A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

54 Secrets Your Restaurant Server Isn’t Telling You

Updated: Jan. 30, 2024

What would servers from across the country tell you if they could get away with it? Well, for starters, when to go out, what not to order, what really happens behind the kitchen’s swinging doors, and what they think of you and your tips.


After a certain time, it’s all decaf

“In most restaurants, after 8 p.m. or so, all the coffee is decaf because no one wants to clean two different coffeepots. I’ll bring out a tray with 12 coffees on it and give some to the customers who ordered regular, others to the ones who ordered decaf. But they’re all decaf.”—Charity Ohlund, Kansas City waitress. Check out the things restaurant owners wish they could tell you.

Little boy eating slices of pizza
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We give kids lots of sugar

“We put sugar in our kids’ meals so kids will like them more. Seriously. We even put extra sugar in the dough for the kids’ pizzas.”—Waitress at a well-known pizza chain. Want to avoid waiters altogether? Visit the best buffets in all 50 states.


We lie to vegetarians

“If you’re a vegetarian and you ask if we use vegetable stock, I’m going to say yes, even if we don’t. You’ll never know the difference.” Find out the things servers won’t eat at their own restaurants.

African American business owner writing cafe specials on blackboard
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Watch out for the specials

“At a lot of restaurants, the specials are whatever they need to sell before it goes bad. Especially watch out for the soup of the day. If it contains fish or if it’s some kind of ‘gumbo,’ it’s probably the stuff they’re trying to get rid of.”—Kathy Kniss, who waited tables for ten years in Los Angeles. 

Healthy fresh tonic with lemon, ice cubes, soda in misted glass on pastel green color background, closeup, half, details, top.
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Avoid the lemons

“Now that I’ve worked in a restaurant, I never ask for lemon in a drink. Everybody touches them. Nobody washes them. We just peel the stickers off, cut them up, and throw them in your iced tea.”—Charity Ohlund.

Pizza slice with spilled chili flakes
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I can’t talk about calories

“If you ask me how many calories are in a particular dish, I’m not allowed to tell you even if I know. I’m supposed to say, ‘All that information is available online.'”—Waitress at a well-known pizza chain. Of course, since 2018, all chain restaurants with more than 20 locations have been required to list calorie counts on their menus, so if you’re at one of those establishments, the server will probably just tell you to look at the menu.


We’ll mess with your credit card

“I’ve never seen anybody do anything to your food, but I have seen servers mess with your credit card. If a server doesn’t like you, he might try to embarrass you in front of your business associate or date by bringing your credit card back and saying, ‘Do you have another card? This one didn’t go through.'”—Charity Ohlund. Learn the “polite” habits restaurant workers secretly dislike.

Gallons of Milk
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We don’t carry all those types of milk

“Skim milk is almost never skim milk. Very few restaurants outside Starbucks carry whole milk, 2 percent milk, skim milk, and half-and-half; it’s just not practical.”—Chris. And Starbucks has some secrets too; find out the secrets Starbucks employees won’t tell you.

Peppered thyme honey sauce top view
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Homemade doesn’t always mean homemade

“Some places buy salad dressings in one-gallon jars, then add a few ingredients, like a blue cheese crumble or fresh herbs, and call it homemade on the menu.”—Former waiter Jake Blanton. These are the things you shouldn’t do at restaurants during COVID.

Woman with herbal tea
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Please don’t ask for hot tea

“The single greatest way to get your waiter to hate you? Ask for hot tea. For some reason, an industry that’s managed to streamline everything else hasn’t been able to streamline that. You’ve got to get a pot, boil the water, get the lemons, get the honey, bring a cup and spoon. It’s a lot of work for little reward.”—Christopher Fehlinger, maître d’ at a popular New York City restaurant. Find out the ways your favorite restaurant might change after COVID.

Dollar banknotes and coins, money tips.
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Tips are pooled

“In many restaurants, the tips are pooled, so if you have a bad experience with the server, you’re stiffing the bartender who made your drinks, the water boy who poured your water, sometimes the hostess, the food runners, and maybe the other waiters.”—Christopher Fehlinger. Here are some handy tips for how to tip in every situation.


Eggs are normally made from powder

“Even at the best breakfast buffet in the world, 99 times out of 100, the big pan of scrambled eggs is made from a powder.”—Jake Blanton. In fact, there’s only one dish at McDonald’s that actually uses real eggs.

