comment. The 90% figure is probably an exaggeration. In parts of the U.S. and in Europe the waiter codes are well known by waitstaff. It should still be something we practice doing.

  5. Allen on November 12, 2016 at 4:00 am

    My pet peeves concern dessert:
    1) Being asked about dessert before everyone has finished eating. Common sense would dictate that we’d like to eat together but I’m asked this question at all levels of restaurants
    2) Being asked, “Did you save room for dessert”. 99% of the time, the diner answers, “No”. What the server is really asking is, “I saw how much you ate. Can you cram any more in?”
    The server would sell more desserts if they say, “We have wonderful crème brulee and key lime pie!. Would you like to see a menu?”

  6. Arden on November 28, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    Hi Allen,

    Thanks for commenting. I agree with you on both counts. I think that’s a great idea to mention a few desserts and ask if the diner would like to see a menu. I think you have a career in sales.

  7. Mallory on July 1, 2019 at 8:39 am

    This has happened to me and a friend many times. Two women enter a restaurant that is virtually empty (maybe an off time of the day) and the host tries to seat you at the worst table (next to the serving cart, by the restroom, etc.). This has never happened to me when I was with men.

    It has also happened in the past and we ask for a different table and the host found an equally unpleasant table. It happened to me again yesterday. I simply took a different table. I wanted to tell him, but didn’t. Instead we left a large tip. What can we do? I think all restaurants need to train their staff using a professional like yourself on this and numerous other things.

  8. Arden on July 8, 2019 at 3:00 pm

    Hi Mallory,

    That seems very frustrating. I would stick to your guns and if there is an unoccupied table that is better I would ask to be seated there. If you’re denied you have every right to ask the reason why.

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