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 seven categories.
You’ll learn some cultural norms to expect in restaurants, too!
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].
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: A booth.
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.)
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 rice or vegetables. The server could say yes or no, or they might tell you that you can, but it’ll cost a little more.)
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:
There are a few common phrases you could use to order food. Here are some examples:
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.
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:
You: Medium-well, please.
You: Ranch, please.
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:
Here are some possible positive and negative responses:
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.
Is there a problem with the food or anything else in the restaurant? When reporting a problem, it’s good to use polite phrases.
Here are a couple of phrases you could hear from the server after you report a problem:
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.
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:
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? (Sometimes you have to go to the front of the restaurant to pay for your meal.)
The server may have some questions, such as:
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 leftover food home.)
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.
B: Let’s do it!
Here’s a conversation that’s common to have once you’ve started eating your food:
You may have a conversation like this once it’s time to pay:
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.
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.)
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 “waffles” , “pancakes” , “eggs” , “bacon” and “hashbrowns.”
If you’re prepared for the type of restaurant you’re visiting, you’ll feel a lot more confident walking in.
You’ll want to memorize the titles of various positions at restaurants. Here are the most common restaurant jobs:
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.
At most restaurants, you’ll see five main sections on a menu:
Understanding what these five words mean and what to expect on the menu should make navigating a meal much easier.
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.
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 language learning program. In this program, you can watch authentic English videos with interactive captions to get natural context for your learning.
Having an English conversation at a restaurant isn’t as daunting as you may have thought.
With a little preparation and cultural understanding, you’ll walk out of that restaurant feeling pretty good about your language skills!
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