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An insider’s guide to restaurant etiquette

Restaurant etiquette tips from Coco's Cantina co-owner Damaris Coulter

Coco’s Cantina, joint runner-up for Best City Bistro in the 2015 Metro Restaurant of the Year awards, is a much beloved Auckland institution. Co-owner Damaris Coulter shares her tips on restaurant etiquette:

I think the badly behaved dining persona comes from what people have seen in the movies. An 80s Wall St customer who is always right, who thinks of their waiter as a slave to be belittled and ridiculed. Our life philosophy doesn’t allow this. As Leonard Cohen says, ‘We are so lightly here’ and we believe we are all equals. Money and status does not elevate you nor make you better than the next person. And it certainly doesn’t make a diner better than their waiter.

It’s not that we don’t appreciate feedback, it’s just that we have created something we love and we are inviting others to come in to experience our vision. That requires you to let go of what you may expect or want, and merely enjoy. This is hard for people. They might want it to be quieter, more well lit, or they might want us to serve San Pellegrino water instead of Antipodes. Some customers want you to be more formal and not call them ‘hun’ while others are put out that we don’t take their coats. The list is endless! It is therefore an impossible task catering to what every individual wants from a restaurant.

American chef and restaurateur Mario Batali says every time he goes to a restaurant, he says to the waiter, “I want to experience what this restaurant does here… how can I help you give me a great time tonight?” I love this because it highlights that this man wants to adapt to their environment and he wants to have a great time. This is our perfect kind of diner – someone who comes to our restaurant with an open mind, someone who wants to eat, relax, enjoy the company they are with. Someone who is wanting to be with mankind.

Unfortunately it doesn’t always happen like this, as humans can have a bad day, they can be hungry or angry or just not very nice. At Coco’s Cantina we are lucky; most of our customers are well seasoned and polite diners. But don’t get me wrong, we have had our fair share of angry, awkward, finger clicking and controlling people. My advice to them is to try to remember we are not mind-readers. Let us know if you have a concert, an airport run or have to get back to the babysitter by 8pm because we can advise you on how long the food will take – which is better than you getting upset because you think it is taking too long.

After a few months of being open, we were so tired of reprimanding people who wanted to change our way of doing things that it was easier and less confrontational to put up a few signs as casual reminders. It started with ‘Be Kind’ scrawled on a blackboard. Then our staff T-shirts promoted the ‘Be Kind’ ideal in the hope that subliminally it would
be harder for a diner to kick off at a waiter.

The restrooms carry posters stating, “A person who is nice to you, but not nice to the waiter, is not a nice person.” Some diners think we walk in at 5pm, flick on the lights and start serving. But we’re working from the early hours cleaning, writing menus, sourcing goods, cooking, and prepping so the evening will run smoothly. Once the doors open it’s no different. There is a lot happening which the diner might not see.

While cooking and serving a restaurant, we’ll be making sure you are safe because security is always an issue when there is alcohol and humans involved. We’ll be keeping the bathrooms clean because when people use public toilets, it seems their hygiene goes out the window, and we will be catering for allergies, birthday cakes and wheelchair access. We will be getting a tissue for the lady on table 9 whose husband has just walked off, soaking someone’s top in soda water because they spilt their red wine while telling an animated story, and sneaking a piece of nougat into your bag because we heard your nana died.

The point is, we’re on your side. We want you to have a good night, and eat good food. We want you to laugh, joke, feel merry and relaxed, and most of all we want you to connect so you can feel part of what we have created.

From the editors at NEXT.