Waiting Tables 101: How to at least Bring the Drinks, the Food and the Check

I’m a hash slinger from way back. I hated it, but I did it. Waiting paid for lots of delicious food, singing lessons and of course the bills, hence the allure. Most importantly, I did it properly in spite of how I felt—meaning I brought the drinks, the food and the check, in that order and in good time.

This post is inspired by last Sunday’s brunch at Melt, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Service: BAD. Bad service is usually blamed on the waiter, but my experience is that it always trickles down from the top and usually stems from poor hiring practices, little or no training… yes, poor management.

So I blame the manager at Melt who was too busy chin wagging with the bartender and berating the waiter (not about our table) right within earshot—adding an annoying soundtrack to my dwindling dining experience—while my head was doing Linda Blair spins in search of someone to bring me a freakin’ salt shaker for my eggs.

I also blame the owners for being too food-assured to put salt shakers on every table (one of my pet peeves) and for choosing an over-designed salt shaker with a bug’s ass of a flow hole that literally dealt out the salt on a grain by grain basis.

That was just the icing of the cake on our train wreck of a meal, but I decided that I would not go into any further detail here. Instead, I offer something constructive: My Twenty Step Guide To Waiting Tables: How to At Least Bring The Drinks, The Food And The Check for aspiring slingers, waitering newbies (and a few oldies) specifically in New York City, but most of the info is applicable anywhere. Please follow these simple steps and the diners in your charge will hopefully be able to stay in their seats and enjoy their meals without bitching—isn’t that really what we all want?

Oh, and thank you for all the wonderful waiters out there who do get the J-O-B done and even bigger thanks to the ones who do it exceptionally. It really is a craft and we really do appreciate it.

My Twenty Step Guide To Waiting Tables: How to At Least Bring the Drinks, the Food and the Check for Casual Dining in NYC

Greet Table: Not like you are looking for your next bff (means best friend foreva), but at least like you pretend to care.

Offer Drinks: Most of the time people come to restaurants when they are hungry and thirsty, so the sooner you address at least one of these issues the nicer they will usually be.

Provide Menus: If there are already menus on the table you can skip this step, but if the menu or the specials list/board is so cleverly built into the design of the place that the average patron needs a divining rod to find it, don’t make them feel stupid by giving them attitude when you have to explain where it is or god forbid, have to tell them what the specials are.

Inform Update: This is when you tell the customer about the specials and things that are missing or in short supply on the menu. It’s all about managing their expectations. HINT: Write down specials so you have them handy when you can’t remember if that was a chili or a chive hollandaise—big difference.

Bring Drinks: See STEP TWO

Any Questions?: This is where you answer questions about the items on the menu, so having some knowledge about said items will save you a lot of time wasted going back and forth to the kitchen to ask.

Ready To Order?: This is an actual question, so there is the possibility of a negative response. Rolling your eyes when the customers requests a few more minutes to decide is not an appropriate reaction. Hint: A few minutes is actually just few minutes, not a half hour.

Take Order: This where you write down or memorize (for the show-offs) what the customers will be having, noting any special requests. New Yorkers are very specific about their food considerations to the point of being painful at times. You’re a waiter, it’s your job, deal with it.

Give Order to Kitchen: This where you take most of the expectations that your customers have and tie them up in a very clear, easy to understand little package and make them someone else’s problem. Make sure you include any special requests.

Bring Food To Table: This is where you put the dish in front of the person who ordered it, not crime of the century if you get it wrong, but it’s a nice touch that says you were paying attention when they ordered. If you actually present the featured item on the dish so it and not the garnish or one of the secondary items is right in front of the diner, you do get bonus points. Classic waiter rule: Serve from the left whenever possible.

More Drinks? Anything Needed?: More expectation management—make sure the customer has all they need to eat their meal and stay off your back, i.e. pepper mill, ketchup, etc.

Bring Drinks and/or Needed Items: This is done is a timely manner, like while the food is still hot.

Give Time to Taste Food: This is where you allow the customer enough time to taste their food, only coming back if it seems that they are not happy or need something else. CRUCIAL MOMENT - PAY ATTENTION. Signs of discontent: head shaking left to right, desperate looking around, finger snapping (rude, but possible), waving arms, getting up and getting the pepper mill, salt shaker, milk, ketchup, etc. themselves.

Is Everything As You Like It? Do You Need Anything?: I prefer this question to “How is everything?” which is really more, “how are we, the restaurant, is doing?,” as opposed to what they, the customer, really wants us to know which is how they, the customer, is doing?

Return with Needed Items: Again be aware of timeliness.

This is where you let the customer eat their food in peace. Be aware, but don’t loom, even if you need the table. Unless there has been a previous arrangement or understanding people who are dining have the right to do so at their own pace even if sometimes it seems like they have are never going to leave.

Clear Finished Dishes: This is fairly self-explanatory, but do try not to drop anything on the customer. They don’t like it. Classic waiter rule: clear from the right, whenever you can.

Offer Dessert Menu: Don’t drift off here. For some people the dessert is the highlight of the meal and it’s a good way to boost a check (read: your tip).


Prepare Check/Bring Check: This is where you get the check ready and have it ready if the customer looks like they’re doing the “eat it and beat it” move (waiter’s dream come true) or bring the check when the customer finally asks for it or when you’re certain they are done by asking, “Is there anything else I can bring you?” or when the host really, really needs the table.

Take Payment & Process: This where you collect the payment and bring the customer their change, unless they have said, “Keep the change.”

Thank The Customer: This is where you act like you’re grateful for the fact that they have supported the restaurant where you are lucky enough to have a job and get paid peanuts, hopefully making enough money in tips to clothe yourself, feed yourself, keep a roof over your head and pursue your dreams.

Please Note: This guide does not cover waiting tables in a fine dining establishment. If you need a step by step guide for that style of service you may not be ready to work in a fine dining establishment. That said, I have been to such establishments where the service staff failed to bring the drinks, the food and the check, in that order and in good time so a few of them may need a refresher course too.

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