English for Everyday Life: Master Common Phrases at a Restaurant

Eating out at a restaurant can be a daunting experience for anyone, especially for those learning a new language. Not only do you have to navigate the menu and figure out what you want to eat, but you also have to communicate your order to the server and understand their responses. It can all feel overwhelming, but fear not! With a little practice and some basic vocabulary, you can master the art of ordering food at a restaurant in English.

In this blog post, we’ll go over some common phrases and vocabulary that you can use at a restaurant.  Finally, we’ll discuss cultural differences for tips / gratuity, the different types of restaurants you might visit, and choosing healthy foods at the restaurant.

By the end, you’ll be able to confidently order food and drinks, ask for the bill, and even make small talk with your server. Let’s get started!

Ordering food and drinks

When you’re ready to order, the server will typically ask you, “What would you like to drink?” or “Can I start you off with something to drink?” Here are some common responses you can use:

“I’ll have a glass of water, please.”

“Can I get a soda/pop/Coke/Pepsi?”

“I’d like a beer/wine/cocktail.”

“Do you have any recommendations for drinks?”

Once you’ve ordered your drink, the server will likely ask for your food order. Here are some phrases you can use to order:

“I’ll have the chicken/steak/salad/pizza/etc.”

“Can I get the burger/sandwich/pasta/soup/etc. with extra/no onions/tomatoes/lettuce/etc.?”

“I have a food allergy. Can I see the allergen menu?”

“I’m vegetarian/vegan. Do you have any options for me?”

Asking for the bill

After you’ve finished eating, the server will typically bring the bill and ask if you’d like to pay at the table or at the cashier.  Note that in America servers will bring the bill on their own to the table without you asking.  In some cultures, you have to ask for the bill when you are done eating.  Here are some phrases you can use to pay the bill and leave a tip:

  • “Can I pay with a credit/debit card/cash?”
  • “Can you split the bill/check/tab between (number) of people?”
  • “Can I add a tip/gratuity to the bill?”
  • “Can you give me the bill/check/receipt, please?”
  • “Is the bill ready?”
  • “Can you bring the bill, please?”
  • “Can you tell me how much the bill comes to?”
  • “Can I have the bill, please?”
  • “Do you accept card/credit/debit payments?”
  • “Can I pay by card/credit/debit?”
  • “Do you have a card reader/POS terminal?”
  • “Can you swipe my card, please?”
  • “Can you split the bill by item/person?”
  • “Can you add a tip/gratuity to the bill?”
  • “How much should I tip?”
  • “Can you put the tip on my card?”
  • “Can you give me the bill/check/receipt, please?”
  • “We’d like the check, please”

Remember that the phrases and vocabulary used at a restaurant may vary depending on where you are in the world. In some places, the server may ask you if you want to pay at the table or at the cashier, while in other places they may simply bring the bill to your table without asking. It’s always a good idea to listen carefully and ask for clarification if you’re unsure about anything.

Making small talk with the server

Making small talk with the server can be a great way to practice your English and build a rapport with the person taking care of you. Small talk means polite comments about common things designed as “conversation fillers”.  It is a polite way to express that you are interested in talking with the other person, without overly intruding into their personal life. Here are some conversation starters you can use:

“How’s your day going?”

“Do you have any recommendations for the menu?”

“What’s the most popular dish on the menu?”

“Do you have any specials tonight?”

Additionally, here are some polite phrases you can use to show your appreciation for the server’s service:

“Thank you for taking care of us.”

“Your service is excellent/great/wonderful.”

“We really enjoyed the food/drinks.”

“Did you have a busy night?”

“What’s the weather like outside?”

“Have you tried any of the dishes on the menu?”

“Do you know what time the restaurant closes?”

“Do you have any plans for the weekend?”

Remember, the goal of small talk is to make the other person feel comfortable and to establish a friendly connection. So, don’t be afraid to ask questions and engage in conversation with your server. And don’t forget to use polite phrases to show your appreciation for their service. After all, they are there to make your dining experience as enjoyable as possible.

Common restaurant vocabulary

To fully understand and participate in a conversation at a restaurant, it’s important to know some basic vocabulary. Here are some common words and phrases you might hear at a restaurant:

Menu: a list of dishes and drinks that the restaurant offers

Appetizer/starter: a small dish that’s served before the main course

Entrée: the main dish of a meal

Specials: dishes or drinks that are offered at a discounted price or are not regularly on the menu

Dessert: a sweet dish that’s served after the meal

Side dish: a dish that’s served alongside the main dish

Beverage: a drink (alcoholic or non-alcoholic)

Allergen menu: a menu that lists dishes that contain common allergens, such as nuts, dairy, or gluten, that people might not be able to eat because they are allergic to these products.

