Ask The Salty Waitress: Can I Complain When Our Food Doesn't Arrive All At Once?

Dear Salty,

I've taught my kids that we don't start eating until everyone is served. With that in mind, why do restaurants bring our meals so haphazardly? This seems to be happening more and more often: Four of us go out to dinner and two or three of the meals arrive more or less at the same time and one, maybe two of the meals, arrive five or more minutes later. Yes, these delays come with the requisite "your food will be right out" but that doesn't change the fact that those who have been served either start eating before everyone has their food (and those not served get to watch) and/or some of us are forced to wait until everyone else is served and eat our dinner cold.

Just so you know, I'm not talking about "I couldn't carry everything at once I'll be back with the rest of the food in a minute." I'm talking about two of us getting served and the others getting their dinner 7 to 10 minutes later. I'm not sure if it matters who is at fault here—the kitchen, I presume, not the server. And I don't take it out of the server by tipping less than 20 percent when this happens. What I do, though, is not return to the restaurant when this happens a second time. Any advice? Do we forego our manners or our hot food? Complain to the manager? What good would it do, unless the manager has a time machine?

Not a fan of cold food


Dear Not A Fan, Nothing grinds my gears when I'm out to eat like cold food that isn't supposed to be cold. I want my lasagna hot, dang it, otherwise I'd be scarfing leftovers out of my fridge right now. Combine that attitude with good old-fashioned manners, like waiting for everyone to be served before you eat, and you're in quite the pickle, my friend. Some might say that people should ignore the "out-of-date" etiquette about waiting until everyone has their food before starting to eat, but I don't think that's fair. It sucks to wait while other people are chowing down, and it's also uncomfortable to be done eating long before everyone else.


So, what to do? I'm assuming this isn't happening to you at one of those new-fangled "small plates" places where the dishes come out all willy-nilly and it's like a gameshow surprise every time the server wanders over to your table. ("And now, behind door number two, your spring rolls!") If you're at a standard restaurant where everyone orders an entree, or an appetizer and an entree, you can reasonably expect the table's meals to be served at the same time. At restaurants where that's not the case, the servers will usually inform you that shared plates will be served as they're prepared by the kitchen.

This is all to say that, yeah, when dishes are served more than two minutes apart, that's not okay. Without all the behind-the-scenes details, I'm inclined to think this is a case of the kitchen miscalculating the timing of dishes rather than the server's fault. (Though in some restaurants where I've worked, the server has to "fire" the next course once they've cleared the previous one. If a server forgot to fire half the order, I guess they could be to blame.) It's hard to generalize without knowing the specifics of your experience, so let's skip the drawn-out finger-pointing and talk about what you can do in this circumstance.


First, after it's been about three minutes of waiting, you can try to catch your server's eye—no snapping, please—and ask for the status of your other dishes. Second, if the wait time was especially lengthy, you can ask to talk to a manager. They might not be able to change the timing of the already-completed dinner, but it might alert them that there's a disconnect between the servers and the kitchen. Third, I wouldn't write a restaurant off completely based on one mistimed meal. If you enjoyed the food and the service otherwise, then it might have just been a horrible night in the kitchen that led to the poor timing. (You'd be amazed how calm the front of house can look while just behind the swinging doors, the kitchen is basically a war zone. And vice-versa.)

If this happens more than once at the same restaurant, though, you have my permission to write them off your list—and to blame the small plates trend.

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