Going to a restaurant is something that you generally only do with people you know well. We might all be six degrees from Kevin Bacon, but we don't go out to dinner with most of the links. Therefore, there are whole subcultures of people walking amongst us now who make asses of themselves at restaurants and don't even know it. Think about it. If your parents, your family, your friends, and your friends' families all did something one way, but the rest of the world did it another way, and you were an idiot, how would you know to stop?
Yes, the customer is technically always right. This guide is not intended for the customers who always consider themselves right. This guide is intended for the people who want to foster a collaborative, rather than antagonistic, relationship with one kind of business with which they commonly interact. It is also intended for America, because I have never been to a restaurant in Canada or Europe or Asia or Africa or South America or Mexico or Antarctica. This guide does not mean I am better than you. I'm worse than you. Just so we're all clear.
With that said, let us have a meal together, shall we?
You walk into a restaurant.
Get a table. If there is a host stand, implying that a host seats each customer, don't do their job. There are reasons for this. You can't see the sections in a restaurant, which are ephemeral zones not unlike your cell phone's home calling area, changing with the wind and the tides. The order and frequency with which servers are sat (see grammar note below) can have an almost religious significance to servers, who are very territorial about their own bit of sacred ground. As such, at certain points during the day, some parts of the restaurant might be ripe for rituals of purification involving vacuum cleaners or brooms. When it is busy, some sections might have recently nearly filled quickly, meaning that certain tables just shouldn't be sat at for about ten minutes or so to allow the server to catch up. The host or hostess, while mere blithering peabrain slime incapable of reason and logic to the self-appointed master race of servers, should still be able to divine a measure of rationality out of the tribal section vs. section border war constantly raging throughout the restaurant. While you certainly can reject the decision of the host or hostess because there is too much sunlight, too little sunlight, too much noise, too little smoke, or too many muskrats at the table they have chosen for you, you should nonetheless, like a pitcher shaking off the catcher's suggestions, let them show you something better before you venture, unknowingly, into a civil war. There are landmines, folks. You could lose a leg.
You sit at your table.
You have now been assigned a mediator, counselor, prophet, caretaker, disciple, and advocate, which you will think of as your server. They preside over your world with certain power and authority like tiny gods for the duration of the time that you are seated at their table. They demand worship in return for their omnipotent and omniscient guidance through the world of food and drink. At the same time, they are mortally concerned with satisfying your every whim. This relationship has been understood and has existed for thousands of years. Think of Mark 9:35, which I quote here from the NIV. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all. So, would anyone like some coffee or dessert?" Therefore, if you make their life easy, you will probably have an easier life in return, not through some quid pro quo tipping bullshit, but because people automatically like, respect, and care for those who like, respect, and care for them. There are several ways to do this.
Communicate. Speak in whatever language you and the server have fluently in common. Words have meanings. If you want a water, don't say you want nothing to drink, because while this might mean you get a water, it might also mean you get nothing. Furthermore, there are certain special words and phrases that have specific meaning in that particular restaurant. Luckily, you hold in your hands a dictionary. If you are concerned about what you will receive when you order a meal, you should probably read the description of the item in your menu. If you order the Electric Linguini (tangy blend of electric shark bits and alfredo sauce with a healthy helping of our hand-made linguini pasta), don't be surprised when you get some electric sharks when you expected unicorn tongue instead. There's something on the menu called Unicorn Tongue Rigatoni for crying out loud, why didn't you just read the menu, or better yet, ask the server "What's that thing with the Unicorn Tongue in it? Is it any good?" Further things to communicate about include the sequential order of courses brought to the table, which, if you care about it, this concern should be conveyed to the server. If you are in a hurry, tell your server right away. If you have dietary restrictions, such as an inability to digest goat, let your server know so that they can advise you against goat-containing meals. Listening is important as well. A good server eventually becomes a parrot, repeating everything back to ensure that rapport and agreement have been established. Listen to what they say. If you don't think they repeated back what you want, tell them immediately.
Smile. Developing empathy is key to subtly improving the quality of your service. If going to your table is approximately as painful as eating porcupines raw, alive, and without sauce, then how frequently will the server want to go to your table? Servers are tiny gods, remember? You don't have to compose psalms glorifying your server in the highest, but a smile, a kind word, and a laugh when you first meet your server is a good way to make them appreciate you. You want this.
You placed your order.
It is pretty hard to be an ass during this phase of the restaurant visit, but it is certainly possible. People do it all the time. But there is only one thing to remember.
Be Patient A meal at a restaurant can take 20 minutes to prepare, or more. Just think: perhaps they are out back killing the griffins, but in that case, you will be able to enjoy freshly slaughtered griffin. Don't flag down a busy server to ask "Is my food coming?" unless you have reason to believe that something is wrong. Clearly, waiting for the sun to die and eliminate life on earth is not necessary, but before you get up, poke your head into the kitchen, and yell "FOOOOOD!" (this happened in the real world, I was there, and the food was seconds from being completed) make sure (a) more than 13 minutes have elapsed and (b) the thing you ordered did not involve extra well done beef. Servers live and die by how long food takes to prepare. Asking your server if anyone at your table has ordered anything that takes a very long time might be the thing to do if you are in an exceptional hurry.
The food comes.
There are three key tips to remember during this part of your restaurant-going experience. This is when the more refined customers distinguish themselves from the mere pretenders. But with the following triple pronged attack, you are sure to impress your dinner companions.
Look at it. Make sure it is what you ordered. If you are a vegetarian, check for bones. If you are deathly allergic to swans, make sure there isn't a swan head staring at you. Looking at the food is the best way to know what it is before you put it in your mouth. Sometimes this involves cutting it open, if what you ordered is a steak and you have strict religious mandates governing the extent to which a steak you eat should be cooked. If something is amiss, this is the time to talk to your server about it, if you share a language in common, before you defile yourself before God and man by eating noodle when you wanted rice.
Gather supplies. Do you need ketchup? Do you need mustard? Do you need steak sauce? Do you need an extra plate and fork? Do you need a refill on your drink? Do you need a sacrificial virgin? Take stock of your situation, make a mental inventory list, and tell your server all at once. This way you get everything faster. If you keep asking for one item at a time, the server will eventually have something else to do. Always. If you tell the server at once, the server can take care of you before that something comes up.
Eat it. Thermodynamics is happening right in front of you, and thermodynamics waits for no man. Some people miss this fact, and expect food to remain warm indefinitely while they floss their teeth, tend to their livestock, and diversify their portfolio. This is inadvisable, because you came to the restaurant to eat food, and the food you paid for will be best warm. Not cold, and not re-warmed. Tip the scales in your favor, and eat your food.
Something is wrong.
This happens. In your lifetime, if you go to restaurants even remotely often, this will happen to you. Know how to respond.
Chill out. No one is dying. No one's livelihood is being ruined. No one is slaughtering millions of innocent people because of their ethnicity or religion. We were enjoying a meal together, there was a little issue, but restaurant issues are virtually always trivial to solve. Giving your server a guilty ulcer is not the proper way to express displeasure or anxiety in the eventuality that something goes wrong. Politely express your disappointment that the mandrake steaks were burnt instead of rare. Be firm, but not hysterical. This polite disapproval will be conveyed to the kitchen "Hey guys, can you toss a couple more rare mandrake steaks on the grill? The last two got burnt somehow, see that?" The manager will waddle over and ask what is going on. "Hey, these rare mandrake steaks were burnt, no big deal, but table 32 is getting kind of antsy, and it's going to be awhile before the new ones come up in the window." The manager could do any of several things: nothing, tell the kitchen "Hey guys, toss together an Octopus Ink Sac Appetizer on the fly, will ya? I'll send you a ticket for it in a second," or comp some of the meal. If you are angry and threaten legal action immediately, the server will not be nearly as calm, and every link in the chain of command will be less well-disposed to help you out.
Know that there are consequences for every action, but they should be appropriate. The consequence for bad service is a bad tip, not insults. The consequence for a management staff that doesn't care about you enough to make mistakes right is that you don't return and don't recommend the restaurant, not that you make an intentional mess, a dreadful scene, and take a lock of hair from the manager for voodoo purposes. Do not resort to witchcraft when polite but firm complaint to management might get you a free dessert.
The meal is over
Go home. Enjoying a leisurely dinner is what you paid for. Staying to talk for two hours afterwards without ordering anything more most likely is not, particularly when the restaurant is busy. Go to a cafe or Starbucks or bar or living room. Now, servers may try to rush you, or they may give you the false impression that they are rushing you, which is bad, but certainly finishing your drinks with some conversation is very cool. Staying in a restaurant while the servers are vacuuming under your feet is not cool. Staying in a restaurant until, through extended cohabitation, you have a common law marriage to the cute server is not cool either. Go home.
Good work. Following these simple rules, it would be possible for almost anyone to learn how not to be an ass at a restaurant. Not being a dick, well, that's another topic entirely.
Grammar note: oakling brings to my attention that my usage of the word "sat" may be incorrect in this context, preferring "seated." In my experience, sat is used when the direct object is either a table, section, or server (ie "I sat you four at table 6" or "I just sat table 61"). Seated, on the other hand, is used when the direct object is the sitter (ie "I just seated them in your section"). The problem comes with my experience, which is certainly quite flawed. Most of the restaurant managers who created such patterns in my brain were born in either Lebanon or Mexico. The Americans weren't much better, each possessing the approximate reading level of a pea, and I'm not even talking about a smart pea. So my dilemma is thus: do I err on the side of proper grammar, or do I preserve the hint of authentic jargon and terminology? In the interest of Noding for the Ages, I prefer to keep my broken, stuttering understanding of my own language intact in this one instance, to give future noders an insight into restaurant manager grammar. Just don't go thinking I know what I'm talking about.