‘We’ve changed and so have restaurants’: the new rules of dining out in Australia

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Steven Saphore/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Steven Saphore/AFP/Getty Images

The question that we, as diners, don’t ask ourselves enough is, “Am I being unreasonable?”

Sadly, a lot of reliable, old-school restaurants are choosing to close rather than renew their leases. And can you blame them? Many of these owners are claiming burnout is the problem. And what burnout means is constantly putting their health at risk by working a public-facing role, while tackling rising food costs, rent hikes, irate customers, and a nation-wide labour shortage where hospitality has 52,000 roles to fill. These figures place hospitality as one of the top industries experiencing a labour crisis, next to healthcare. Demand for workers is at an all-time high.

Unsurprisingly, after being locked in our homes for extended periods of time, we have forgotten how to dine. But what may be a surprise is that it’s a new generation of restaurant staff making up most of the workforce too. They’re green, they’ve been thrown in the deep end, and mentorship is hard to come by.

As much as we’d like to go out and think that everything was just like we left it, it isn’t. We’ve changed, and so have restaurants. So, how are we meant to behave to make sure we can continue dining out tomorrow?

Empty seating areas at Barangaroo in Sydney
Many established restaurants have closed as hospitality faces a labour crisis. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

The obvious stuff: book a table and read the fine print

Remember when everyone collectively whinged about how restaurants didn’t take bookings anymore and we yearned for the good old days? Well, they’re back. Thanks to the pandemic, restaurants are still less likely to pack diners in, in case dinner turns into a super spreader event, infects their floor staff, and they need to close for a week.

It’s become standard practice for restaurants to ask for a credit card number to secure a booking. If you’re sacrificing your details, it would be remiss of you to not see what they can be used for – especially if you have flaky friends. If you’ve agreed to be charged per-head for a last-minute no-show, you shouldn’t be upset when it happens.

Communicate

Like all successful relationships, good communication leads to better experiences. Does your group have allergies? Tell the restaurant when you book. There is no way that the kitchen can come up with a delicious menu for you on the fly when they’re already behind, understaffed and firing off the courses for every other table in the venue.

Related: Be polite and don’t eat it first: the art of sending food back at restaurants

Do you want to be seated in a specific area because you like it? Ask when making a reservation. Did someone suddenly get one of the million viruses going around? Tell the restaurant before you show up. Are you celebrating something? Tell them! Do you need to be out early because you have a show? Please, tell them. Are you running late? You know the answer to this question.

Diners sit at tables inside a restaurant in China Town in Melbourne.
Diners at a restaurant in Melbourne’s China Town. Communicating with a restaurant will lead to a better experience. Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Be on time

This applied before the pandemic, but it has never been more important. If your table is rebooked for a second, or even third seating and you have been given an out-by time, it’s not a suggestion.

There is a flow-on effect from you being late, and that causes stress on the floor and in the kitchen to get your meal out faster, so the people after you aren’t being punished for doing the right thing. The push to speed up a service is an act that can only be controlled by experienced staff. Newbies to the industry are not as efficient as hospo-lifers and haven’t yet developed the confidence to rush an order through the kitchen. So, if you’re late, you’ll make everyone late.

You can ask when the next table is coming but keep in mind that once you leave, your table will have to be cleared, sanitised, and reset. You can’t just play musical chairs. That being said, the industry is hospitality and staff always try to be hospitable. So, if the team read the room correctly and can shuffle people around, they’ll let you know that you can stay for longer. Just don’t assume it can happen every time.

Workers prepare food at Japanese restaurant Nobu at Crown Sydney
The kitchen at Nobu, Sydney. When diners are late, it has a flow-on effect on chefs. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Be patient

You know how over lockdown, you reflected on your life choices and decided it was probably time to get a new job or quit your industry altogether to do what you love? Well, that happened in hospitality. Plus a huge chunk of the international workforce went home and it’s expensive and very difficult to sponsor new, international workers now.

Related: ‘We just don’t get visited’: why Australia is overlooked in world’s best restaurant rankings

That means you’re being served by fewer people, and they may never have worked in hospitality before. Everyone is operating a little slower, they’re a little bit clumsy, they’re learning on the job and prone to making a mistake or two. Please, be kind and understanding. It’s not the end of the world if your drink takes a couple of minutes longer than everyone else’s – in the worst-case scenario, just remind your server. I guarantee you they’ll apologise profusely. If you scare off the next generation, who will be there to serve you next week?

Show up

It hurts me to write this, but after speaking to a few restaurant owners, they all mentioned an overwhelming number of no-shows. Even when confirmation texts and emails have been sent and acknowledged. One owner told me he texted a person half an hour after their table was meant to arrive, and receiving the response, “Nah, brah, not coming. GF’s not feeling it.” After warning the customer they would be charged to cover the minimum cost of labour and wasted food, the owner discovered the card was already maxed out. Food wastage is agonising for any restaurateur, especially as costs rise – and they’ve already prepped it for you to eat. If you don’t show up, you’re lighting someone else’s money on fire.

Workers clean tables for outdoor dining
Outdoor tables at Sambandha Nepalese restaurant in Auburn, Sydney. Remember, staff have limited time to turn tables around between sittings. Photograph: Joel Carrett/EPA

But what if the experience was truly horrific?

We have all been here. It’s an off night for the front and back of house. The bar couldn’t get your drinks right. You were left standing out in the cold waiting for your table to turn (see point three). Service was absent. Cold food arrived warm and hot food arrived cold. It took forever to pay and you felt like you were left to die in the corner.

Management should be able to see this and they’ll be hurting inside watching your table receive a sub-par experience. If they aren’t putting out a million fires, they’ll most likely approach your table, apologise, take on your feedback and either comp you some drinks or send dessert to your table. If you can give them feedback on the spot, don’t make a scene. If management is going down with the ship, try to call in rather than calling out. Email or ring the restaurant to let them know about your experience. Outline what went wrong in the most graceful way possible. They can always track down your table to confirm your story, use your feedback to retrain staff, and most likely invite you back to dine on them. If there is anything a restaurant wants, it is to prove to you that they can do better.

Businesses have been struggling to survive Covid, give them a chance to change your mind before venting your frustrations on Google.

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