Your Dining Dilemmas Answered!

Dining Out

In 2010 Ipsos Reid and the Canadian Restaurant Food Association conducted a survey about the frequency of eating out by Canadians and the reasons why. Not surprisingly a main reason why people head out to eat is for the social interaction. Toronto has a superb restaurant scene that rivals all of the global heavy hitters. A friend of mine, and a serious world-traveler, recently said that what he loves most about dining-out in Toronto is that it’s possible to find cuisine from anywhere in the world in this city that is authentic. Not impostor food, or “melting pot” food, but the real-deal. Torontonians are mad for diversity and it shows not just in the streets but in the cuisine too.

But dining-out comes with responsibility. To answer ten of the most often discussed dining dilemmas is etiquette expert and founder of Orr Etiquette, Lisa Orr.

Plenty: What is the best way to approach food allergies/sensitivities and/or dislikes at a restaurant?

Lisa Orr: If you have allergies or sensitivities it is important to discuss them with the restaurant when you make your reservation to ensure that they can accommodate you. While many restaurants will do their best to be helpful, few can guarantee that there will not be cross contamination which can be very dangerous for those with severe allergies. On preferences, it’s best to review the menu prior to making the booking to ensure that there are options available that will work for you as many restaurants will not allow substitutions.

P: What is the etiquette when it comes to splitting the bill? How should it be divided – evenly? Ask the server to do it? How is the tip decided?

LO: Splitting the bill should really be decided when a meal is booked, otherwise the expectation is that the host or person who extended the invitation will pay.   If you have agreed to split – evenly is always the most diplomatic, squabbling over whose appetizer cost more can seem a little petty. Typically with new mobile payment terminals, the server can split the bill for you at the end of the meal when you request the tip but if your party is greater than two or if you are requesting separate bills you must speak with your server before the meal begins so that they are prepared. Finally you should expect to tip the same percentage on your half of the cheque.

Lisa Orr
A tip from Lisa: Don’t under estimate the power of a well-written, personal thank you note – even for business situations.

P: What is the best way to handle rude or noisy patrons at a restaurant? For example – a child who is running circles around your table, or a baby who is screaming at a fine-dining restaurant or the loud, obnoxious drunk at the table next to yours.

LO: If you are experiencing rude patrons you should not attempt to manage it yourself, instead you should let your server know that it’s an issue and inquire about what options are available. They may be able to reseat you in a quieter spot and/or speak with the offending patrons to improve their behaviour. Remember though that it can be a very delicate situation for your server so if they aren’t able to resolve the issue for you, you should politely ask to have the manager address the problem as the manager may be able to take a more significant action.

P: What about when it’s your server you’ve got issues with? No one wants to run the risk of a “surprise” in their soup, so what to do? What’s the best way to handle a server serving up more than just your appetizer?

LO: If you have a server that is being less than sunny, your first option is to win them over. We all have challenging days and servers are no exception and extending them a little additional kindness either with a compliment or some general friendliness may be just enough to change the tone of their meal. If you can’t resolve it that way, be as pleasant as possible during your meal and after you dine if you would like to eat there again you should speak with the manager to share your experience and give them a chance to correct the situation.

Lisa Orr
Lisa suggests that it valuable for people to schooled in etiquette so that they are able to better understand their own biases, learn where other people are coming from and build confidence when communicating with others to avoid potentially offensive communication blunders.

P: Accidents happen, but when a server spills red wine all over your new cream cashmere sweater, what to do?

LO: Be gracious. As awful as it is for you it’s horrific for your server. Ask if they can bring you a spare shirt so you have something to wear for your meal, I’m sure they will find something for you and then after they finish apologizing profusely and ask what they can do, if the sweater is cleanable which it likely will be suggest that they can get your dry-cleaning bill. If you think the sweater isn’t salvageable it may be better to take it up with the manager to discuss being compensated for a replacement.

P: Tapas and sharing plates are the “trend” du jour when it comes to dining. But there must be some rules when it comes to communal dishes, right?

LO: The key to communal dishes is to remember to share and to maintain good hygiene.   When taking items from the communal dish, don’t take too much of any one item so that everyone make have an opportunity to try the different items available. Also if they are items you are taking with your hands make sure your hands are clean and if you are using utensils make sure to take from the communal plate using serving utensils and only use your own utensils for your own meal.

P: We all have been out to dinner with “that” person – the one who is never happy. The table is not good enough. The chair is uncomfortable. The music too loud. The lights too dark. The food not right. The wine is off. The complainer. Before the appetizer arrives you’re dreading that you’ve accepted this dinner invitation. So, what to do?

LO: In this situation you’ll have to be polite enough for both of you and model appropriate behaviour for your dining guest. If they begin to complain to the server, instead you should find ways to compliment the server on their work and the meal. Also once you realize you have a whiner on your hands you should be proactively positive about the meal so that they realize their complaining isn’t welcome. Finally remember that this behaviour will likely not improve for future outings so you may choose to find a different dining partner in future.

P: Cutlery. What are the rules? Some people say that there are no longer rules, that those are stuffy and old fashion, yet, there is something to be said for elegance at the table.

LO: Cutlery rules are complex and can vary by culture. For example when using a soup spoon, the spoon may be held in either hand depending on your handedness but should always be spooned away from you and should be held lightly between the thumb and third finger not gripped with the entire hand. Having a comprehensive understanding of how to use cutlery and how to navigate your place setting shows you have a respect for your host and the meal that you are sharing.

P: Teaching children the importance of dining out etiquette – why is this crucial to the survival of the human species? Yes – I do think it’s that serious.

LO: Teaching children how to enjoy a civilized meal is crucial in every culture because you are teaching them how they should expect to behave as adults. As adults we are expected to behave appropriately at meals with others and when these skills are acquired as children they become second nature allowing children to be more confident in social dining environments.

P: Settle this once and for all, cell phones at the table – yay or nay?

LO: Cell phones do not form part of the place setting and they are not edible so they do not belong on the table. Phones should be off the table in purses or pockets on silent. The one exception to silent is if someone is on call and needs to be available urgently then they should let the table know in advance the situation and ensure that the group is comfortable that they leave their ringer on in the event of an emergency call – which they would excuse themselves from the table to take.


For Plenty More visit Lisa’s website. It’s a valuable resource offering etiquette tips for a variety of situations from How To Host The Perfect Dinner Party for Clients, The Dos and Don’ts Of The Slopes and How To Impress Potential Employers with Excellent Interview Etiquette.

Lisa Orr Lisa Orr is a renowned etiquette expert often featured on CTV’s The Social and Canada AM, and several print and online media outlets including The Huffington Post Blog. She founded Orr Etiquette in 2013. Lisa’s investment banker background coupled with her extensive training at the Etiquette Leadership Institute and the Protocol School of Washington provide the solid foundation for the varied services she offers her clients.

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