Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio | Photo: Teri Dixon/Getty Images

Salty Waitress is The Takeout’s advice column from a real-life waitress that will teach you how not to behave like a garbage person while dining out—and maybe in real life.


Dear Salty,

Am I the only person who dislikes when a server will take the table’s order without writing anything down?

It’s obviously very impressive when a server reels off an elaborate list of specials without consulting a piece of paper, and then reels off our orders back to us perfectly before leaving the table, but the reality tends to come off more like this:

“Specials tonight are... a pan-seared pork loin with... [pause for breath/dramatic effect/memory recall]...”

and then

“so that’s a mac and cheese, two lobster humidors, a salmon and... sorry, remind me your last order?”

Do diners like this? However perfectly-recalled the order is, I am always moderately-to-extremely uneasy when the server walks away with my order in their head, regardless of how simple it is.

Yours,
Notepad Writer

Dear Notepad Writer,

I’ve been lucky enough to work in restaurants where writing orders down was encouraged or required. I, too, prefer when servers write orders down, and it’s something I do when I’m waiting tables. And no, we’re not alone.

But not all restaurants equip their servers with pens and paper. When servers don’t write something down, it’s usually a directive from their managers. The argument for not writing down orders is that the server is “listening” better to the customer while not writing, and that they’re sustaining eye contact, interest, and attention. Some managers think it makes the staff seem more attentive and friendly—I think it makes me nervous they’re going to forget my side of ranch dressing.

Rattling off the specials by memory has a similar but not exactly the same explanation: It makes the server look confident in their knowledge of the menu and familiarity with the special dishes. In a perfect world, we like to imagine our servers are almost as knowledgable about the specials as the chefs themselves, that they’ve tasted them, thought about them, asked questions. Reading them off a pad can make it seem robotic, and like the staff doesn’t know much about the dishes they’re recommending. I don’t have much of a problem with servers reciting specials by memory; usually it’s only a handful of dishes and they can nail it by the third or fourth table of the night. I do keep a little cheat sheet in my pocket in case I have a brain fart.

But back to the writing-down-orders question. On this one, I am solidly pro writing things down. It (hopefully) ensures accuracy, especially in a big group, and also helps me remember who’s getting what dish. I hate coming out to a table and just holding a dish up—“Who got the chicken parm?”—like it’s some sort of free-for-all. When I write orders down, I can indicate who ordered which dish.

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A server writing down orders shouldn’t take so long that it disrupts the flow of your ordering, though. A restaurant where I used to work was small enough that we didn’t have a computerized point of sale system. We brought handwritten orders back to the kitchen and tacked them up for the kitchen to see. And we had a shorthand code: We all knew “SF: MW, SOS” is steak frites, medium well, sauce on the side. I even circled the SOS each time to make sure the chefs saw the special instructions. Shorthand makes sure that the order-taking doesn’t last forever and that the customers don’t have to stop and start every few words. I’d advise servers to perfect their shorthand, even if they have to expand on those quick notes later.

Maybe I can remembered certain tables’ orders, but why chance it? Larger, complicated groups would be a nightmare to remember, especially if you throw substitutions in the mix or if someone changes an aspect of their order before I walk back to the kitchen. I think most people would rather get the meal they ordered than marvel at my memory tricks.


Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or are you a server/bartender with a horror story the world needs to hear? Email us: salty@thetakeout.com.

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