Eating out is all about the luxury of not having to cook or clean up afterwards – in other words, to relax and enjoy ourselves. So why can dining out with friends and family often cause stress, embarrassment – and even anxiety?
One reason is that we have differing views of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in a restaurant. “I lived in the US for 27 years, so my customer service expectations are a little higher than many of my British friends,” explains Toni, 57, from Surrey.
“I was recently in a restaurant with friends - when the waitress came up to take orders, I asked what the soup of the day was. She said she wasn't sure, and then stood waiting to take our orders. I politely asked her if she would go and find out, and she stomped off! My friends were giving me the ‘can't believe you just did that’ look.”
Henry, 61, from Wales, has had a similar experience but from the opposite perspective. “I have a friend who is quite outspoken, especially in restaurants. I’ve eaten out with her a few times and sat cringing at the table as she talks to the staff. She once asked the staff to cook her a dish without one of the vital ingredients and then marched into the kitchen to ‘show the chef how to do it’ when the waiter told her it couldn’t be done!”
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Splitting the bill between friends
Dining out can be one of the most stressful situations when it comes to our attitudes towards money and friendships, according to a recent study by Portafina. The research compiled the top five financial scenarios with friends that make us feel uncomfortable, and the top two involved eating out.
Splitting the bill at dinner was the most stressful situation, with 19% saying this made them feel uncomfortable, and choosing a reasonably-priced restaurant came a close second.
Nel, 54, from Cumbria, has learnt the hard way about the difficulties of paying for friends in restaurants. “I invited a friend to dinner, making it clear that it was ‘on me’ after cancelling a previous invitation,” she says.
“My friend ordered one of the most expensive bottles of wine on the menu and then left before the bill arrived, without offering to contribute. I felt this was quite inappropriate - if a friend was taking me out as a treat, I would leave it to them to choose a wine that suited their budget. Needless to say, we haven’t dined out together since!”
Differing drinking habits and diet choices can also make splitting the bill complicated. Unless you're visiting a restaurant with a set price for a lunch menu, you might find someone eating steak and drinking wine expecting to split the bill down the middle when others might have been on soft drinks and salad.
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5 top tips on dining out without the dilemmas
Follow our advice to think ahead and do your best to pre-empt any awkwardness…
1. Select the venue wisely
If you’re worried about the bill spiralling out of control, choose a bring-your-own restaurant so you can take wine along at a fraction of the price – or suggest lunch in a café to avoid the worry of drinks doubling the bill.
If friends have special dietary requirements or are fussy eaters, ask them to look at the menu before booking to make sure they have enough options.
2. Lay some ground rules
If you’re going out in a group, always agree in advance how the bill will be split. “Don't get petty over things like splitting half of a portion of fries. Someone should be the bigger person and take the hit!” says Manager of Restaurants and Bars at The Chester Grosvenor, Jaime McCormack. However, if one person has only had tap water while the rest enjoyed expensive wine, it’s polite to suggest they pay less – but always agree any ‘rules’ like this before ordering.
3. Have a strategic seating plan
If you’re concerned that a friend may be rude to staff, position yourself (and them) wisely. Sit at a point at the table where you can easily talk to the waiter and try to establish yourself as the main point of contact, so your friend has fewer opportunities to communicate with them.
4. Keep things light
Toni thinks that this is usually the best policy when friends ‘behave badly’. “If you're disagreeing about tipping, I think you have to make a semi joke about it and agree to meet half way,” she says.
5. Avoid a scene when the bill arrives
Try to be organised about who is paying what before staff arrive with a card machine. If you have been given the bill to look over then work out what you owe plus what you'll be paying for the tip before the waiter or waitress gets back. “Certainly, don't say 'I had a coke, a burger and a Sundae' and expect the waiter to know all the prices. That's unfair on them and on the other guests they are looking after,” says Jaime.
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