How to eat now: 16 rules of modern dining – from dress codes to dogs

For all its glamour and charm, the restaurant industry simmers with adversarial tension. It’s all smiles until a diner doesn’t get what they want, whether it’s a booking deposit refunded, the best table or steak in a pasta restaurant – then it all kicks off. You have read the online reviews.

Post-pandemic, with costs high and staff in short supply, areas of friction are numerous. Restaurants have had to streamline how they operate, reassess what they charge and how flexibly they cater to diners. Adapting to how modern Britain now socialises also creates flashpoints, given customers’ differing ideas of fun.

Is it possible to find consensus? The Guardian asked an expert panel to discuss and vote on some common bones of contention – and to provide, if not solutions, then insight.

The panel

  • Instagrammer and restaurant reviewer Kar-Shing Tong; KS to his 139,000 followers at @ks_ate_here

  • Meriel Armitage, chef-founder of London vegan restaurant brand Club Mexicana

  • Glen Montgomery, sommelier and co-owner of Edinburgh restaurant eórna

  • Lorraine Copes, restaurant consultant and founder of Be Inclusive Hospitality

  • Elizabeth Carter, Good Food Guide co-editor

  • Tony Naylor, food writer

A hyped restaurant is walk-ins only, no bookings. Are you prepared to queue?

“Under no circumstances,” says Copes. Queues are efficient for restaurants with a high throughput of diners and they help keep prices down. But when KS is cold or hungry, “I just find somewhere else,” he says. “I’ve queued. But I’m not a strong queuer.”

Armitage and Carter (“Sometimes you get chatting to people – that can be fun”) queue – reluctantly. Only Montgomery, buoyed by a recent, rare 25-minute wait for a knockout lunch, offers real enthusiasm: “It was totally worth it.”

Verdict A technical 3:3. Almost no one likes waiting at the restaurant’s convenience, yet 50% of the panel do it.

A queue outside Indian restaurant Dishoom in north London. Photograph: Ashok Saxena/Alamy

Dogs allowed in the dining room?

No one wants to sit by a wet, smelly, barking dog while they eat. There is consensus here. The split is between those willing to risk dogs in restaurants (“Well-behaved dogs add to the atmosphere,” says KS), and those, like Copes, who would rather not. “I think about shedding hair, jumping on chairs,” she says. “I’ve been in a pub where the dog had his paws on the table, where food is going. In restaurants, I’m not a fan.”

Verdict Quiet, unobtrusive pooches are given access, 3.5 votes to 2.5. One panellist split their vote to allow dogs on terraces and in bars, but not the dining room.

Are booking deposits and charges for no-shows acceptable?

“100% yes,” says KS. “I’d love not to,” says Montgomery, but diners are “too cavalier with bookings”. Carter reports “little pushback” from Good Food Guide readers who “know the pain a no-show causes”, in lost revenue, wasted food and energy and staffing costs.

Armitage acknowledges that taking card details at booking can be “off-putting”. It’s a commitment. But financially, it is crucial: “Restaurants have had it so hard the last few years.” A potential £10 per person charge has “significantly” reduced Club Mexicana’s no-shows.

Verdict 6:0, in favour. Most restaurants allow you to cancel up to the day before. It is time to show up or pay out.

You want to take a birthday cake to a restaurant. Is a ‘cakeage’ charge justifiable?

Plating and clearing the cake away creates work for the staff and encourages – “Speculative, I know,” says Copes – diners to skip dessert. “There should be a cost. That’s lost revenue.”

Yet cakeage forces the first voting abstention as KS ties himself in knots. “I don’t think it’s fair or unfair. It’s within the restaurant’s rights but feels mean. What are you going to charge? £2 per person? Could you spare that as goodwill? You can make up the margins elsewhere.”

Verdict 5:0, cakeage is justifiable. Restaurants are delicate financial ecosystems. You can’t rock up with your own food without paying for the privilege.

Would you support restaurants banning phones in the dining room?

Unsurprisingly, the very online KS says no. A restaurant is “there to facilitate, not dictate” your experience. If diners are sat scrolling, rather than focusing on their friends or food, that is their concern.

Sharing images of restaurant dishes online “can only do your business good”, says Copes. Is she ever irritated by people artfully composing such photos? She laughs. “The person doing that is usually me.”

Photograph: Oscar Wong/Getty Images

Paradoxically, neither of the panel’s restaurant owners would ban phones in their venues, but would welcome intervention to wean themselves off their own devices. “I could do with that,” says Montgomery. “If someone big wants to ban phones, I’ll eventually jump on that bandwagon, when it’s safe.”

Verdict A 5:1 against. Phone bans are unworkable, much as some of us might crave them.

Are dress codes acceptable?

There is some support for a restaurant’s right to impose one. But for Copes, dress codes feel inherently “snooty … The focus should be on your table, not the next table and what they’re dressed in. For a long time dress codes have been used to exclude people. What they’re wearing should be by the by.”

Verdict A 4:2 against, reassuring for those who, like Armitage, “don’t own anything smart”.

Is it reasonable for restaurants to ban children under 12?

With so many restaurants chasing the family dollar, you might imagine it would be fine for some to maintain a solely adult focus, in food and atmosphere. But the panel dismisses that (OK, my) view. A ban seems “mean”, says KS. “It excludes a large proportion of people,” adds Copes. “We should have a more European attitude towards children,” says Carter, lauding the much more child-friendly approach on the continent.

That said, it is imperative parents control their children. KS has worked in restaurants when kids have “run rampant. It becomes dangerous with waiters, trays, hot dishes.” It’s “a restaurant, not a creche”.

