The unwritten rules of eating out: What Americans think about restaurant etiquette

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
April 19, 2024, 2:24 AM GMT+0

Eating out is governed by an unwritten rule book. Some behaviors are widely accepted, such as sending back an incorrect order. But others, such as refusing to pay for a disliked meal, are viewed by many Americans as faux pas.

A recent YouGov survey asked 1,000 American adults about the acceptability of 40 restaurant behaviors: 20 by customers and 20 by restaurant management or staff. People are generally willing to give more leeway on the guest actions we inquired about, but most draw the line at some point, suggesting that many Americans think the customer is not, in fact, always right.

Customer behavior

What behaviors do Americans think are no-nos for restaurant customers? At least eight in 10 Americans say it is unacceptable for diners to do each of the following: say they won't pay for a dish they didn't like but ate, allow their children to roam freely, debate menu prices with the staff (84%), stay past the restaurant's closing time, or snap their fingers to get the waiter's attention.

At the other end of the acceptability spectrum, more than half of Americans say it's acceptable to do each of the following: ask for a to-go container to take home leftovers, send back a dish that wasn't made as specified, take photos of their food, ask to split the bill between a large number of people, and ask to be seated before their entire party arrives.

Some of the most divisive customer behaviors — meaning a significant portion of people say they are acceptable and unacceptable — are asking to taste a bottle of wine before purchasing it, asking for multiple modifications to a menu item, taking an extended period of time to decide what to order, and leaving no tip after receiving bad service.

There are some differences on restaurant etiquette by gender and age. For example, women are more likely than men to say it's acceptable for restaurant customers to take photos of their food (81% vs. 68%). And adults under 45 are more likely than older adults to say it's acceptable for guests to ask for a table near a power outlet to charge their devices (63% vs. 42%).

Restaurant behavior

When it comes to actions taken by restaurants and their staff, at least three-quarters of Americans believe it's unacceptable to do each of the following: charge for tap water, not indicate prices next to items on the menu, require each guest to spend a minimum amount, and play music at a high volume.

More say it's acceptable than say it is unacceptable to not allow reservations, to charge a cancellation fee for reservations not honored, and to require formal attire for dining.

The restaurant policies that Americans are most divided on are offering discounts to guests who provide positive reviews online, not allowing children to dine in the restaurant, offering only communal seating rather than private tables, and having a no-phone policy at the dining table.

Older adults are more disapproving than younger ones of several restaurant policies: Americans 45 and older are more likely than younger adults to say it's unacceptable for restaurants to only offer communal seating (51% vs. 29%), to exclusively use digital menus (68% vs. 48%), and to play music at a high volume (87% vs. 65%).

People who eat at restaurants at least once a month are more likely than those who dine out less often to say it's unacceptable for restaurants to use dynamic pricing, in which prices vary based on demand or time (71% vs. 59%).

— Carl Bialik contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on April 1 - 8, 2024 among 1,042 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty (filadendron)