SERVING FOOD – Tips Do’s and Don’ts

Vintage Poster from the 1930's

Vintage Poster from the 1930's

It has often been written that the passion of an artist is found deep within the soul, separating those who settle for the mediocre or the good, from those compelled to provide greatness and seek perfection. I personally practice the understanding that any act undertaken can become a yoga, and a work of art. Such skills could be applied to serving food, an ancient ritual in all cultural traditions. The notion of being “in service” to someone is held in high regard, with initiations and teachings maintained as a special privilege until perfected. Our TIPS today are fifty of them for serving, to help refine anyone’s party, event, luncheon, or formal meal at home. Even a meal served for one, when someone is serving it to you, can be forever satisfying. We start with 50 TIPS below (I was inspired by an article listing 100 things required to be “a good waiter” in a restaurant). If you are a Chef, Butler, Waiter, Server, Waitress, Maid, Bar Tender, or find yourself serving (even if you’re in another job description), or are an Employer, this might be of interest about what helps make it great rather then just good. There is an old Chinese saying: “Carry water, chop wood” is a meditation. It means (loosely translated), take great care and deep satisfaction with awareness and appreciation, in whatever you do; for the simple act of doing it is reward enough, and alone, can bring great transformation and joy. Send us your TIPS about what you’ve experienced that took it beyond ordinary.


1. Have a warm manner, but not overly friendly. Great service is a subtle art form.

2. When guests arrive, immediately offer something to drink (after they’ve discarded coats, etc.) If there is no bar set up, circulate trays offering Champaign, Proseco, or a none alcoholic sparkling drink, and water with lemon/lime. If it is a casual event, add a naturally brewed beer to the drinks menu. Even at a wine tasting party, a courtesy to include alternatives is appreciated.

3. Never refuse a guest’s request. If you’re uncertain, confer with your employer, but only if necessary. (We were dining at a restaurant that ran out of coffee beans, cause to wonder about their service preparedness. The waiter took our orders, quickly went down the street to purchase our requests from a local cafe. He then quickly transferred the drinks to china, and served as if nothing was amiss. That’s great service).

4. If a guest is unhappy with a dish,  apologize with “so sorry for this inconvenience, let me bring you something else to try.” Arrange with the chef/caterer for an alternative, serve it quickly to keep the guest happy.

5. If it is a sit down event, tables should be level without anyone asking. Fix them before guests are seated.

6. If a guest inquires about a food for your recommendation, encourage them to try it even if it’s a food you dislike.

7. Do not announce your name unless your employer wishes it, or are asked. No jokes, personal inquiries, attitude, flirting, or cuteness.

8. Do not interrupt a conversation for any reason (unless an urgent telephone call has come for the guest). Wait for the right moment to discuss food or drinks.

9. Recite food and drink details in an interested manner, not dramatically, and not as if you’re reading a list.

10. Do not interject your personal favorites when explaining food or dessert. Keep it light. Make sure you know what’s in that menu’s food ingredients, some people are allergic to certain foods.

British Vintage Poster

British Vintage Poster

11. Do not bother your employer for anything during the evening unless absolutely necessary. It is their time to enjoy too.

12. Do not touch the rim of a water glass, or any other glass. Wash hands often.

13. Handle wine glasses by their stems, silverware by their handles. When offering utensils to anyone, always point it with the handle towards them.

14. Inquire if guests want more to drink, don’t wait until asked. Ask if the food is satisfactory, fix whatever isn’t swiftly.

15. Never say “I don’t know” when asked something without adding “allow me a moment to find out” or “let me see to it”. Even if it’s a child asking.

16. If someone requests more gravy, sauce, cheese, or condiment, bring each in a separate serving dish. Do not pour it for them, allow them to help themselves.

17. Some people like dishes removed immediately when empty, others prefer plates removed when all guests are done. Ask what your employer wishes, and above all, never rush anyone.

18. Know what each person requested from the menu if it’s a sit down meal, don’t ask at the table. Remember by having a 3×5 card in your pocket if necessary, but make your notations after you’ve left the table on the way to the kitchen or bar area.

19. Fill glasses at the table often, do not let them sit empty. Change to a new glass with each cocktail. Those identification trinkets on glasses, never use them.

20. Never refuse to substitute a vegetable for another. Have choices on hand by arranging it with your employer in advance.

21. Never serve anything that looks wrong or runny. Confer with the Chef/Cook/Caterer to inquire. Better safe then sorry.

22. If someone likes a wine and asks for the name, steam off the label (use a tea kettle) and give it to them at the end of the meal. It has the name,  year, vintner, importer, and will make a wonderful impression.

