Thursday, January 09, 2014

Canadian Restaurant Etiquette

Canada is one of the world’s most popular destinations for tourism.  And it is really not surprising.  The country is vast, and encompasses more diverse ecosystems than almost anywhere on the planet.  Additionally, there are world famous festivals and events every year across the country.  From Vancouver’s PNE celebration, to the Calgary Stampede and the Edmonton Fringe Festival, and the snow festival and Just For Laughs in Quebec, you can experience anything you can possibly dream of.
And of course, Canada is a big draw for the outdoorsmen, who enjoy world class skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and much more.
This of course means that Canadian restaurants see their fair share of tourists each and every day.
Every nation has a different set of socially acceptable behaviors that one is expected to adhere to while dining.  Also known as “restaurant etiquette”.
I have worked in and managed a number of restaurants, bars and lounges over the years, and feel it’s prudent to share what we consider proper restaurant etiquette.  Behaving accordingly will help ensure you proper service and a pleasant experience.  Failure to comply may lead to a disappointing experience at best.

Arriving At The Establishment

If you are patronizing a bar or pub, it is perfectly acceptable to walk in and seat yourself.  Rarely do you see these types of environments with a host or hostess.  Simply grab a table that you find comfortable.

If you are dining at a midscale or fine dining, it is generally accepted that you wait to be seated.  We like to make things easy in Canada, so almost all of these restaurants will have a sign indicating that you should wait to be seated. Usually within a minute, a smiling host will be happy to take you to a table.  It is ok to wish to sit at a specific type of table, such as a booth, or near a window.  Please ask your host BEFORE being seated if such a table is available.  Sitting down at a table and then moving a few minutes after makes the host(ess) look stupid.  Additionally, it causes extra work for the servers, as they will likely have to sanitize and reset the table you possibly just destroyed.

The above tip is specifically noted for our European guests, many of whom seem to have no problems barreling past a “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign and seating themselves.  These signs are not just to make you wait for fun.  They are there for a multitude of reasons.  It is possible in a particularly slow time of day, that there is only 1 server working, and you can be making her job exceedingly difficult by sitting at the far side of the restaurant, when she already has tables sat elsewhere.  It could be that multiple servers are working, and the management tries to ensure that all servers get a fair number of tables.  Additionally, it ensures that one particular server does not have many tables walking in at the same time into her section.  This would obviously prevent you from getting decent service.
Failing to comply with this simple rule will make you seem rude, or just plain stupid, and does nothing to make your server want to provide you with a good experience.

If there are more than 6 guests in your party, it is expected that you would have made a reservation.  If circumstances prevented you from making a reservation, do not be surprised that there is not a table immediately available for your group.  Very few establishments have tables set up for more than 6 diners.  It may take only a few minutes for the restaurant to set up a table for your group, or, if the restaurant is busy, it may take half an hour or more.  This should not come as a shock or surprise to you.  

Attracting Your Server’s Attention

Almost every single restaurant has an established guideline about how long a guest is allowed to sit before they are greeted by a server.  Please be patient!  This is usually about 2 – 3 minutes, and rarely more than 5 minutes.  If you are waiting longer than 5 minutes, take a look around you.  Is the establishment busy?  If it is, there server will certainly be aware that you are seated, and probably already feels bad that they have not yet had a chance to greet you.  They will be with you in a moment.  If you have been waiting for 5 minutes, and your server is no where in sight, he or she is likely in the kitchen trying to bring out food for another table.  Again, please be patient.

If the clock is closing in on 10 minutes, and you still have not been greeted by a server, then you have a right to become suspicious.  At this point, it is ok to approach the nearest employee and politely inquire about your server.  That’s right.  I said politely.  You do NOT have the right to be rude and abrasive at this point.  Things happen, and it is possible that there is something going on behind the scenes that you are not aware of, such as an issue in the kitchen, or confusion about what server is supposed to be taking care of you.  At this point, you will likely notice a server running out to greet you, and apologizing for the extended wait time.

During your experience, should you need to attract the server’s attention, a polite “excuse me” as he or she is walking by is the polite wait to get their attention.  It is also appropriate to try and make eye contact with the server from across the room.  Believe me, they are always watching there tables no matter where they are, and he or she will notice your gaze.  It is also appropriate to wave politely at them, if you are not able to make eye contact, but this is only in extreme cases.

At NO point, regardless of any possible scenario you think of, is it acceptable to snap your fingers, or whistle at your server to get their attention.  In Canada, this is considered to be one of the rudest behaviors one can display.  In extreme cases, I have seen the server scold a guest, or even ask them to leave after this behavior.  It is also possible the manager will come and speak to you to let you know that this behavior is not tolerated.

Most all pubs and lounges in Canada offer table service, and you will likely be greeted by a server shortly after you sit down.  Most nightclubs in Canada similarly have table service.  However, due to how crowded these venues typically are, it is perfectly acceptable to order from the bartender if you do not want to wait.

Continued Service:  The Quality Check & Beverage Refills

Any restaurant should provide a quality check within a few minutes of receiving your meal.  The server will come back and make sure your meal is as expected.  They will typically also use this time to check and see if you need another beverage or any additional condiments to enjoy your meal.  If something is not correct with your meal, it is certainly ok to let your server know in a polite fashion.  They will be happy to correct any issues.  Unless the issue is serious, most establishments will not give you the item for free, but will usually offer a discount or free item, such as a dessert.  An apology from your server on behalf of the restaurant is also to be expected. 

