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Proposing a Diners' Bill of Rights

Restaurant customers have the ability to keep restaurants in business, not just by paying the tab, but by deciding whether to return and bring their friends.

Despite the power they hold, diners are sometimes unsure about what to do when faced with common restaurant issues that might affect their enjoyment of their meal.

When people walk into a restaurant, looking to be fed, interactions with staffers and other key parts of their experience are guided by habits and expectations often left unspoken. So let’s talk about the basics.

Here’s my proposal for a Diners’ Bill of Rights.

1. You have the right to know if the restaurant is open for business. That means the restaurant’s published phone number should be answered during published hours of business. Staff members may not have the time or information to answer complex questions, but they should be able to tell customers whether they can come in to eat.

2. You have the right to learn whether particular needs can be met before you journey to the restaurant. What does the menu offer vegans? What does it hold for people avoiding gluten? These days, restaurants that want your patronage will have the answers. Within reason; don’t expect a complete menu rundown during peak service hours.

3. You have the right to ingress. Having made the decision to travel to the restaurant, diners should not have to figure out which door will lead to a table, as opposed to an unused banquet room. A little signage can go a long way toward avoiding new customers feeling lost before they even sit down.

4. You have the right to be greeted at the threshold of service. Customers deserve to be treated like a guest. Even in a fast-paced counter-service environment, eye contact and a polite, “What can I get you?” can personalize the interaction and make it less robotic.

5. You have the right to have your reservation honored for about 15 minutes, unless you contact the restaurant and secure another time. Fifteen minutes works for wiggle room, on both sides; you might wait that long to sit down at a table without issue. If the customer wait stretches toward 30 minutes, the most solicitous establishments will buy you a drink or bring you something to nibble.

6. You have the right to the information you need to make decisions. What is in a dish, and how it is prepared, is information a server should have, or be willing to obtain.

7. You have the right to know what dishes cost. Specials described verbally should include prices. It’s impolite to make the phrase, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it,” go through customers’ heads. If specials are described verbally, with no written version left for customers to digest and debate, the server must be cheerfully willing to repeat forgotten or misheard portions of the dish descriptions.

8. You have the right to speedy service, as long as two stipulations are met: You must let the server know you are eating a meal with a specific deadline. Then they must agree they can successfully serve you within your restrictions. Only then do you have a deal.

9. You have the right to get what you ordered. If the dish differs noticeably from its description – component missing, dish not cooked correctly – politely inform the server at first opportunity, without consuming it further. It’s part of their job to mediate between customer expectations and cook performance. They should be able to negotiate a form of redress you can agree upon.

10. You have the right to seek your happiness at your table. If a dish that conforms to the menu description isn’t what you expected, and will make your meal unsatisfying, you can tell the server at first opportunity. In a fine dining or upscale restaurant, the server typically will work with you to find something that will make you happy. That may take place without being charged for both dishes, but remember that decision is the restaurant staff’s to make, and may be heavily context dependent: what kind of customer have you been, and how much is your table spending.

11. You have the right to have your dining needs met, from water, to napkins, to silverware. In furtherance of that proposition, your server will set eyes on your table at regular intervals, before and after your food is delivered.

12. You have a right to have your happiness considered on matters besides food. If adjusting window shades or air conditioning will make you more comfortable, and is possible considering the room’s equipment, you have the right to ask for an adjustment. If there is a blaring television, you can ask for it to be turned down or muted. (Don’t expect action if you walked into a tavern with the game on, though.)

13. You have the right to end your meal graciously. That means being asked if you are finished, not just having the check dropped at your table unsolicited in an effort to get you moving.

14. You have the right to not tip. But please don’t, for most values of displeasure. The American restaurant system pays servers under the assumption customers will tip them, usually 15 to 25 percent. Otherwise the menu prices would be higher. If you’re unhappy about your restaurant experience, consider first if you have sought redress, and what response you received. Consider whether it would be fair to signal your displeasure with matters outside the server’s control by shorting the server.

This is a work in progress. If you would like to propose an amendment, please write me at agalarneau@buffalonews.com.

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