Questions that'll make your server angry

With over 15 years experience in the restaurant industry, working in major cities up and down the East Coast, I assure you, if there is a question that a server can't stand to hear, I've heard it a thousand times. If you happen to be a fellow server, I'm confident you'll agree that some of these questions are the ones that make you fantasize about squirting ketchup in a customer's eye. Wondering if you've asked some of the very same questions that servers can't stand to hear? Read on to find out... 

Can you adjust the heat/air conditioning?

Look, if you're sitting under a gigantic ceiling fan, I may just wield enough power in my position to switch it off. But the actual heat or air conditioning? Not bloody likely. If you're a person who is prone to running chilly or warm, and you haven't worn the correct layers of clothing, I would advise you to assess your comfort with the temperature at your table as soon as you sit down, not wait until you've ordered. You really think the boss listens to me?

Can you change the music?

See previous remarks. If I'm dealing with a manager or boss in the building, all bets are off when it comes to the music. Particularly since it's so subjective. I once worked at a place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where the owner would periodically go through an Edith Piaf phase, blaring French-language torch songs into the dining room day and night. Did people complain? You bet they did. But we also had people who swooned for it and begged us never to shut it off. Go figure.

Can I use your pen?

Ask any server friend you may have, and I'm sure they'll agree that this is the bane of their existence. It's hard enough to keep a hold of a set of pens in a restaurant, with customers walking off with them whenever they sign their credit card slip, or other servers grabbing them off your table. I used to buy a ten-pack of pens a week when I was serving, and by Saturday night I was still scrounging in my couch cushions and behind the hostess stand to find enough to get me through my shift.

Why don't you have... ?

Almost every shift you'll encounter a customer who wants to order something from the version of the menu that got changed three years ago. Even more irritating, you'll also get customers who want to know why you don't have something they just feel like eating. Like ostrich burgers. Or spaghetti squash. Or something they really should have just stayed home and cooked themselves — or maybe went someplace else that actually serves that dish.

What drinks do you have?

Really? Are you really going to make me run down the entire list of soft drink options for you? Are you seriously incapable of reading the beer list that's sitting right there on the table in front of you? Ask me if we carry Coke or Pepsi products, and if we have your favorite beer on tap. Those are fair questions. You could even ask me if we brew fresh iced tea. But making me recite an alphabetical list of every option we have for you to wet your whistle... we'll be here until the breakfast shift.

Can we split the tab ten ways?

An even split isn't that big of a deal. Time consuming, yes, but if all I'm doing is splitting that bill evenly it's not exactly brain surgery to figure it out. What question does make my brain want to explode out of my head, however? Customers wanting me to tally up the exact portion of what they individually ordered. Yes, there are certain chain restaurants of the late-night variety that offer this as a service for their customers, but if you have to ask, this probably isn't that place.

Can we change tables?

I want to clear this one up once and for all: if I have already taken your order, it is absolutely a big deal if you want to change tables, particularly if you want to switch to a table that isn't in my section. I'm not going to begrudge you the switch if there's a serious problem, like a bad spill that needs to be cleaned, or you have a wonky table that we can't seem to fix, but switching tables once I have your order in the system, or even worse, food on the table, is seriously no bueno.

What's good?

I can't tell you how many times I heard my Grandma ask servers this question, and watched as they tried not to roll their eyes at her. During my years waiting tables, this same question made me momentarily smile as I remembered those days with my Grandma, until I recalled what's so incredibly maddening about this question in the first place... I don't know what you like! I could tell you that the best appetizer is the Mediterranean platter, and you could then tell me that you hate chickpeas and are allergic to olives. Give me a little more to work with here. Want to know the best items for sharing? Or maybe you're curious what the most popular menu item is? These are things I can handle. Mind reading, however, is not on my resume.

Can you hook me up?

Please, for the love of Christmas, don't be this person. This person will ask and ask for anything over and above what they have coming to them because... well, I'm not quite sure. They think they're that charming? They figure if they ask enough times, they actually will get something for free? No, I cannot ask the bartender to pour extra tequila in your margarita, I can't ask the chef to give you an extra large serving of chicken, and I can't ask the hostess to let your party of three have that eight-top in the corner. You want more bread? You got it.

Can you heat this up for me... ?

From Jenny Craig diet meals to gluten-free dinner rolls to children's TV dinners, I've had customers ask me to take their food they brought from home into the kitchen and heat it up for them. This is wrong on so many levels, but let's just stick to the basics. First of all, in most places, its completely illegal (cross contamination and all that business). It also takes precious time away from me and the cook doing... y'know, our actual jobs. Do me and everyone in your dinner party a favor, and leave the nut-free muffin in your purse until you get home... OK?

Can I substitute... ?

This one is right up there with the "hook it up" guy. At least once a week, a person will make an absolutely absurd substitution request. I'm not talking salad instead of fries. I'm talking about the person who would like chicken fingers instead of fries. Shrimp on their salad instead of tomatoes. Half an avocado on their burger instead of a slice of raw onion. And the worst part of this? They will stare at you earnestly while you have to explain to them how you can't do this for them, all the while fighting the urge to stick a fork in their eye.

Would it be cheaper if I... ?

Here we have a unique and perturbing twist on the person who wants an absurd substitution, particularly because this customer is a special kind of time suck. This is the person who wishes to omit something that normally comes with their dish, like the cheese or the bread or the topping, and therefore seems to think that this entitles them to a reduction on the cost of their meal. I have seriously had people ask me questions like "but what would it cost if I got the chicken club sandwich without the bacon?" It would cost the price on the menu, ma'am. It would cost the price on the menu.

Can you make that gluten-free?

Tell me that you can't have gluten in your meal. That's OK, I can take it. And I'll direct you to the items on the menu that don't contain gluten (even though I can't guarantee it won't touch something in the kitchen, blah blah blah... ). But asking me if the chef can whip you up the spaghetti and meatballs, but make it gluten-free? If all you want is a bowl of marinara sauce, then yes, sure, coming right up. This scenario gets even better when you explain to a person who claims to be gluten-free that the menu item they just ordered does, in fact, have gluten in it, and they say "Oh, that's OK... I can have a little bit of gluten." Oy vey.

Can you charge my phone?

On the one hand, maybe I should be relieved that with your phone out of your reach, you won't be so distracted by it that you'll actually look at the menu and order in a timely fashion. On the other hand... are you really asking me to be responsible for your phone? There are loads of people meandering about this place, and I can't vouch for every person who happens to be passing by the dirty, sticky, and wet waiter's station where I'll have to lay it down while I actually do my job.

Can't you just ask the manager?

Bully for you sir, you've cracked the code! I've been working here three years, and told you explicitly and politely and in no uncertain terms that I cannot substitute a lobster tail for your mashed potatoes, can't give you a free shot of bourbon with your beer, and can't melt that butter substitute that you brought from home in our microwave... yet you think the manager may have a different answer!. Do you know what's actually going to happen here? The manager will come over to the table, feign concern, and then tell you EXACTLY WHAT I JUST DID. Please, save you, me, and the rest of your party some valuable time. You'll have your jalapeno poppers a lot faster that way.