Bartenders, servers, restaurant hosts are among the hardworking staffers who make sure you have a good time when you’re grabbing a drink or dining out. They can also provide complimentary drinks, table swaps, extra appetizers and other perks — if they feel like you’re deserving of them.
So, how do they decide who gets what? We asked restaurant insiders whether customers can really sweet talk their way to better customer service. We identified these industry veterans by first name to allow them to speak freely without putting their jobs at risk. Here’s what they had to say:
Don’t: Name drop the restaurant owner or a server.
“Asking ‘Is so-and-so here?’ when the staff isn’t forewarned is an obvious sign that the customer is not important enough to be treated preferentially,” said Henry, who’s worked in the restaurant industry for five years.
What to do instead: If you do have an in with someone at a restaurant, let them know ahead of time that you’re planning on dining at their restaurant. “If you are friends of the owner, typically the staff is alerted beforehand and they know to expect you,” Henry said.
Don’t: Flirt with the bartender to get free drinks.
Leading with a “hey, sweetie” and hitting on a server isn’t usually well-received. (In no situation should you flirt and then leave your phone number instead of a tip.)
“People think they will get [a free drink] because they’re attractive or flirty,” Kath and Jan, two anonymous restaurant industry veterans behind the podcast In The Service, said in an email. Servers rarely reward flirtatiousness with a freebie. Nevertheless, failing to engage is also a no-no. The pair said they hate when they ask customers how they’re doing and they respond with their order. “Answer the question like a normal human being,” they noted.
What to do instead: You’re probably better off making moves on your fellow bar-goers if you want to flirt your way to a free cocktail. But if you want to butter up a bartender, putting down a big tip after your first round of drinks is a good place to start, said Rob, a bartender who has been in the industry for four years. “I’ll pay attention to you the rest of the night, and you might get a free shot as the night winds down,” he said.
Don’t: Ask a server or bartender’s name for the wrong reason.
It’s polite to ask a staff member’s name and how they are doing. What’s not so pleasant? Calling a server or bartender’s name all night. Your knack for names will not be appreciated by the staff, who are likely trying to juggle orders and will be with you as soon as humanly possible. Firing off commands like they’re Siri is poor form, too. Another unacceptable method of getting a server’s attention is physically touching or tapping, said Kath and Jan.
What to do instead: According to Kath and Jan, the simple but effective method to getting the best service is smiling and saying please and thank you throughout the night.
“Mutual respect. We’re both humans here, I’m providing a service to you, I enjoy what I do and if you acknowledge me as a human, and not a servant or robot, I’m going to appreciate it,” Kath said.
Don’t: Ask for menu advice and then ignore it.
If you know what you want to order, don’t engage in small talk for no reason. “Sometimes [a customer] will grill you about what your favorite item(s) from the menu are and then ask for whatever they were originally going to order,” Kath and Jan said. “It’s great when guests are excited about the menu items that you’ve recommended and then thank you for your suggestions!”
What to do instead: When it comes to cocktail menus, Kath and Jan say they love when people ask them to make a cocktail off the top of their head. “Not every bartender feels this way, though,” they clarified.
“I love figuring out what makes them tick, what they like or don’t like, and then crafting something special just for them,” Jan said. “Also, the instant gratification when I get it right is great.”
Don’t: Demand a better table on a busy night.
This one should be able to go without saying, but people still try to pull this on hosts and hostesses all the time. Requesting a table near a window, away from a window, away from the kitchen — you can try but you (most likely) won’t succeed on a busy night.
“The truth of the matter is I can’t make better tables appear out of thin air,” said Emily, a restaurant hostess for over a year. “We have to make sure the servers have an equal number of people to serve.” If you demand to be seated in a busy section, you might end up with worse service because your server is “in the weeds,” restaurant slang for being overwhelmed by orders.
What to do instead: Advance notice is your best bet if you truly need a certain special table, such as a place in the shade or room to accommodate a stroller. “If you’re picky about where you sit, let us know before we try to sit you at a table and be nice about it,” Emily said.
Don’t: Expect VIP treatment just because it’s your birthday, anniversary or graduation.
Congratulations on your Big Life Moment. Just know that when you head to a restaurant to celebrate, the staff might have reason to be less enthused than your friends and family — because they’ve already served plenty of other people celebrating their Big Moment, too.
“Telling us it’s your birthday or anniversary or graduation isn’t going to get you spectacular service because we’ve already served five other couples who came in for the same thing that day,” Emily said.
What to do instead: However, if you are “generally nice and humble,” Emily said she’s more likely to “tell the server to give you a little something extra for the occasion.”
Do: Be a good tipper, a regular or a big spender.
If you’re going to a restaurant for the second, third or 100th time, the staff will know a little more about you and might be more likely to send some items on the house. Henry noted that at some restaurants, the staff have a certain amount of “free drinks, appetizers and desserts” they can give away in a night.
His goal? “Strategically maximizing” tips, he said. “Regulars, VIPs, GTs (good tippers), Big Spenders and really nice people will be given free things from the bar or kitchen, in that order,” Henry said.
Do: Be relatable.
Turns out flattery might just get you somewhere. According to Austin, who’s worked as a server for two years, compliments equal better service. “Whether a customer asked about a tattoo of mine, complimented my hair or outfit... I’d go above and beyond,” he said.
And having something in common with a server could pay off big time. Kath mentioned a time she was serving a group of men from South Carolina, where she went to college.
“We got to talking and they told me they were all cops and down in [New York City] to pay their respects on 9/11,” Kath said. After overhearing them talking about ordering a dessert but not wanting to spend money because New York City prices were so high compared to South Carolina, “I worked magic with management and pastry, and I brought out dessert on the house.” Kath said. “They were so happy, it made me happy, too.”
Do: Be patient.
Your patience with servers and bartenders on a busy evening could be handsomely rewarded.
“I was tending bar on a Saturday night and I was slammed,” Henry recounted. “The bar patrons were waiting for their drinks and some people were starting to get frustrated, waving their hands in the air, holding money over the bar. I went up to one girl solo-diner and asked what she’d like. She smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry about me, I don’t mind waiting a bit.’ ” Henry said. “She had to wait probably 25 minutes total but she drank for free the whole night.”
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