Maybe it’s been a long time since you found yourself in a dining room, seated at a table eating off an actual china plate. Maybe you’ve spent, oh, the last year-ish sharing meals with no one but your cat (an excellent conversationalist!). Whatever the reason, it is entirely possible you have now forgotten that simple thing you once knew so well: how to eat at a restaurant.
If you’re contemplating a return to public dining, do not fret. This handy guide is here to help and make occasional soothing noises. Follow a few simple rules and your next meal outside the house should go just fine.
Proper attire is required
Sweatpants are acceptable so long as they are accompanied by a blazer (the quarantine mullet: business on top, PJ party on the bottom). It is permitted to wear mascara and nail polish now that the random weeping and nail-biting have (mostly) stopped. Yes, sneakers count as dress shoes.
Keep conversation appropriate
Things that are fine to talk about with people outside your pod: work gossip, family updates, lukewarm political takes, the streamed content you’ve been inhaling like pigs in a blanket at a particularly stressful cocktail party, newly acquired phobias, divorce proceedings, bad habits, bodily functions. Things that are off limits: money.
Maintain mask etiquette
It is so awkward speaking face to face with another human being! When you feel anxious, try stroking the security mask you secretly keep in your pocket. If you and your tablemates experience difficulty, please don your own mask before assisting others. In case of extreme stress, double-masking may be appropriate: one over your mouth and nose, another over your eyes.
How to communicate with dining companions
Think of it like one of those old tennis game reruns you’ve taken to watching at 3 a.m. One person asks a question; the other answers, then returns the serve. If that’s just a lot right now, you may shoot one another texts, laughing silently while gazing at the phones in your laps. Zoom meetings, however, are frowned upon at the table. The table is your breakout room now.
Forks and knives are not merely ornamental. The napkin goes in the lap. The tablecloth is for wiping your mouth. Burping contests are to be saved for the workplace, where they belong. No snacks, drinks, or YouTube in the restroom.
When your server asks if this is your first time dining at the restaurant, the proper reply is a) “No, and we’re excited to be here,” or b) “Yes, and we’re so happy to be back.” Do not say what you’re thinking: “Alas we’ve been too busy surviving a global pandemic, subsisting on dried beans, and hoarding toilet paper. Would you like to see a photo of my beautiful crusty son?” (Also: Please do not refer to your latest sourdough project as your beautiful crusty son.) When ordering small plates, divide the number recommended per person by 1.5. When presented with the cocktail list, get the drink with the most ingredients, because you don’t have that ish at home.
Interacting with staff
When servers bring you delicious food cooked by actual professionals, please do not embrace them; a simple “thank you” will do. When staffers clear the table, don’t say “No, no, I’ll do that! You cooked!” Again, a simple “thank you” will do. Don’t make goofy faces at the chefs in the open kitchen. This isn’t Buckingham Palace.
How much to tip
The appropriate amount is 450 percent. Hospitality folks had a dumpster fire of a year, and the person crumbing your table right now could have gotten a job delivering Amazon packages or peddling edibles like any right-minded soul. It’s the restaurant life for them. YOLO! Matched tips for those in the kitchen are also required, along with cases of ice cold beer.
We’ve all been through the wringer, and the pandemic and its fallout continue to unfold. As diners return to restaurants, and as restaurants figure out how to get back to business, here is the important thing to remember: Be kind, cooperative, patient, generous, flexible, and respectful with one another. That’s what you really need to know. Oh, and if you’re wondering whether you should shower, the answer is probably yes.