Verdict A 5:1 against, with your correspondent the curmudgeon. What next, a ball pit in the wine cellar?

Photograph: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Time-limited table sittings of, say, 90 minutes?

“In general, our job is to be welcoming and say yes to things,” says Montgomery, acknowledging that time limits are a challenging disconnect for diners.

It is not an issue at eórna, where the ability to linger for hours is priced in (dinner is £95 per person). But move down the price scale and many cheaper, more casual restaurants are only viable if, in the industry lingo, they can “turn” (re-use) their tables several times a night. As costs spiral, explicit time-limits have become widespread.

That is “absolutely fine”, says Montgomery, but dinner must not feel rushed. “It has to be organised, clear to guests, and you have to deliver everything I want in 90 minutes.”

Verdict Set your timers, everyone. It’s a 5:1 in favour of the unfortunate necessity of on-the-clock meals.

Small appetite? Saving money? Just fancy chicken nuggets? There are numerous reasons why an adult might order the kids’ menu, and the panel struggled to think of justifiable reasons to stop them.

Important caveat: children’s menus are priced as a subsidised inducement to parents and their spending power. Restaurants would go broke if large numbers did this. “Personally, I wouldn’t,” says KS. “If you want a light meal, there are other dishes you can choose.”

“I’m torn,” says Armitage. “Imagine if you had a party of 15 in a pub and they all ordered the kids’ menu. That would be awful.”

Verdict 5:1, it’s allowable. Just don’t come crying to mummy and daddy when your local restaurant folds.

“It’s so annoying,” says Carter. “The first thing you want to know is, do I like the menu? What is it going to cost?”

“If you can survive without a proper website, hats off. But I don’t think that’s possible,” says Armitage, who finds uploading menus “the biggest headache”.

Verdict Clandestine restaurants generate equal hype and irritation. You’re not running an illegal rave. 6:0 of the panel say: “Get your menus up.”

Is it OK for coffee shops that serve brunch to ban laptops at weekends?

“It’s acceptable during busy times, too,” says KS. “A lot of coffee shops are saying: ‘No laptops between 11 and 3’, so they can do lunch. You can’t have someone taking up a space for three hours and just having one cup of coffee.”

At weekends, it’s a vibe issue, too. Someone emailing colleagues at the next table, says Armitage, “reminds everybody of work, which we’re absolutely trying not to do. Let’s make weekends laptop-free everywhere.”

Verdict 5:0, it’s OK. No coffee shop can forgo a £35 brunch spend so you can work on your spreadsheets. Copes abstained, worried that coffee shops are often vital places of escape from noisy, packed houses.

There is no salt and pepper on the table. Does that annoy you?

“I go to a restaurant with the expectation the food will be seasoned,” says Copes. She trusts the chef.

Perhaps surprisingly, while not expecting to see a cruet set laid out (“London tables are pretty small”), Armitage “always” asks for one. KS does regularly, too. “Pepper I don’t care about. But salt is subjective.”

Verdict A 6:0, no. No one is desperate to see salt and pepper offered as standard. But don’t be afraid to ask.

Is it acceptable for restaurants to charge for sauces and condiments?

What flies in the local chippy can in restaurants, says Armitage, feel “a bit ridiculous. People are making minimal money off a pot of mayo.”

Copes worries such micropricing runs contrary to hospitality’s spirit, making it entirely transactional, “in that anything we ask for there’s a charge associated”.

Verdict 4:2 say it’s acceptable, particularly when sauces are homemade. But it might be wiser for restaurants to price in extra ketchup, rather than charge £1.

Is it OK to ask a chef to change a dish because you dislike an ingredient?

What Montgomery calls “easy omissions” in assembled dishes (eg, leaving mushrooms off a pizza) are fine. Ingredients cooked into dishes are very different. Kitchens prep in bulk and, generally, do not have time mid-service to make a risotto without garlic or onions, because you are on a hot date. “Order something else,” advises Copes.

Requesting off-menu bespoke dishes is also unrealistic. “We don’t make soup,” says Armitage. “We do tacos. Can’t you just boil some vegetables? No, that isn’t how we operate.”

Verdict 6:0, it’s OK to ask. But be reasonable. And if the kitchen can’t accommodate your request, accept it.

You’ve ordered wine. Should the bottle be left within reach so you can serve yourself, or parked six metres away?

“Classical service is my vibe,” says Montgomery. He will happily let guests pour, but prefers doing it for them. In that scenario, he says: “If you ever need to reach for the wine, the restaurant isn’t doing its job.”

For some diners, this pampering feels fussy. Others have control issues, becoming nervous if their wine disappears from view. And little wonder when, rather than the polished ideal of staff promptly, discreetly refilling glasses, wine service is often all clumsy interruptions, glasses going empty or hasty overfilling to get you to order a second bottle. “I like to control my own drinking,” KS says.

Verdict 5:1 prefer their wine within reach. That option should be offered first, to minimise any awkwardness.

Should restaurants turn the music down?

Carter prefers a soundtrack you can “tune in and out of”, over louder places where he has thought: “Who is this for? The staff or us?”

Tastes and environments differ. Not every restaurant must take the same approach. “We like our music at a party level,” says Armitage. “I’m trying to hold on to my youth – bring a bit of nightclub into the restaurant and I’m happy.”

Sound quality is crucial. Loud is subjective. But often the solution is not turning music down, but better spatial and audio design. Music from club speakers bouncing erratically off flat surfaces is a very different experience from the warmth of a vintage hi-fi system. “There’s a level at which music works,” says Carter. “It’s worth restaurants working out what that is.”

Verdict 4:2, the volume is fine. But keep that under review. When diners are shouting, something is wrong.

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The Guardian