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Restaurant etiquette

Hannah Jolliffe / 20 June 2019 ( 07 July 2021 )

What are the most important dos and don’ts when it comes to dining out?

In a restaurant with friends
Don't let worrying about small things get in the way of enjoying a meal out with friends and family

Eating out with friends and family should be an enjoyable, relaxed experience for everyone. But it only takes a small hiccup to change the mood entirely. From tap water and doggy bags, to complaining and splitting the bill, what is acceptable and what isn’t?

Behaviour basics

“There are absolutely 'no-no's' that people should remember when eating out,” says Manager of Restaurants and Bars at The Chester Grosvenor, Jaime McCormack. “However, be aware that these may vary depending on the establishment.”

Splitting a dish

“Asking the kitchen to 'split' a dish is more than acceptable in restaurants selling burgers/burritos etc,” Jaime explains. “But when the level of cooking is more refined, the presentation of the dish is paramount and something that the kitchen takes immense pride in.”

Asking for tap water

If you’re dining in a licensed restaurant (one that serves alcohol) then you are legally entitled to free tap water. Even in higher-end establishments, you shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask says two Michelin-starred chef, Claude Bosi of Bibendum. “I don’t have a problem with it at all, I often ask for tap water,” says Claude. “Customers should feel comfortable in drinking what they wish.”

Doggy bags

When it comes to taking uneaten food home with you, most restaurants are happy to oblige, and often have containers ready to package up your food. However, there are some things to be aware of. “I think in principle it makes sense as you’ve paid for it, but there are some dishes that just don’t work for take out,” says Claude. If you’re unsure, have a discreet chat to the manager to ask their advice.

Ordering house wine

“If everyone would like wine, choose a bottle that goes with most dishes or suggest your guests order their preference by the glass,” advises Michael Cole, former director of Harrods (with 32 restaurants) and former BBC Royal correspondent. Don’t be embarrassed to order the house wines – they have been selected because the restaurant thinks they are good. Michael agrees: “Go for the ‘house’ wine rather than the second cheapest on the list because it’s bound to be better.”

Taking photos of food

Instagram feeds are full of beautifully-presented plates of food – but do restaurants mind you snapping away at the table? “Not at all - dining out is one of the best things to do, why wouldn’t you want to capture those moments?” says Claude. “I’m amazed at the quality of some cameras phones and have seen some beautiful images of my dishes!”

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Money matters

Money can be a difficult subject to approach, especially if you don’t have the same level of income as your friends. If you shudder at the task of choosing a suitable restaurant or splitting the bill, don’t worry – you’re not alone.

A recent study by pensions advice specialists, Portafina, looked at our attitudes towards money and friendships and found that two of the top five financial scenarios with friends that make us uncomfortable involved eating out. Topping the list was splitting the bill at dinner, with 19% saying this made them feel uncomfortable, and a further 17% felt the same about choosing a reasonably priced restaurant to dine at.

So how can you avoid offending loved ones at the dining table? Plan ahead and choose by consensus - suggest two or three restaurants to suit different budgets and then go with the majority.

If you are inviting guests to a restaurant, make it clear if you intend to pay, or if you will be splitting the bill, to avoid any awkwardness when the bill arrives. Try to be organised about how the bill will be split before the waiter comes to take your money.

Read our guide to dining out with friends

Show a little respect

Your meal will be much more enjoyable if you get on well with the staff – and that includes how well you treat them.

How to complain

“Restaurant staff generally work hard, long hours, usually at the lower end of the pay scale and in a stressful environment,” says chef Stuart Ralston, and owner of Aizle restaurant in Edinburgh. “If your steak isn’t quite how you like it, spare a thought for the person who served or cooked it - they deserve to be spoken to with respect even if your meal wasn’t up to scratch.”


Always tell the restaurant if you can’t make it, says Jaime: “Don't do a 'no-show'. It's rude, disrespectful and you're playing with people's livelihoods.”

For more advice on dining out dos and don’ts, see our guide to tipping in restaurants

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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