In the United States, there are over 14 million people working in the restaurant business.
But that doesn’t mean there are 14 million waiters/waitresses!
There are so many other jobs in the restaurant industry—from managing to cooking.
For any of these jobs, though, knowing English is a huge advantage.
Not only does it give you the option of working in any English-speaking country, it also means you can work in the tourism industry where the staff and customers might not speak your native language.
English for restaurant staff varies by job type, but a few facts remain the same: It’s formal and polite, it’s often fairly simple and it’s worth learning!
With the resources and phrases below, we’ll show you how to start learning English for six different restaurant staff positions.
How to Practice Your Restaurant English
As an employee in a restaurant, your most important concern is communication. You need to understand and be understood. The English used by restaurant staff can be repetitive, which is great news for you. Learn the most often repeated phrases and words, and you’re already halfway there.
Here are some practice ideas:
- Role play. All you need is a friend to practice speaking for whatever job you’re aiming for! Role play is when you each pretend to be someone else. So grab a friend and choose your roles. If you’re applying to be a waiter, for instance, you can pretend to be the waiter and your friend can be the customer.
Of course, you don’t have to do this with a friend. A fellow student, a teacher or even a Skype tutor can play the part of the customer or coworker.
- Go to a restaurant. If you can’t find anyone to practice with, or if you prefer to study alone, there are other options for learning restaurant English. If you already live in an English-speaking country, just go visit a restaurant! Keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll hear plenty of phrases and vocabulary repeated by the waiters, hosts and other restaurant staff. If you visit an open kitchen restaurant (where you can see the food being prepared), you may even get to hear some cook and “back of the house” staff English. Take your notebook with you and write down any phrases you hear often but don’t know.
If you don’t live in an English-speaking city, is there an Irish bar nearby? Or perhaps there’s a restaurant owned by foreigners who speak English as their native language? Check out areas that are tourist-heavy. The tourism industry often uses English, and any restaurants in tourist hot spots are likely to have English-speaking staff. (If your waiter is a native, ask them to speak English to you anyway, if they can!)
- Watch restaurant TV shows. To go behind the scenes into the back of a restaurant, you can watch restaurant shows. TV shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Restaurant: Impossible” take you inside the restaurant business in a unique way. These shows not only teach you the English you might use in a restaurant kitchen, they also show you what it’s like to work in one. Of course, you probably won’t have a famous cook yelling at you as you work!
- Watch culinary travel shows. You can also visit restaurants all over the world by watching some culinary travel shows. These are shows that focus on food and restaurants around the world. By watching “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” for example, you can travel across the United States and hear the way restaurant staff members speak in different parts of the country.
Remember that the English you’ll need is a bit different for each type of restaurant job. Choose a focus: Which job do you plan on applying for? What country do you want to work in? Prepare for the position that you’re applying for now—even if you want a different role in the future. The rest of the learning will be easier once you’re actually working in a restaurant because you’ll be immersed in (surrounded by) restaurant English.
How do you practice for each type of job? Where can you learn more about the language used in various restaurant careers? Our guide below will give you a good starting point!
How to Learn English for 6 Positions on a Restaurant Staff
1. Waiter / Waitress
Waiters and waitresses are some of the most visible employees of a restaurant. As a waiter, you’ll see and speak to many customers every day. Good English skills are important! There’s plenty of repetition in this position, which you’ll learn quickly as you work.
This job is also one of the easiest to practice, since you’ll find waiters in nearly every restaurant you visit. You can also collect some menus from your favorite restaurants (or online) and learn the different kinds of dishes you might have to serve.
- Waiters use the same basic phrases and vocabulary words, no matter what restaurant they work in. Here’s a useful list of sample conversations you might have as a waiter or waitress.
- Before you go to a real restaurant, you can watch this video to know what you should expect to hear. This is also a good place to learn how to present yourself as a waiter. (Hint: You need to be polite and courteous.)
- Here’s another great video that teaches basic restaurant and waiter vocabulary.
- Waiters also have to speak to the staff in the back of the restaurant. Some of these terms can be found here.
- May I take your order?
- Today’s special is…
- Can I get you something to drink?
- How are you enjoying everything?
- My name is [name], and I’ll be your waiter/waitress this evening/afternoon.
2. Host / Hostess
The job of a host or hostess is to greet and seat patrons (customers). A restaurant host greets the customers with a smile, speaks politely and sometimes takes reservations.
A host also needs to be tactful (polite in a subtle way). For instance, if there’s a long wait to be seated, it’s the host’s job to let the patrons know they’ll need to wait—without making them angry about the wait. Good English and a genuine (real) smile are important to this job!
