How to Have an English Conversation at a Restaurant: 7 Common Scenarios
You probably look forward to going to a restaurant in your hometown.
But when you visit a restaurant where you have to speak a foreign language, the situation goes from relaxing to taxing.
Let’s make the experience better by tackling common conversations you might have in an English-speaking restaurant, divided into categories.
You’ll learn some cultural norms to expect in restaurants, too!
- How to Prepare to Eat at an English-Speaking Restaurant
- 7 Scenarios to Master English Conversations at a Restaurant
How to Prepare to Eat at an English-Speaking Restaurant
There are several ways to prepare for English restaurant conversations before you even set foot in the building. Use these simple steps to get started.
Memorize relevant food and drink vocabulary
What type of restaurant are you going to? Barbecue, Italian or Thai? Casual or fancy?
Once you’ve decided where you’re going, do a little research so you can have some of the most important food and drink items memorized. Having these words in your head from the get-go will help you understand the server more quickly and express yourself more clearly.
Let’s say you eat at Olive Garden, a casual Italian restaurant that’s one of the most popular restaurant chains in America. I can guarantee you should know the words salad and breadsticks, because you receive free salad and breadsticks with every meal. (Breadsticks are just what they sound like: long sticks of bread.)
To dine at Olive Garden, you’ll probably want to memorize the words pasta, cheese, pizza and soup, just to name a few.
One more example: Let’s say you eat at Waffle House, another famous food chain in America. Waffle House serves breakfast food, so you’ll want to memorize vocabulary like waffle, pancake, eggs, bacon, hashbrowns and coffee.
If you’re prepared for the type of restaurant you’re visiting, you’ll feel a lot more confident walking in.
Review vocabulary related to restaurant positions
You’ll want to memorize the titles of various positions at restaurants. Here are the most common restaurant jobs:
- Host: When you walk through the front door, there will likely be a person standing at a podium. This is the host, and their job is to seat you at a table.
- Server or waiter/waitress: This is the person who takes your order and delivers your food. Server is the most common term, because it can be used to refer to a man or woman. However, some people say waiter (male server) or waitress (female server).
- Manager: This is the boss. You can recognize them because they’ll probably wear more professional clothing than the other employees. They might wear nice pants and a button-up shirt, and male managers will probably wear a tie. Some managers visit tables to ask how everything is, and you can ask to speak to the manager if something is wrong—or if you want to tell them that everything is amazing.
- Cook/chef: These two terms refer to the person cooking your meal in the restaurant kitchen. Cook is usually the term used in a more casual restaurant, such as Olive Garden or IHOP. Chef is used in a nicer place, like an upscale (expensive and fancy) local restaurant.
Knowing these words will help you in numerous situations. For example, your host may seat you and say, “Angela will be your server today. She’ll be with you in a moment.” Or, if something goes wrong, you may ask your server to speak to a manager.
Familiarize yourself with the names of each course
At most restaurants, you’ll see five main sections on a menu:
- Appetizers: These are small dishes the table can share before the main meal. A server will usually ask something along the lines of, “Do you want to start with an appetizer?”
- Entree: The main meal.
- Side items or sides: The smaller dishes that come with the entree. For example, the main part of the entree could be fried chicken, and the side items are salad and potatoes.
- Dessert: The food you eat after the entree. Dessert is usually sweet, like cake, pie or ice cream. Many servers ask, “Are you saving room for dessert?”
- Drinks: Sometimes drinks are listed on the back of the menu and divided up by alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. In some restaurants, there’s a separate menu for alcoholic or specialty drinks.
Understanding what these five words mean and what to expect on the menu should make navigating a meal much easier.
Know what to expect
If possible, do a little research online about this specific place before going to the restaurant.
For example, will a host seat you, or do you seat yourself? Will the server give you the bill, or will you pay at the cash register? Should you tip the server, or is tip included in your bill?
One of the scariest parts of learning a foreign language is when things don’t go the way you expect. If you think your server will bring you the bill, but they never do, you may be so flustered that you can’t think of how to say, “Do I pay you or pay up front?”
Knowing what to expect should keep these uncomfortable moments to a minimum.
We can memorize as many vocab words as we want, but when we get into the real world, it’s easy to get nervous and forget everything we’ve learned!
How can you avoid this? Practice your English speaking skills as much as you can.
If you have a friend who’s also learning English, ask to act out a few practice dialogues. You don’t have to have a full meal to practice—just sit down for 10 or 15 minutes to recite the phrases out loud and listen to another person say the expressions to you.
Do you have a language partner or tutor through a service like italki? You could also ask them to practice with you.
Sometimes taking a step back can help. Instead of participating, it could be useful to just listen to others speak the dialogue and see if you can understand what they’re saying.
You can practice watching or listening to restaurant dialogues to brush up on your skills before the real deal. For example, this Youtube video lets you listen to a conversation at a restaurant. You can also find more examples of restaurant dialogues with the FluentU immersion program. On this program, you can watch authentic English videos with interactive captions to get natural context for your learning.
7 Scenarios to Master English Conversations at a Restaurant
1. Talking with the Host
Remember, the host is the person who greets you when you enter the restaurant. They’re usually standing at a podium, or you may see a sign that says, “Please wait to be seated.” This means that the host might be with another customer right now, but they’ll be back to greet you.
Maybe you called ahead of time to make a reservation, which means the restaurant knows you’re coming and has a table set aside for you. If that’s the case, the conversation will probably go something like this:
Host: Hi, welcome to [restaurant name].
You: Hello, I have a reservation.
Host: What’s your name?
You: John Smith.
Then, the host will say something like, “Right this way,” and you can follow them to your table. Or if they aren’t ready yet, they’ll say something along the lines of, “Your table will be ready in a few minutes.”
What if you don’t have a reservation? Then the conversation may look something like this:
Host: Hi, welcome to [restaurant name].
You: Hello, we’d like a table for two people.
Host: Would you like a table or a booth?
You: A booth.
Then the host will likely say either, “Right this way,” or if the restaurant is crowded, they may tell you,”It will be a 10-minute wait.”
When you ask for a table for two people, the host might ask you, “Do you have a reservation?” In this case, you’d respond, “No.”
2. Asking the Server Questions
You might not be ready to order food right away. First, you may need to ask the server some questions about the food. For the sake of these examples, we’ll talk about fried chicken. Here are some things you might ask the server about fried chicken.
How is the fried chicken made? (You may want to know what seasoning comes on the chicken or what type of oil they fry the food in.)
What side items come with the fried chicken?
Can I substitute one side item for another? (If you don’t like a side item that usually comes with the fried chicken, you can ask to replace, or “substitute” it with something else. For example, you may choose to substitute the potatoes with macaroni and cheese or vegetables. The server could say yes or no, or they might tell you that you can, but it’ll cost a little more.)
What do you recommend?
Which do you like more, the fried chicken or grilled chicken?
Some of these require a simple “yes” or “no” from the server. Others might require you to be familiar with food-related vocabulary to understand their response.
When it’s time for dessert, you may ask these questions:
Do you have a dessert menu?
Can you describe the chocolate cake?
Which dessert is your favorite?
3. Ordering Food
There are a few common phrases you could use to order food. Here are some examples:
I’ll have the fried chicken.
I would like the fried chicken.
I’d like to order the fried chicken.
Can I have the fried chicken?
In certain cases, it makes sense to use “we” instead of “I.” This is often the case if you’re ordering something for everyone, not just yourself.
We would like to share the mozzarella sticks.
We’ll start with an appetizer.
We’ll have a pitcher of beer.
Sometimes, your order will require the server to ask follow-up questions. Here are some common questions the server may ask and some possible responses.
Server: How would you like your steak/burger cooked?
You: Medium-well, please.
Server: Which two sides would you like with your meal?
You: I’ll have french fries and grilled vegetables.
Server: What dressing would you like with your salad?
You: Ranch, please.
4. Making Positive and Negative Comments About the Food
After delivering your food, your server should check on your table once or twice to see how everything is. Here are some possible phrases you could hear:
How is everything?
Does everything taste good?
How did everything come out?
Here are some possible positive and negative responses:
Everything is great, thank you.
Actually, my food is a little cold.
Excuse me, I ordered french fries, but I got potatoes.
The server will likely ask, “Can I get you anything else?” You may ask for another drink, a refill of water, extra dressing or some condiments.
5. Dealing with a Problem
Is there a problem with the food or anything else in the restaurant? When reporting a problem, it’s good to use polite phrases.
Excuse me, my food is cold.
Pardon, this isn’t what I ordered.
May I speak to your manager, please?
Here are a couple of phrases you could hear from the server after you report a problem:
Would you like to speak to a manager?
I’ll get the manager for you.
Would you like me to get you something else?
When something goes wrong with a customer’s food, many servers send the manager to the table so you can talk to someone in charge. They do this either to make the customer feel comfortable by talking to someone who’s “higher up,” or because the manager actually does have the power to give you a discount in the restaurant’s computer system.
6. Paying the Bill
It’s customary for the server to bring the bill to your table before you even ask for it. However, if the restaurant is busy or your server has forgotten to deliver your bill, you might need to ask for it. Here are a few things you can say:
Excuse me, we’d like the bill.
We’re ready to pay.
Can we have the check, please? (“Check” and “bill” mean the same thing at a restaurant.)
Do I pay you, or do I pay up front?
The server may have some questions, such as:
Can I get you anything else, or are you ready for the check?
Would you like a box? (If you didn’t eat your whole meal, your server may ask you if you’d like a box to take your left-over food home.)
Will you be paying together or separately?
Will that be cash or card?
7. Chatting with Your Dining Partner
You can talk about a variety of things with your dining partner, from jobs and hobbies to family and travel. But there are a few restaurant-related phrases you can use.
A: What are you going to order?
B: I’m thinking about the pork. How about you?
A: I’m trying to decide between the chicken salad and the turkey sandwich.
B: I hear the chicken salad is really good.
A: Oh, great, I’ll order that! Do you want to share an appetizer first?
B: That sounds great. Would you rather have the mozzarella sticks or the cheese dip?
A: I could go for some cheese dip.
B: Let’s do it!
Here’s a conversation that’s common to have once you’ve started eating your food:
A: Do you like the food?
B: Yeah! How’s yours?
A: It’s great. I’m glad I decided to order this.
B: Same. I love this restaurant.
You may have a conversation like this once it’s time to pay:
A: This one’s on me. (This is a colloquial way of saying “I will pay the bill.”)
B: No, let me pay!
A: I invited you, so it’s my treat.
B: Thank you so much.
Having an English conversation at a restaurant isn’t as daunting as you may have thought. With a little preparation, cultural understanding and a gung-ho attitude, you’ll walk out of that restaurant feeling pretty good about your language skills! Even if you don’t feel great about your eating choices.