Vegetarian: a person who does not eat meat

Vegan: a person who does not eat any animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs

Host/hostess: the person who greets you at the entrance of the restaurant and shows you to your table

Waiter/waitress: the person who takes your order and serves your food

Server: another term for the person who takes your order and serves your food

Chef: the person who prepares the food in the kitchen

Bill/check: the document that lists the items you ordered and their prices

Tip/gratuity: an *optional extra payment given to the server to show appreciation for their service. (*Note: In America, a tip or gratuity is expected, and culturally it is considered mandatory unless the service was extremely bad).

Tipping in America – cultural differences

In the United States, it is customary to leave a gratuity (also known as a “tip”) when dining at a restaurant. This is because restaurant workers, including servers, are typically paid low wages and rely on tips to make a living.

Leaving a tip is not only a way to show appreciation for good service, but it is also an important part of the American economy and culture. It is considered polite to leave a tip that is at least 15% of the total bill, although some people may choose to leave a higher amount for exceptional service.

When dining out in America, be sure to budget for a tip in addition to the cost of your meal. You can leave the tip in cash or add it to your credit card bill. If you’re unsure of the appropriate amount to leave, a good rule of thumb is to tip at least $1 per person for a quick meal at a casual restaurant, and at least 15% for a sit-down meal at a nicer restaurant.  Leaving a tip at a restaurant in America is an important part of the culture and a way to show appreciation for good service.

Fast Food or Casual Dining?

When it comes to dining out when visiting America, there are two main types of restaurants you might eat at: fast food and casual dining, or “sit-down” restaurants. While both types of restaurants serve food, there are some key differences between the two.

Fast food restaurants are typically cheaper and offer a limited menu of quick, convenient meals that are designed to be eaten on the go. These restaurants often have a drive-thru option, allowing customers to order and pick up their food without leaving their car. Examples of fast food restaurants include McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s.

On the other hand, casual dining or sit-down restaurants are typically more expensive and offer a wider variety of dishes that are cooked to order. These restaurants often have a nicer atmosphere, with table service and a full menu of appetizers, entrees, and desserts. Examples of sit-down restaurants include Applebee’s, Chili’s, and Olive Garden.

One of the main differences between fast food and sit-down restaurants is the level of service. At a fast food restaurant, customers typically order their food at a counter and then receive their meal in a bag or tray. At a sit-down restaurant, customers are greeted by a host or hostess, shown to their table, and then served by a waiter or waitress.

Another key difference is the quality of the food. Fast food restaurants often use cheaper ingredients and mass-produce their dishes, which can result in lower quality food. Sit-down restaurants, on the other hand, tend to use fresher ingredients and prepare their dishes to order, resulting in a higher quality meal.

In addition to fast food and sit-down restaurants, there is a third type of dining establishment known as fast casual. Fast casual restaurants are a hybrid of fast food and sit-down restaurants, offering a higher quality of food than fast food restaurants at a slightly higher price point.

Fast casual restaurants often have a more upscale atmosphere than fast food restaurants, with sit-down tables and sometimes table service. They also often offer a wider variety of menu items, including salads, sandwiches, and other healthier options. Examples of fast casual restaurants include Panera Bread, Chipotle, and Shake Shack.

One of the key features of fast casual restaurants is their emphasis on fresh, high-quality ingredients. Many fast casual restaurants use organic, locally-sourced ingredients and prepare their dishes to order. This allows them to offer healthier, more flavorful food than what is typically found at fast food restaurants.

Choosing Healthy Foods at a Restaurant

It’s no secret that America has a health problem, and that much of the fast food available is very bad for your health.  When visiting America or any other English-speaking country in the Western World, it’s important to try to be healthy when eating at a restaurant. 

To stay healthy when eating out, it’s important to be mindful of the types of foods you are choosing. Avoid dishes that are high in sugar, such as sugary drinks, desserts, and condiments. Instead, opt for water or unsweetened drinks, and choose vegetables or fruit for a healthier dessert option.

To avoid processed foods when eating out, choose dishes that are made with whole, unprocessed ingredients.  Some nutritionists believe that highly processed chemicals and seed oils commonly found in fast food can be harmful to your health.  Instead, look for menu items that are grilled, baked, or steamed, rather than fried or breaded. And try to choose dishes that are made with fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole proteins, rather than processed meats and packaged sauces.  If you’re at a common fast food restaurant, the easiest way to do this is to order a salad to eat.

In conclusion, learning some basic phrases and vocabulary can make ordering food at a restaurant in English feel much more manageable.  Knowing a few “tips” about American culture like tipping, the different types of restaurants, and how to stay healthy can help you really enjoy your restaurant experience. With a little practice, you’ll be able to confidently navigate the menu, communicate your order, and make small talk with the server. Remember to keep a positive attitude and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Happy dining!

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