It is also important to note that if there is a problem with your meal, NOW is the time to say so.  Do not consume the meal and then complain.  Your complaint will be regarded with some suspicion.  If you wait until everyone has finished eating and then complain (even if you did not consume your meal) it makes the server feel stupid, as she does not have an opportunity to fix the problem or provide you with other options as your party likely does not want to wait for another meal to be re-fired.

Most servers will offer you another beverage just before your current one is empty.  If there are more than two people in your party, please order refreshments at the same time!  It is not unreasonable for the server to expect the entire table to reorder beverages if everyone has less than half a glass (or bottle of beer remaining).  If your dining companion orders another beverage, and you have 1/3 of yours remaining, it is considered polite to order a replacement at that time.  Please do not wait until your server returns with your companion’s beverage and then ask for another one yourself.  Your server is busy!  Keeping her running back and forth just for your table, will prevent her from properly servicing her other guests.  Similarly, if you require something during your dining experience, and the server can not get to you because another table is keeping her running like this, you would not be pleased.  Please have courtesy for the other diners.

Bringing Children To Dine

Children.  Always a controversial issue.  Children are welcome in most types of establishments unless the pub or bar has a “no minors” license.  There is the odd pub which technically can allow minors or small children.  This does not mean, however, that it is a good idea to bring them in, unless perhaps there is no where else to dine.  Many people choose to go to pubs and bars because they do not wish to be surrounded by screaming infants, or toddlers running amok around them.  Again, please think of the other diners.

Restaurants that cater to children will often have specialized menus, coloring pages and in some cases toys to keep kids occupied.  These restaurants are often staffed a little more heavily since families with young kids tend to be higher maintenance tables.

However, please be considerate.  Your servers do not wish to spend half an hour cleaning up your table after you leave.  Please do not let your children throw food all over the place.  Do not let them run around the restaurant- it disturbs others, and can endanger your child if they run into servers carrying heavy trays or hot foods.  And for pete’s sake, if your children are misbehaving, shrieking at the top of their lungs or throwing a tantrum, address the issue.  Remove the child from the dining room if you need to.  You do not like it when your children are brats, and neither do complete strangers!

After the meal is complete

When you have completed your meal, your server will collect your empty dishware.  Most restaurants will wait until each diner is finished eating, otherwise it can appear as though they are trying to “rush” the table.

Should you find yourself dining with someone who is nursing their bowl of soup or entrée well after the rest of the party has finished eating, then the server may collect most of the dishes off the table, to free up space and make everyone more comfortable.  This is also a subtle hint to your guest to hurry up, as likely everyone else in your party is probably tired of waiting for them to finish.

During the plate clearing, your server will likely offer you a beverage refill, coffee or dessert.  In a bar or pub setting, it is expected that your party may linger for some time and continue drinking alcoholic beverages.  It is a bit different in a restaurant setting.  Offering you a beverage refill is a courtesy, and one you should feel comfortable to enjoy.  Within reason.  It is not meant to be an invitation for you to occupy your table for another hour.  Your server may actually be waiting for you to finish and pay your bill so she can go home.  If it’s a particularly busy establishment, others may be waiting for your table.  It is also expected that you should verbally thank your server for their efforts around this time.

Paying The Bill and Tipping

Ah, perhaps the most important part.  Yes, TIPPING IS CUSTOMARY.  Most servers in Canada make minimum wage or slightly above.  Depending on where in the country you are visiting, this can be as low as $5 per hour, and is NOT enough to live on.  Servers in Canada are a tip based position.  They do not come to work for the salary – they live on their tips!

It is considered extremely rude to not leave a tip in Canada.  I guarantee you, if you do not tip, your server will definitely comment to his or her coworkers about you.

Certainly, if the service is extraordinarily bad, no tip is required, but this is extreme.  If your meal was cooked inappropriately, or you did not enjoy it, this is NOT an acceptable reason not to tip.  Your server did not cook your meal.  So why punish her?

The absolute minimum tip that is considered in the food & beverage industry in Canada is 10% of the total bill.  There will be arguments amongst industry workers if this means 10% before the taxes or applied or after.  Since taxation rates in Canada vary from 5% to 18% depending on which province you visit, you can make your own judgment call.  If you leave only 10%, it is likely the server will wonder what she did wrong during your visit.  (Or she may just surmise that you are cheap.)  15% is considered a very acceptable and standard tip.  18 – 20% is considered a good tip, and the server will be pleased.  Anything over 20% and you will make your server’s day.

Please keep context in mind.  If you are aware that your table has been high maintenance, or perhaps you were dining with a friend that did not behave in the best manner to your server (and we have ALL been to a restaurant with one of those people), its best to show some additional thanks and tip on the higher end.  If your bill is minimal (say $15 or less) it is customary to leave at least $4 or $5 for a tip, as 10 – 15% is negligible, and you have just occupied a table in your server’s section that she may have been able to make something substantial on.

If you would like a handy pocket guide or cheat sheet of this etiquette guide, here it is:

- Wait to be seated if there is a sign
- Make reservations for parties of 6 or more (unless in a pub or club)
- Please be patient to be greeted
- Do NOT EVER snap fingers or whistle at a server.  Ever.  For anything. Period.
- Alert your servers to issues during their meal quality check
- Try and order extras or refills at the same time as other party members.
- Do not bring children into pubs or clubs unless allowed by law, and only if you have to.
- Clean up after your kids, and keep them under control
- Do not occupy your table for extended periods of time after dining (unless at a pub or club)

I assure you that if you follow these simple rules, you will have pleasant dining experiences, and will likely get to know some very friendly Canadian servers.  Enjoy your visit to Canada!

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