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It’s normally the kitchen’s fault

“People think that just because your food took a long time, it’s the server’s fault. Nine times out of ten, it’s the kitchen. Or it’s the fact that you ordered a well-done burger.”—Judi Santana

Ordering drinks
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We know when you’re having an affair

“When you’re with the woman who’s not your wife, you’re a lot nicer to us, probably because you know that we know it’s not your wife.”—Caroline Radaj, waitress at a members-only club outside Milwaukee. These are 15 things polite people don’t do in restaurants.

Business owner at the door of a cafe welcoming customers
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You’ll get rewarded for being a regular

“It’s much easier to be recognized as a regular on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays. Once you’re recognized as a regular, good things start to happen. You’ll find your wineglass gets filled without being put on your bill, or the chef might bring you a sample.”—Christopher Fehlinger. Check out these simple tips for saving money at restaurants.

Asian family dining and celebrating Mother's day or birthday
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Avoid certain days

“Avoid Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day like the black plague. It’s crazy busy, so they’re not going to be able to pay as much attention to quality. Plus, they bring out a special menu where everything is overpriced.”—Steve Dublanica.

Boy eats food while dad chats at patio restaurant
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Order for your kids

“If the restaurant is busy and your child is shy, please order for him. Kids can sit there forever trying to decide, or they whisper and you can’t hear them. Meanwhile, the people at the next table are yelling at you to come over.”—Derek Dudley, a waiter at a casual pizza restaurant in Phoenix.

Businessman signing the bill at restaurant
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Know how to tip

“The best tippers tend to be middle-class or people who have worked for everything they have, not the really wealthy or the kid who inherited the trust fund. Which is not to say that we mind if you use coupons. But when you do, tip on the amount the bill would have been without them.”—Judi Santana

Celebrating couple having a celebratory toast at a restaurant
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First dates are the best for tips

“First dates, especially blind Internet dates, are great for tips. You know he’ll probably order a bottle of wine and leave a 20 to 25 percent tip because he’s showing off.”—Jeremy Burton, waiter at a grill in southwest Michigan

Italian Seafood Pasta

Don’t order fish early in the week

“Don’t order fish on Sunday or Monday. The fish deliveries are usually twice a week, so Tuesday through Friday are great days. Or ask the restaurant when they get theirs.”—Steve Dublanica. Here are some more seafood facts that will change the way you eat.

Waitress talking to two businessmen at outside restaurant
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We can’t be honest about what we don’t like

“We’re not allowed to tell our customers we don’t like a dish. So if you ask your server how something is and she says, “It’s one of our most popular dishes,” chances are she doesn’t like it.

Multi-ethnic family shopping for Christmas, having a break in a restaurant
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I’ll make you feel guilty if I work on a holiday

“On Christmas Day, when people ask why I’m there, I might say, My sister’s been in the hospital, or, my brother’s off to war, so we’re celebrating when he gets back. Then I rake in the tips.”—Chris, a New York City waiter and the founder of bitterwaitress.com


We cover when our coworkers want to go have a quick smoke

“If you’re looking for your waiter and another waiter tells you he’s getting something out of the stockroom, you can bet he’s out back having a quick smoke.”—Charlie Kondek, former waiter at a Denny’s in Central Michigan.

cocktail in the bar
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We don’t like complicated drinks

“If someone orders a frozen drink that’s annoying to make, I’ll say, ‘Oh, we’re out. Sorry!’ when really I just don’t want to make it. But if you order water instead of another drink, suddenly we do have what you originally wanted because I don’t want to lose your drink on the bill.”—Waitress at a casual Mexican restaurant in Manhattan. These are the most overpriced foods you can order at a restaurant.

Stack Of Plates And Spoons
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We do snack on the food

“When I was at one bakery restaurant, they used to make this really yummy peach cobbler in a big tray. A lot of times, servers don’t have time to eat. So we all kept a fork in our aprons, and as we cruised through the kitchen, we’d stick our fork in the cobbler and take a bite. We’d use the same fork each time.”—Kathy Kniss

Chef With Tattoos Ladling Soup Into Bowls
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We’ll trick you into thinking we made your soup hotter

“If you make a big fuss about sending your soup back because it’s not hot enough, we like to take your spoon and run it under really hot water, so when you put the hot spoon in your mouth, you’re going to get the impression—often the very painful impression—that your soup is indeed hot.”—Chris

Close-Up Of Hands Cutting Into Steak Served On Plate With Fries
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We do still serve dirty food

I’ve seen some horrible things done to people’s food: steaks dropped on the floor, butter dipped in the dishwater.

