Restaurant Secrets Your Server Wishes They Could Tell You

Whether you’re dining at your favorite restaurant or visiting a new place, you’ve probably realized your server knows a lot more than you do about what’s going on behind the scenes. And if you want the lowdown on the juiciest restaurant secrets, it’s probably your server who knows what’s up. Your server might want to tell you to stop making surprisingly inconvenient requests — such as asking to move tables or split the check a zillion ways — but they probably also wish they could tell you a few restaurant secrets.

Read on to check out some of the things your server wishes you knew about your favorite restaurant.

1. Many restaurants prefer you make a reservation by phone

young woman in trendy clothes talks on a smart phone
Making a reservation? One of the most interesting restaurant secrets says many prefer you call instead of make an online reservation. |

If you want to increase your chances of getting the very best service, start by making your reservation the right way. Some high-end restaurants have stopped taking reservations altogether. (At least in part it’s to eliminate the problem of no-shows.) But if your restaurant of choice does take reservations, pick up the phone. Apps, such as OpenTable, charge restaurants a fee and are otherwise pretty customer-centric. When you call to make a reservation, you seem more invested and less likely to flake. 

2. Your server isn’t the only person on staff you can tip

Cheerful couple
If the host helped you with your reservation, you can tip them, too. | Studio

Let’s say you’ve made your reservation. And you’ve shown up about five minutes early — the amount of time the Spruce recommends in its rundown of reservation etiquette. You probably plan to tip your server generously at the end of your meal. But did you know your waiter or waitress isn’t the only one you should tip?

Tipping policies vary from restaurant to restaurant. But if you’ve made a reservation — particularly on a busy night or holiday — you might want to tip the host or headwaiter. You should also always thank each staff member with whom you interact. That’s not only a polite way to show your appreciation, but it will also make a good impression and ensure you stellar service in the future. 

3. You might need to make an off-hour reservation

African american woman eating pizza
One of the best restaurant secrets for getting a table at a popular spot? You might need to give up the idea of eating at the most popular time of the evening. | m-imagephotography

If you’ve spent weeks trying to get a reservation at incredibly popular new restaurant, the servers who work at the establishment would probably be happy to let you in on one of the worst-kept restaurant secrets: You might need to resort to an off-hour reservation to get in the door. The New York Times recommends settling for “5:30 p.m. — great if you have children — or 10:30 p.m. if you’re not famished by then” if you just can’t get a table at prime time. At a restaurant filled with celebrities, A-listers, and affluent regulars, it’s probably your best bet to get a table. 

4. Many restaurants overbook their dining rooms

Two women sitting at cafe holding menu card giving an order to male waiter.
A reservation doesn’t always guarantee a table will be ready and waiting for you. | iStock.comjacoblund

Think a reservation guarantees a table will be waiting for you when you arrive? Wrong. Hosts and servers at many popular restaurants likely wish more customers knew restaurants often overbook. They hope to have just enough no-shows that the dining room is full, but nobody has to wait a long time for a table. Sometimes it works. Other times it doesn’t. Even if you make a reservation, you might still need to wait a few minutes. Just don’t take it out on your server, who has no control over the reservation policy. 

5. Your looks probably determine where you get seated

Female friends smiling and laughing With Each Other.
Like it or not, more attractive customers get the best tables. |

At many restaurants it’s tough to get a table at all, to say nothing of trying to get the best table in the house. As Thrillist reports, most restaurants seat the best-looking customers at the best table in a phenomenon called “the golden table.” Typically, that table resides in a very visible spot in the restaurant, often at the front of the dining room or at the window.

Attractive customers draw in more business because everyone wants to associate themselves with other people who look attractive and cool. If you get seated at the most prominent table in the house, your server might want to let you in on the secret — though the opposite is probably true if you end up with a table in the back. 

6. The menu was probably designed to get you to spend more

Young couple
A restaurant’s menu probably uses design very carefully to get you to spend more. |

When your server hands you your menu, they might already know what you’re going to order. That’s because menus are designed to influence your decisions and often to get you to spend more money.

Designers use red type, for instance, to get you to purchase the highest-margin items. They place expensive items in the middle of the menu, where your eye naturally goes first. Sometimes, they place a more expensive item at the top of the menu to make everything else look like a bargain by comparison. Plus, they take away the dollar sign to encourage you to spend up to 30% more. 

7. You should always think carefully before ordering the daily special

restaurant secrets
Considering the daily special? You might want to choose something else. |

The specials you see on the blackboard or hear your server rattle off sound, well, special. But your server would likely advise you to pick something else if they could share their honest opinion. The reason why? Chefs often come up with specials to use leftover and surplus ingredients that would otherwise go to waste. Those ingredients — meats, vegetables, or even a sauce — have often passed their prime. If an expensive ingredient sounds like it’s playing second fiddle to something a lot more mundane, that’s a sure sign you should pass up the special, and order something that has a permanent place on the menu. 