- What makes a great host? This article explains how the speech of a hostess made her stand out as a terrible host.
- This page has some useful information on how to be a good host, along with an example of a “good” and “bad” way to say something.
- How do you politely say “no”? This page teaches the difference between polite and impolite English.
- How many are in your party?
- Do you have a reservation?
- There will be a 10-minute wait.
- Your table is ready.
- Right this way, sir/ma’am.
3. Bartender / Barista
A bartender’s job is to mix and serve the drinks. Most places require a special license to be a bartender, since you’re often serving alcohol. Because of this, not every restaurant has bartenders. A bartender needs to know many different liquors and cocktails (mixed drinks). It might also be a good idea to brush up on your small talk, as some customers really like talking with the bartender.
More expensive restaurants might also have a sommelier, which is someone who specializes in fine wines. The phrases used by a sommelier are very different and specific to the wines they serve.
- This page has a guide to the vocabulary words you’d need to know as a bartender.
- What kinds of drinks should you know as a bartender? Here’s a short list to get you started.
- What should you talk about as a bartender? Some top bartenders share their tips in this great article.
- If you want to specialize in wines, here’s a whole list of vocabulary words related to wines.
- For more sommelier-specific terms, The New York Times has a list of words used by professionals.
- On the rocks (Meaning: on ice)
- What can I get you?
- Would you like to open a tab? (If someone opens a tab, it means they can order as many drinks as they want, and pay for them together at the end of the night. It usually requires the customer to leave their credit card with the bartender.)
The manager is in charge of making sure the restaurant runs smoothly. As a manager, you will need to give clear instructions to everyone involved, and step in to help if a customer has a complaint.
As a manager, it’s helpful to know professional and business English, while still being able to connect in a less formal English. That’s because the manager’s job requires them to speak to patrons, employees and professionals in the field.
- When a customer has a complaint, the manager often gets called in to handle the problem. This page provides two clear guides on how to resolve issues with customers.
- Want to see those tips in action? This video has some examples of a manager responding correctly to a customer’s complaint.
- Of course, your job as a manager isn’t just to deal with complaints. In this video, a number of managers speak about their jobs and what it takes to be a manager. You can find some great business vocabulary here!
- Please accept my apologies.
- What seems to be the problem?
- Please accept this dessert, on the house. (“On the house” means it’s free; the restaurant will pay for it.)
- Keep up the good work! (Said to the employees.)
5. Cook / Chef
The cook, well, cooks! There are different kinds of cooking positions, each with their own name and experience requirements. Cooks and chefs have their own lingo too—vocabulary that’s only used by them.
The type of vocabulary you’ll need may vary depending on the kind of restaurant you work at. There are a couple of phrases and vocabulary words that you’ll find anywhere, so it’s a good idea to start there.
- Before you head into a restaurant, let’s visit the kitchen. Chefs need to know the basics of cooking, and you can find the English terms for them at this link.
- Now you’re ready to move on to chef speak! Here are 16 commonly used chef terms.
- What kind of chef do you want to be? To learn about the different kinds of chefs, visit this page.
- Each kind of cook has their own vocabulary. Here’s how to talk like a line cook.
- You’ll find a ton of cooking vocabulary on FluentU. Give it a free try and cook your way to fluency!
- You can also find plenty of resources about cooking and words to use around the kitchen right here on the FluentU English blog. Here’s a set of flashcards for cooking terms and here’s one for food.
- Give my compliments to the chef. (This is said to the chef, by happy customers!)
- I need [dish name], on the fly! (“On the fly” means very fast)
- This burger needs to be well done, so kill it.
Not every restaurant has a busser, but they can be a huge help to the rest of the staff. A busser’s job is to clear tables and refill drinks. The busser also helps keep things moving at a fast pace, so that customers can move in and out of the restaurant at a steady pace (speed). Thus, bussers need to know how to be polite to customers.
The normal amount of time for patrons to stay at their table varies by country, so be aware of these cultural differences. For example, in the United States, a busser might clear plates from a table as soon as the plates are empty. However in Spain, patrons can have a long, relaxed meal and they usually stay at the table to talk long after they’ve finished eating.
- This article speaks about the importance of bussers, and why they shouldn’t be overlooked by restaurants. It’s a long and somewhat complex article, but the bottom portion has some useful tips on how to be a good busser, including what kind of language to use.
- What else does a busser do? This document has an outline describing all the potential job responsibilities of a busser. Keep an eye out for vocabulary words!
- Sorry to keep you waiting.
- May I take your plate?
- Would you like a refill?
No matter what restaurant career you decide to pursue, you can use this resource guide to get you started!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.
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