Slice of strawberry cheesecake
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We sometimes import our homemade goods

“If your dessert says ‘homemade,’ it probably is. But it might be homemade at a bakery three miles away.”—Charity Ohlund

Triple Layer Chocolate Caramel Cake
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We’ll charge you $10 for one slice of a $10 cake

“I knew one guy—he was a real jerk—he’d go to Costco and buy this gigantic carrot cake for $10 and tell us to say it’s homemade. Then he sold it for $10 a slice.”—Steve Dublanica, veteran New York waiter


Don’t be rude about water

“Oh, you needed more water so badly, you had to snap or tap or whistle? I’ll be right back—in ten minutes.”—Charity Ohlund. Yeah, treating the server like that is one of the rude restaurant behaviors you seriously need to stop.

Abandoned buffet dinner table after eating
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Please leave when you’re done eating

“We want you to enjoy yourself while you’re there eating, but when it’s over, you should go. Do you stay in the movie theater after the credits? No.”

A glass of water served on table in an outdoor restaurant against beautiful sunlight
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If you’re a large party, don’t order waters for everyone

“My biggest pet peeve? When I walk up to a table of six or seven people and one person decides everyone needs water. I’m making a trip to deliver seven waters, and four or five of them never get touched.”—Judi Santana, a server for ten years

Two margaritas with lime wedges and salted glasses
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We’ll give you things ‘on the house’ to get better tips

Sometimes, if you’ve been especially nice to me, I’ll tell the bartender, “Give me a frozen margarita, and don’t put it in.” That totally gyps the company, but it helps me because you’ll give it back to me in tips, and the management won’t know the difference.

Businessman Listening To Colleagues Over Lunch At Restaurant Table
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We love to eavesdrop

“If you’re having a disagreement over dinner and all of a sudden other servers come by to refill your water or clear your plates, or you notice a server slowly refilling the salt and pepper shakers at the table next to yours, assume that we’re listening.”—Charity Ohlund

Female chef enjoying cooking
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We know you’re not that close with the chef

“I get this call all the time: ‘Is the chef there? This is so-and-so. I’m a good friend of his.’ If you’re his good friend, you’d have his cell.”—Chris. These are the foods chefs never order at restaurants.

Clothes Hanging On Rack In Store
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We’ve been asked to do strange things

“The strangest thing I’ve seen lately? A man with a prosthetic arm asked me to coat check it because the table was a little bit crowded. He just removed his arm and handed it to me: ‘Can you take this?'”—Christopher Fehlinger

Boy feeding pizza to father in restaurant
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High maintenance families are the worst

“We always check the reservation book, scan the names, and hope for someone recognizable. I’m happy if the notes say something like ‘Previous number of reservations: 92.’ If they say something like ‘First-time guest, celebrating Grandma’s 80th birthday, need two high chairs, split checks, gluten allergy,’ then I start rummaging through my pockets for a crisp bill for the hostess and I make sure to tell her how much I love her hair fixed like that.”—Charity Ohlund

Happy couple enjoying lunch on a lovely day and ordering something to the waitress
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Use my name

“Use your waiter’s name. When I say, ‘Hi, my name is JR, and I’ll be taking care of you,’ it’s great when you say, ‘Hi, JR. How are you doing tonight?’ Then, the next time you go in, ask for that waiter. He may not remember you, but if you requested him, he’s going to give you really special service.”—JR, waiter at a fine-dining restaurant and author of the blog servernotslave.wordpress.com

Man signing bill
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Please take home the right receipt

“If you walk out with the slip you wrote the tip on and leave behind the blank one, the server gets nothing. It happens all the time, especially with people who’ve had a few bottles of wine.”—Judi Santana. Find out if you should tip at restaurants more in a post- (or during-) COVID world.

