Dining Etiquette Series – The Wait Staff




“It’s hard to get a dozen CEOs to agree about anything, but all interviewed agree with the Waiter Rule…How others treat the CEO says nothing, they say. But how others treat the waiter is like a magical window into the soul.” ~ USA Today

Whether you’re the host or guest at a business or social function at a restaurant, corporate dining room, banquet hall or your own home, your strongest partnership in such an endeavor will be with the wait staff. As the quote above attests, you’ll be judged by the way you relate to and treat the wait staff.

A professional wait staff is composed of trained specialists in dining and serving protocol. Those who are at the top of their field are very likely on par professionally with many of the customers they serve, both in professional status and income. The wait staff can help make your dining experience a success, and the respectful way in which you interact with the wait staff will make you appear polished and confident to your client, interviewer, new boss, significant other or parents.

Following are descriptions of the members of the wait staff and other service personnel that you are likely to encounter, depending on the size and formality of the dining facility at which you are a host or a guest:

Maitre d’hôtel

Referred to as the “maitre d’,” (pronounced MAY-treh DEE), this person manages the wait staff, assigns tables and resolves problems. Establishing a strong and warm relationship with the maitre d’ at an establishment that your company frequents when entertaining clients and other guests or where you wish to schedule a personal celebration will help ensure successful occasions. Never argue with the maitre d’ or place him or her in an awkward position by publicly offering a tip for allowing you to jump ahead in a line or obtain a good table at the expense of other guests. Instead, you will be held in high esteem by making a proper reservation, arriving on time and behaving patiently and pleasantly while waiting to be seated.

Host / Hostess

Many establishments have a host or hostess who greets guests and shows them to their table. A host usually will not have the same responsibilities as a maitre d’, but often will assign tables and resolve issues.


While waiting for your table, or for the rest of your party to arrive, you might be invited to sit at the bar and enjoy a drink while you wait. You are certainly not obligated to have anything alcoholic, or any drink at all. But, if you choose to have a seltzer, soft drink or alcoholic beverage, you will either pay for it separately right at the bar, and include a 15% tip for the bartender, or you will have the drinks added to your dinner check and the tip will be reflected in the overall tip that you leave for the waiter. A good restaurant will ensure that the bartender receives his share of the tip, or the establishment might pool all tips among all the staff.

Waiter / Waitress / Server

This is the person with whom you will have the most contact during your meal. Today the gender-neutral term “server” is used, but the latter terms remain acceptable. It’s important to the success of your dining experience that you establish a good rapport with your server from the start. You should acknowledge him with a nod and smile, and if he introduces himself by name, you should repeat his name whenever you address him. Your server will recommend or clarify items on the menu, and tell you about the specials of the day.

When ordering, refrain from requesting something that is not on the menu, asking for substitutions or generally making your order complicated. Your meal is not about the food, but about the job for which you are interviewing, business to be conducted, or occasion to be celebrated. If you are allergic to certain foods or have religious requirements, call ahead to discuss so you know in advance what you will order.

If you are the host and discover a foreign object in your food, are seated next to rowdy diners, or encounter any other type of problem, very discreetly notify your server and have a quiet chat, preferably away from your table. Excuse yourself unobtrusively and take care of the issue. If someone knocks over a drink or experiences another problem, catch your server’s eye and raise your index finger; he will take care of any such cleanups for you. Avoid making a scene at all costs. Remember that your server is there to make the dining experience pleasant and convenient for you and your guests.

If you are the guest, it’s best not to complain about anything and risk embarrassing your host, especially if you are a candidate who is dining with your prospective employer at an interview luncheon!  And, remember that it’s always good form to say “thank you” when the server places something in front of you or refills your water glass.

At the end of the meal, the server will ask the table host if there is there is anything else that he or she would like. If the answer is, “no, thank you,” the server will bring the check to the table, often in a leather folder. The host or designee will take care of the bill, including the tip. The tip should range from 15-25%, depending on the type of establishment and level of service.

Sommelier or Sommeliere (Wine Steward)

In many upscale restaurants, the wine steward will take your wine order. This person is also called a sommelier (male, pronounced soh-mell-YAY ) or sommeliere (female, pronounced soh-mell-YARE ). These professionals are wine experts who can help you select the appropriate wine to accompany your meal and answer any questions you might have. When the wine selection has been made, the sommelier will bring the wine to the table, open it, pour a small amount into a glass and present it to the host or hostess to taste. The sole purpose for this ritual is to allow the host to confirm that the wine is not spoiled, which is only reason to reject a wine. If the wine does not taste as you expected, you must live with it, as it’s very poor form to make any disparaging comments or criticism of the wine or the service. If the wine tastes as though it has turned, ask the sommelier for his opinion; if he confirms your suspicions, he will bring another bottle for your approval. Once the host has tasted the wine–and it is not spoiled–the host should smile and nod approval to the sommelier, who will proceed to pour a bit more wine into the host’s glass and then pour for the guests. Alternatively, the sommelier will place the bottle on the table after pouring the host’s wine and allow the host to do the honors of pouring the wine for his or her guests.


Previously called busboys, this position is responsible for setting tables, refilling water goblets, clearing away dishes and assisting the servers. There is no need to tip the busser separately unless he or she performs extra service, such as carrying something to your car or performing a larger than usual cleanup at your table. Other similar positions that support the wait and kitchen staffs are called backservers or runners.

Next week, we’ll address the various types of table services performed by the wait staff.    

Until next time,


2 thoughts on “Dining Etiquette Series – The Wait Staff

  1. Kate K says:

    I feel you give excellent advice on how to treat wait staff. So much of it is common courtesy, but sometimes, people have a tendency to forget this very basic behavior. For a good perspective on the wait staff’s view, if you haven’t already, you may want to read Waiter’s Rant, by The Waiter. KK


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