New York City is the foodie capital of the world. Both visitors and jaded New Yorkers alike can have any number of mind-blowing dining experiences here in the Big Apple. But just like with everything else in NYC, the rules for dining out are ever so slightly different in the city that never sleeps than they are in other parts of the nation.
Just like there's subway etiquette and protocol for walking the streets, there are unspoken rules for dining out in NYC. Here are all the things your servers and waitstaff want you to know about dining out in NYC:
1. Be conscious of time.
NYC is all about being on the go. There's a reason for the clichéd “gone in a New York minute,” though I don't entirely know what the f*ck that reason is. But either way, life moves fast here; people are busy. Professionals and people who work in finance make up a lot of NYC diners, and their lives are busy. Dining out is their moment to relax, to stop obsessively checking emails and to just have a peaceful meal.
But right after, it's back to the grind. These people have places to be. When you are late for your reservation, it pushes back the time you would be ending your own experience, and thus you are making someone else wait for his or her own reservation. Even worse than that is giving the Liz Lemon of all eye rolls and massive attitude when you don't have a reservation, yet feel entitled to a table nonetheless.
Others were conscientious of time and schedules enough to make a reservation, and you throwing a temper tantrum at the front door to get a table and seize someone else's reservation shows nothing but disrespect for the time of others. Don't be disrespectful. Make a reservation, and be on time for it.
Within the fast-paced environment of NYC, it's helpful to remember that most waitstaff are not just trained robots programmed with the sole purpose of serving your needs. They are generally creatives with a dozen other obligations to worry about. NYC is a hustle or perish city, and hospitality jobs often are just a means to an end for creative types while they try to make their particular hustle pay off.
Thus, time for creatives is a valuable commodity, just as it is for professionals and yourself. Don't waste their time. When you sit for hours after you've completed your meal and paid your check, not only are you delaying the next reservation and disrespecting that guest's time, but you're also taking time from your waitstaff. Time equals money, and you are directly taking money away from them.
Hospitality workers only make money when someone is hospitable enough to give it to them. If they have no guests because you are taking up space long after your experience ended, they cannot make money. When you do this after the restaurant is closed, you don't just cost your server time and money, but you also keep dozens of people at work hours later than they would be otherwise.
Your server can't leave until your table is cleaned. The dishwasher can't leave until your last water glass is washed. The managers can't leave until the dishwashers, cooks and servers all leave. Don't waste their time.
2. Be conscious of space.
Forget Wall Street, and forget stocks and bonds. The most valuable commodity in NYC is time, and the second most valuable is space. With millions of people crossing your path every day, it's easy to forget that Manhattan is just 22 square miles long. Those 22 square miles are jam-packed with as much commercial space that zoning laws will allow.
Owning a business is a very expensive endeavor, meaning that restaurants are generally small and carefully arranged and decorated to maximize usable space. This is space that you as a diner share not only with other diners, but also with those serving you. Respect that space.
What do I mean by this? Thankfully, as we move into spring, we move further and further away from every NYC server's nightmare, the dreaded puffy coat season. Giant puffy coats are lovely. I have one. It keeps me warm, and it's cozy and comforting. But damn, they sure are puffy, and they take up a lot of space.
So, when you have your puffy coat on your chair or on the chair next to you, with your shopping bags strewn around your feet, you're taking up a lot of space. Typically in this situation, someone will come up to you and very politely say, “Would you like me to check some of your items to get them out of the way for you?” You will say, “Oh, no, I'm fine. It's not in my way!” Of course it's not in your way because you've put your items in everyone else's way.
What the person trying to check your items is really saying is, “I'd like to check your items to get them out of everyone else's way and generally make your experience less stressful. Please let me do that for you. It's literally my job.” So, please, just let the waitstaff check your items. Let them do their job. Let them keep the space enjoyable for all diners and not just for yourself. Or, don't. But when the person attempting to pour your water accidentally steps all over your Hermès shopping bag, you have zero right to get upset about the situation.
3. Use your words.
Even for the most worldly New Yorkers, sometimes dining out in the city can be an intimidating experience. I get it. Wines on the wine list look unfamiliar, and due to the fact that so much NYC cuisine is French-inspired, menu descriptors can also be quite literally foreign.
But, that's OK. Don't stress about it, and don't feel intimidated. Only chefs, sommeliers and straight-up old timer pros know what every French culinary term means or what each grape varietal tastes like. You are not the only one who is slightly confused.
So, with that being said, there's no need to act befuddled every time you hit a new spot or check out a new menu. A certain amount of befuddlement is normal, so when your server or bartender walks up to you and asks, “Hi. How are you today?” instead of mumbling and and avoiding eye contact, answer directly. Answer in a a coherent, logical, complete sentence, preferably something along the lines of “I'm great, thank you.”
It's OK to ask questions. It's OK to not know what something is, and it's OK to be not quite ready to order. But, it's not OK to ignore your server and just groan incoherently while avoiding eye contact out of embarrassment when your server asks you a specific and direct question. If you're not ready, instead of just avoiding eye contact for 30 seconds while your server stands there awkwardly waiting for you to acknowledge the question, use your words to say, “I'm sorry. We are still checking things over, and we need just one more minute.”
It's also OK to say, “This looks interesting, and I think I want to order it. But, I'm not sure what this is. Can you explain it for me?” Questions are great. Questions are welcome.
But, wasting your waitstaff's time while they politely but awkwardly wait for you to get your life together is not. Also, if you are looking to avoid embarrassment by not knowing what something on a menu or wine list is, Google it. So use your words, for sure. But, also use the phone in your hand that you are going to spend the whole meal looking at anyway.
4. Get your elbows off the table. Seriously.
Turns out, your mother was right (about this one thing, at least). It is really rude to have your elbows (and your phones) on the table during dinner. Yeah, it sounds like one of many arbitrary things your mom used to rag on you about, but there are actual reasons behind this one random rule. Most obviously, if your elbows are on the table, you are leaning onto the table, and your elbows and half your torso are taking up a lot of space on the table.
Where exactly do you expect the person serving you to put your food? Food runners generally have multiple hot dishes in their hands. You lounging all over the table or making it your own personal workspace makes doing their jobs very difficult. You come to a restaurant for fast, efficient and lovely food, so if you want that food served to you fresh and in a timely manner, please, for the love of kale, quit leaning all over the table.
Additionally, what may not be so obvious about the no-elbows rule is that NYC dining is generally fine dining. Fine dining differs from Applebee's dining in that there are very distinctly defined courses. In between each course, each diner is given fresh silverware and plates. If your phone, elbows, torso or lovey dovey hand holding is all over the table, it's difficult to reset your place setting efficiently, again delaying your dining experience.
Also, having your phone on the table at all is just a liability for yourself. If you've ever worked around food or beverages, you know that accidents happen all the time even to the most careful people. So, keeping your $700 electronic device right next to your water glass that is constantly being refilled is just a bonehead move in general. Put your phone in your lap (or put it away altogether), and make life less stressful for everyone involved.
But, New York City isn't all that different than everywhere else. “Please” and “thank you” will still take you everywhere you want to go during your NYC dining experience. Without those minimum requirements though, your NYC experience might be less “bon appétit” and more “fuhgeddaboudit.”