Hispanic man ordering food at diner
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Don’t tease us

“If you say, ‘Don’t worry—I’m a really good tipper,’ that always means you aren’t.”—Chris

Creamy Fettucini with Peas and Parmesan
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We can tell when you don’t eat out often

“When you say, ‘I’ll have the pasta Alfredo,’ it tells me two things: You aren’t interested in trying new things, and you don’t eat out much. Restaurants put this dish on their menus because it’s ‘safe,’ it sells, and it’s cheap to make.”—JR

Portrait of female restaurant worker
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Trust your waitress

“Say something like ‘Hey, it’s our first time in. We want you to create an experience for us. Here’s our budget.’ Your server will go crazy for you.”—Charity Ohlund

Salad from tomatoes, cucumber, red onions and lettuce leaves. Healthy summer vitamin menu. Vegan vegetable food. Vegetarian dinner table. Top view. Flat lay
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The salads sit

“At one restaurant where I worked, the salads were made up to three days earlier. They were sitting on a tray with a thousand other salads in the refrigerator. The waiters went back, grabbed a plate and some dressing, and handed it to the customer.”—Jake Blanton.

Waiter picking up dishes in kitchen at restaurant
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If you don’t like something, send it back

“If you don’t like something, don’t muddle your way through it like a martyr and then complain afterward. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it. Send it back and get something else.”—Christopher Fehlinger


Check on the ingredients

Ask what’s in your smoothie. A lot of restaurants use half-and-half. So you think you’re ordering a healthy strawberry-banana smoothie, but it’s really full of fat. Learn some more “healthy” foods that nutritionists don’t touch.

Let me pour that for you...
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Watch when I pour water

“Watch out for what I call the touchdown. That’s when the waiter comes around to refill your water and the pitcher actually touches your glass. If he’s touching all the other glasses with the same pitcher, think about all those germs.”—Jake Blanton

Pensive Caucasian woman holding paperwork in restaurant
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Ask to speak to the owner, not the manager

“If you’re having a problem, speak to the owner if you can. Managers may have very little power. They’re less likely to comp a meal, and most aren’t authorized to give away free alcohol. They’ll also take it out on the server if you have problems.”—Kathy Kniss

A modern public restroom interior example
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The bathroom is a good judge of cleanliness

If you’re worried about cleanliness, check out the bathroom. If the bathroom is gross, you can be sure the kitchen is much worse. The state of the bathroom is just one of the signs you’re eating at a bad restaurant.

Enjoying Food
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It can help you get a job in the future

“When I’m hiring, I always look for someone who’s spent some time as a waiter. What I learned waiting tables was far more valuable than anything I learned in college as far as how to interact with the human race.”—Jim Sheehan, former stockbroker and waiter who now owns a successful IT consulting firm


We like doing nice things for our customers

“Once on Mother’s Day, this older lady came in alone and told me that her kids weren’t able to be with her that year, but they had mailed her a gift card. So I told my manager that we had to make this an exceptional experience for her. I told her to come back with a friend some time and use her gift card because tonight, her meal was on us. We comped her dinner, and I sat with her through dessert while she told me about her kids. My coworkers were happy to cover my other tables for 15 minutes. The woman told me she would remember that dinner forever.”—Melissa McCracken, longtime waitress in Hawaii

Businessman placing an order with waiter at hotel restaurant
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Watch out for this server lingo

Drive-by: Finding an excuse, such as refilling the water glasses or clearing plates, to stop by a particular table. “You’ve got to do a drive-by on the woman at table 22. She’s hot.”

Upsell: Swaying diners to order more than they normally would or to order a higher-priced item, driving up the bill and hence the tip. Customer: “I’d like a gin and tonic, please.” Waiter: “Bombay Sapphire?”

Camper: A diner who hangs around too long after he’s eaten. Restaurants typically allot about 50 minutes for lunch and up to 90 minutes for dinner, depending on the type of restaurant. You can make up for camping by leaving a bigger tip. Here are some other little dining etiquette rules for eating in a restaurant.

Furious client couple get mad about cafe bad service
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Think twice about being rude to your waiter

CEOs say the way a potential employee treats a waiter offers insight into that person’s character and ability to lead, according to an article in USA Today.

"Restaurant worker handing young couple bill, mid section"
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Check, please

Studies indicate that waiters can boost their tips by: lightly touching the customer, crouching next to the table, introducing themselves by name, and—believe it or not—drawing a smiley face on the check.

Sommelier serving red wine in luxury hotel bar
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Know your wine

“If you order a Zinfandel and I ask, ‘Red or white?’ and you look at me with an annoyed face and say, ‘Pink,’ I go tell the other servers and we laugh.”—Charity Ohlund. Prefer quick meals to a sit-down dinner? Find out the secrets fast-food workers aren’t telling you, too.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest