Be a Better Diner

Nici Wickes' guide to basic dining etiquette - no ponytail pulling involved


Coco’s Cantina sums it up well with their T-shirts and signs that carry the simple message to all: be kind. Picture / Instagram

When will diners in New Zealand realise they are not superior just because they are the people seated at the table instead of standing next to it?

I have a sneaking suspicion John Key is not alone this week in still not quite grasping how appalling his behaviour towards a waitperson was. Even though eating out is among New Zealanders’ favourite pastimes, many of us are still not very good at it.

Whether through genuine naivete, defensiveness, lack of awareness or blatant A-hole behaviour, incidents like this one “happen all the time”, say those in the hospo sector.

They also report that it is not okay. Whilst we’ve seen a fervent desire to educate ourselves about all things food and wine and know where all the best places to eat are, many of us still lag behind when it comes to dining etiquette which, to my mind, is essentially how to be at ease and not behave like a wanker.

I invite you to entertain the thought for one tiny moment that your version of having a laugh, or ‘‘horsing around’’ to use a phrase that recently was so misused, may range from being mildly frustrating or annoying to downright disrespectful and rude to the person trying to take your order, deliver an armful of coffees without spilling a drop or place a plateful of food between your elbows which are ungraciously planted on the table.

As one head chef, who’s seen enough front of house staff return to the kitchen frustrated and in tears because customers were being arseholes, pointed out, would you treat your mechanic or hairdresser with as little care and attention? 

Imagine going to your hairdresser but arriving late then insisting on moving the furniture around, not looking up from your magazine when they ask you what haircut you want and worse, not sitting still in order for them to do their job properly? Do you walk into your mechanics like you own the place and yours is the only car to be put up on blocks that day? I doubt it. 

But I can hear the cry go out from some corners that service in New Zealand is crap, but hang on, will treating staff like crap improve that? Unlikely. We need a paradigm shift and there’s no reason it can’t start with us, the diners, behaving in a manner that is more gentle, more forgiving, heck, more hospitable towards those who spend their days and nights choosing to serve.

Coco’s Cantina on K Rd sum it up well with their T-shirts and signs that carry the simple message to all: be kind.

If you think you need to sharpen up your dining skills, start with these basic steps:

1. Give waitstaff as much respect as you give fellow diners — you’re all in this together for the duration of the evening so you may as well get along.

2. Be alert to when your waitperson is standing tableside, chances are they are TRYING to do what they’re paid to do, ie, serve you, so give them your full attention and get it over with smoothly and efficiently then you can get back to being hilarious and they can get on with doing their job.

3. When your drinks or food arrives, if it’s not one of those places where they can remember exactly who ordered what, this is not the time to stare into space and expect the waitperson to read your mind. It’s the time to claim your goods — did you order the long black or not?

4. Try to imagine the staff are doing their best. Try to help them in that, not by proving how experienced at dining you are but by being open and friendly, hospitable, perhaps. You never know whether it’s someone’s first week on the job, their only means of supporting their studies or a family, or any number of scenarios. Be a kind human.

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New Zealand Herald

New Zealand Herald

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