12 Restaurant Etiquette Rules We’d All Really Like Everyone to Follow (Please?)

From tipping to table setup, the U.S. has some restaurant norms that vary a great deal from other places in the world.
Updated April 3, 2023
smiling woman sitting in restaurant with friends

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Everyone loves to dine out. Yes, in a time of high inflation, it can make sense to look for ways to save money on groceries so you can prepare your own cheaper meals at home. But eating out at a restaurant is still a neat treat.

Before you head to your favorite eatery, remember the general etiquette rules that apply across the board when dining out in the U.S. — whether you’re indulging in fine dining or hitting up the local barbecue joint.

Keep in mind the following 12 restaurant etiquette rules everyone should follow.

Don’t cut your waiter off

Drazen/Adobe happy waiter setting the table for lunch to a couple in a restaurant

When waiters are introducing themselves or rattling off the specials for the day, don’t cut them off mid-sentence with your order.

Even if you’ve been to a restaurant before and know what you like, it’s inconsiderate to interrupt waiters who are just trying to do their job. Plus, the restaurant may be offering a special that day that you would like. So, listen up.

Don’t skip (or skimp) on tipping

New Africa/Adobe woman putting tips into glass jar on wooden table

In the U.S., the idea that you should only tip when you receive the best service no longer applies. Recent research suggests that up to 60% of wait staff wages come from tipping.

That means skipping (or skimping) on the tip is quite the slap in the face to these workers, many of whom are probably trying to move beyond living paycheck to paycheck.

How much is generally acceptable as a tip varies from place to place and depends on the type of establishment. However, in a sit-down restaurant where you have a waiter, a 20% tip usually works across the board.

Wait to be seated (unless otherwise noted)

bzzup/Adobe Wait to be seated sign at the restaurant

While some sit-down restaurants may have a “sit wherever you want” policy, most expect you to wait for a host to seat your party.

Also, if you’re meeting several other people for a meal, it’s considered good etiquette to wait for the entire party to arrive before you sit down. Some restaurants may even require this.

Don’t shout to get a waiter’s attention

Drazen/Adobe customer calling waiter at the restaurant

There are other parts of the world where it is completely acceptable (and even encouraged) to shout to get your server’s attention in a restaurant. However, this is generally considered bad manners in the U.S.

Your waiters will likely regularly look over to check if you are done or nearing the end of your meal. Making eye contact or nodding in their direction will let them know to come over.

If you’re at a very busy restaurant or your waiter is nowhere to be found, it’s OK to head to the front of the restaurant and let the host or manager know you’d like your bill.

Don’t try and take food home from a buffet

waranyu/Adobe People getting food from a buffet

Buffets are great. They come in plenty of different varieties and give patrons the opportunity to sample a large array of foods they may not otherwise order.

With that being said, it’s also generally bad etiquette — and perhaps against the restaurant’s rules — to bring any sort of container into a buffet and fill it up with food to bring home.

Keep personal items off the table

Olga Tkacheva/Adobe Phone on top of the restaurant table along with hands and beverage

Yes, this includes your phone. No matter who you are dining with, it’s considered rude to be consistently on your phone during a meal.

It’s also a good idea to keep other personal items — like purses, keys, or wallets — off the table. That way, the wait staff has room to place your meal and drinks.

In most cases, don’t send wine back

WavebreakMediaMicro/Adobe male bar tender pouring wine in glasses
Etiquette experts recommend that patrons avoid sending glasses of wine back unless the drink is especially awful.

In higher-end restaurants, your server typically will give you a splash of wine to sample before filling a glass. This would be the time to note that you would like to try something different.

Place your napkin in your lap

zinkevych/Adobe dad putting napkin on top of  daughter's lap

When you sit down at a restaurant — or at least before you begin eating — place your linen napkin on your lap. If you were only given a paper napkin, it’s fine to leave it on the table.

Linen napkins can also be placed back on the table after you finish eating to let your waiter know you are done.

Let the waiter know how you will pay in advance

Monkey Business/Adobe waitress takes payment for restaurant bill on digital tablet

If you plan to cover the cost of dinner for your whole party, it’s a good idea to let the staff know beforehand so there is no confusion when it comes time to pay the bill.

The same goes for if your table plans to split the bill. Most restaurants now can easily split costs by entree, but it’s courteous to make sure you have this option before you actually order.

Place utensils on your plate when you are done

New Africa/Adobe Plate with leftover food fork and knife on top

Placing utensils on your plate is a good way to indicate to your waiter that you’re done eating, particularly if there is still food on your plate.

In U.S. restaurants, this is a much more subtle and socially acceptable move than shouting at a staff member to come and grab the plates.

Wait to eat until everyone is served

NDABCREATIVITY/Adobe Happy friends eating dinner

In some households, waiting until everyone has their dinner before you begin to eat is not the norm. However, in restaurants, it’s standard etiquette.

In most cases, staff will make an effort to try and get food to everyone at your table around the same time, so you won’t be waiting too long with food in front of you.

If you happen to be dining with business associates or others you don’t know very well, this rule is particularly important to avoid coming off as rude.

Don’t switch seats after ordering

Monkey Business/Adobe waitress serving group of young friends

Some waiters are blessed with an incredible memory, but others use a system so they can remember who ordered what when it’s time to bring your meal out. 

If you and the people you are dining with shuffle around the table, it’s going to be more difficult for waiters to do their job. If you have to switch seats around, do it before you order, and then stay put.

Bottom line

Joshua Resnick/Adobe Happy couple eating dinner at restaurant

The rules of dining out vary a great deal depending on where you are going, with some restaurants mandating things like dress code, reservations made in advance, or fixed menus that patrons have to choose their meals from.

In addition to the dozen general etiquette rules included here, it’s a good idea to look up any new restaurant you’ll be visiting online to see if there are any rules you should be aware of.

Also, remember that making restaurant meals a treat – rather than eating out all the time – is a great way to save money, especially in these trying economic times.

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Author Details

Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore is a seasoned freelance writer who also teaches writing courses at Rutgers University. She's based in Jersey City and enjoys travel, live music and, of course, spending quality time with her pup.

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