8. The wait isn’t your server’s fault

Hungry woman holding knife and fork
No matter what’s keeping your food, it’s not your server’s fault. |

Whether you’re at a hip urban restaurant or the kind of chain you can find in any suburb across the U.S., your server bears the brunt of everybody’s complaining if the drinks are late or the food takes forever to arrive. But contrary to what many restaurant patrons assume, those delays aren’t the server’s fault. The host could have seated two tables in your server’s section almost simultaneously. The bar could be short-staffed. Or the kitchen might be backed up. Most servers will grin and bear it when you ask them whether your food will be ready soon. But they’re probably itching to tell you it’s not their fault when things run behind schedule.

9. Your server wants you to enjoy your meal — then get on with your evening

Waitress Takes Payment For Restaurant Bill
It sounds pretty obvious. But one of the most overlooked restaurant secrets is your server wants you to get going, so they can turn over your table. |

Everyone at the restaurant — the chef, the host, and your server — wants you to enjoy your meal. But they’d prefer you do it in a timely manner. There’s no reason to take an hour to order, eat your meal as slowly as humanly possible, and then linger over drinks well into the evening.

Your server wants to turn over your table, so they can get more customers — and tips — during their shift. They want you to enjoy your meal and have a great experience at the restaurant. They just don’t want their pay to take a hit while you take your time. 

10. Cheap wine is just about always a poor value

Couple having dinner
Looking at the wine list? Pay attention to these restaurant secrets on which wines are a good value and which never are. | Studio

If your server could let you in on one of the biggest restaurant secrets, they’d tell you not to order any of the cheapest bottles on the wine list. The cheapest bottles often carry incredibly high markups. Surprisingly, the restaurant’s more expensive bottles are often a better value. But you can still find a reasonably priced wine without exceeding your budget.

Serious Eats reports the best values usually fall in the medium price range. GQ recommends checking out the wine list before you head to the restaurant, memorizing good vintage years from regions you like, and being strategic about your conversation with the sommelier. That way, you’ll be able to find a great wine at a good value. 

11. Want something fresh? At chain restaurants, many items arrive frozen

riends Enjoying Evening Meal In Restaurant
At many chain restaurants, your food isn’t as fresh as you think it is. |

Think the bread and the desserts at chain restaurants get prepared fresh daily? Wrong. Many foods — from the bread sticks you eat with your salad to the pies that tempt you from the refrigerator case for dessert — arrive at the restaurant pre-made and often frozen.

Nobody goes to Chili’s or T.G.I. Friday’s for the best fresh, homemade food. But if your server could share those restaurant secrets, it might surprise you to hear just how much of your food came out of a bag or a frozen carton — or how many of the “homemade” desserts on display actually came from Costco. 

12. The restaurant is probably overcharging for some items — especially ones kids like

One of the least surprising restaurant secrets? Restaurants overcharge for many menu items, such as pizza and pasta. |

Another of the biggest restaurant secrets is just how many items on the menu are overpriced. It especially happens with simple comfort foods your kids are likely to want. Pizza, for instance, costs the restaurant very little to make. But you’ll often pay a premium — particularly if you want to add toppings or customize the pie to your preferences. Appetizers, such as mozzarella sticks and fried pickles, also cost the restaurant very little but can add a lot to your bill.

And even meals that might take some time to prepare, such as pasta and omelets, often cost the restaurant so little in ingredients that you’re paying a ridiculous premium for something you could probably make at home.

13. If you’re in a hurry, you can ask for the check when you order

Calling the waitress
Instead of worrying about calling your server, you can ask for the check when you order. |

When you really, truly don’t have a lot of time to spare, you might not want to eat at a sit-down restaurant. But if you do find yourself in that situation, there’s an easy way to take the pressure off. Just ask for the check right after you order. It’s not one of the most exciting restaurant secrets. But it does offer an easy way for you and your server to feel more relaxed. If you have your check already on the table, you’ll spend less of your meal worrying about the time. And you’ll be less tempted to repeatedly flag down the server to ask when your food will arrive. 

14. That ‘healthy’ meal you ordered isn’t healthy at all

Chef in restaurant kitchen cooking
A seemingly healthy meal might have more calories than you think. |

Most servers aren’t nutritionists. And they probably aren’t judging your diet. But they do know what goes into your food. Many of the meals you assume are healthy aren’t at all. A chicken salad, for instance, sounds like a light and health-conscious meal. However, if it comes with a giant serving of chicken, a ramekin full of dressing, and tons of nuts, cheese, and fatty toppings, it might pack in just as many calories as a burger.

Most restaurants don’t want their servers offering nutrition advice. But your server might wish you’d check the nutritional data for that “healthy” meal you’re ordering.

15. Even if you’re a vegetarian, your meal might not be

dinner at a restaurant
Even a meal without meat in it might not be strictly vegetarian. |

Another of the most annoying restaurant secrets for people trying to maintain a strict diet? A dish that sounds vegetarian might not actually be 100% vegetarian. The chef might use chicken stock when preparing your vegetable soup, for instance. A vegetable pot pie might actually have lard in its crust. Chefs often make cornbread with lard, too. You can ask your server to find out exactly what goes into a dish — or you can operate under the assumption that what you don’t know won’t hurt you.