23. If someone is unsure about a wine choice, help them. If you’re unsure, send someone else to the table who knows wine, ask your employer (descretely) to inform the guest, or offer a taste or two of choices on hand.

24. Never use the same glass if the guest was drinking water out of it and now wants wine. Replace it. As an alternative to water or wine, offer a classic spritzer of juices (juice with sparkling water added to it). Poured into wine, champaign, or martini glasses for those who don’t drink, still feels festive and elegant.

25. Never assume people want their white wine in an ice bucket. Inquire. Some people do not like overly chilled drinks. This holds true for water also. Ensure water pitchers at the table are always full and look good.

26. Make sure glasses are clean. Always inspect them before placing them on the table to be sparkling.

27. Ask if the guests want to pour their own red wine or prefer you to pour. Leave the bottle with them if the guest asks you to.

28. Do not put your hands on the spout of a wine bottle while removing the cork. It is considered an unsanitary rudeness.

29. Do not pop a champagne cork. Remove it slowly by twisting it slightly from side to side quietly, gracefully. If you lose control of the cork, stay calm. Practice. Your skills set the tone of an evenings enjoyment, sophistication is part of that.

30. Never let a wine bottle touch the glass into which you are pouring. No one wants to drink dust or dirt from the bottle. When done pouring, twist the wine bottle tipping it upward to ensure no dripping. Those trinkets used to prevent dripping, never use them.

Camp Fire and Guides by P.B. Hickling in Little Folks Annual 1922.

Camp Fire and Guides by P.B. Hickling in Little Folks Annual 1922. Serving others has a long tradition in human group cultures East and West. Men and boys had their own initiatory passage to undergo learning service.

31. Never remove a plate full of food without asking what went wrong. Obviously, something is wrong. Your employer is relying on you to find out and correct it. If they show reluctance, explain that you gladly wish to take care of whatever it is.

32. Never touch a guest. No excuses. Do not brush them, move them, wipe them, or dust them. If you need to get around a guest blocking the way, ask politely to be allowed to pass such as “may I please come through?”.

33. Do not be so hurried that you bang into chairs or tables. Be aware of the furniture, and burning candles.

34. Do not have a personal conversation with another server within earshot of guests. If it is a must, keep it brief.

35. Do not eat in front of guests if your employer has indicated you can now take some food. Maintain their privacy and yours.

36. Never wear perfume or cologne to work, or reek from cigarettes. People want to smell food and beverage as part of their enjoyment. Some people are highly allergic and scent sensitive.

37. Do not drink alcohol on the job, even if invited by the guests. “Not when I’m on duty” will suffice. Do not say “I do not drink”, as if implying you disapprove.

38. Do not call any man young or old “dude.” Take pride in your work to be professional even if you know the person.

39. Do not call a woman “lady”, unless she is a member of The Royal Family. Being well mannered is elegant and professional.

40. Never say “I only do this on the side”, nobody wants to know you’re not proud of all that you do. Never solicit guests for work.

41. Saying, “No problem” is a problem. A light “My pleasure” or “You’re welcome” will do.

42. Do not compliment a guest’s attire, hairdo, or makeup, even if you know the person. Never show groupie tendencies around a famous guest you admire. Respect their privacy and maintain your professional regard at all times.

43. Never mention what your favorite dessert is when offering a tray of sweets, offer to replace it if they don’t like it. If  a guest takes two portions leaving someone short of dessert, there is usually a guest who prefers a dish of lovely mixed berries with fresh whipped cream. Soy based whipped cream should be on hand too.

44. Do not discuss your own eating habits, whether vegan, lactose intolerant, or any other dietary or food preferences. No personal talk, keep it professional. Make sure your employer informs you of any guest’s food restrictions ahead of time.

45. Do not curse or swear, no matter how young or hip the guests. Leave that choice for your personal time, not paid time.

46. Never acknowledge one guest over another. All guests should be treated as if they are important and their enjoyment your primary interest.

47. Do not gossip about co-workers, or guests. Save it for your down time with friends if that’s your need. Better yet, don’t gossip at all.

48. Do not ask what someone is eating or drinking when they ask for more. Remember it, or consult the order on the card you carry.

49. If a guest tips you at the end of a private event, or a stay in the household, thank them for their thoughtfulness and generosity. You’re already being paid for your professional services, it is indeed a generosity to see something extra.

50. Do not turn on the charm to impress. Be consistent throughout. Being professional doesn’t require overdoing it to get noticed. You will be felt and given the professional respect you deserve with raises, recommendations, and satisfaction. Above all, enjoy your work! Remember, giving service is a wonderful offering with rewards to both parties. I love to serve and to be served, a study in contrasts that keeps life scintillatingly interesting (as my husband calls it).

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