Guide to Ordering in English at a Restaurant

Ordered dinner at restaurant in New York CityOrdering food at a restaurant when you are still learning the language can feel very overwhelming. Make the experience less stressful. Learn these commonly used social rules and phrases for your next restaurant visit.

Eating out is a big part of American culture, and speaking with new people, like the waiter at your local cafe, will help you become more fluent in conversational English. The more you practice in new settings and at different eateries, the more you can improve your knowledge of local flavors and cooking styles, too. After all, you want to be able to enjoy the delicious and diverse food available in New York City! (Check out our blog post to learn about other fun ways to enjoy NYC.)

Helpful Phrases for the Ordering Process

The first step to successfully ordering at a restaurant is to learn phrases that guests commonly use. Similar to when you ask for directions, you’ll want to start with an informal, polite greeting. Most employees at a restaurant will start by asking engaging questions like, “how are you doing today?” If you are with a big group at dinner, they may ask, “how is everyone doing this evening?” These are common phrases meant to make your experience enjoyable. Since employees at restaurants are paid mostly in tips, they prioritize taking care of all your service needs and making sure you are enjoying your meal. A simple response like, “I am doing well, thank you” will work.

When it comes time to order, using questions instead of demands will help make your English sound more natural and polite. Instead of saying, “I want…” you can say, “May I please order the…?” or, “Can I try your…?” followed by the name of the food or drink item you want to try. The waiter may ask you follow-up questions depending on the item you order. For example, if you order eggs for breakfast, they may ask you how you want them cooked. You can respond with “scrambled” if you want the yolk and white of the egg stirred together and cooked in a pan. Or, you could say “sunny side up” if you want your eggs fried only on one side with a runny yolk in the center.

Another common example is when you order a steak or hamburger. Your waiter will ask you, “How do you want it cooked?” You can answer by saying “rare” if you want it less cooked and pink in the center, “medium rare” if you want it with a little bit of pink, and “well done” if you want it completely cooked with no pink.

These are just a few specific examples, but others may come up during your meal. If you are unsure, you shouldn’t feel bad asking the waiter to phrase the question differently. For more guidance, check out our blog post about asking for clarification.

Another common practice in America is asking the waiter what he or she prefers. You can even ask for recommendations on which menu item you should order! This will help you experience new foods and learn more about the unique parts of American culture.

After your food arrives at your table, it is also common practice for your waiter to come back to check on you. During this time, you can ask for anything else you need to make your meal more enjoyable. This could be different sauces, like ketchup and salad dressing, or a refill on your drink, which is usually free during your meal. This is also the perfect time to practice more English! If they are not too busy, ask your waiter what he or she recommends to do for fun in the neighborhood. It is common practice for the waiter to carry on a friendly conversation with guests, which makes eating at a restaurant one of many great places for practicing your conversation skills.

Other Common Words Used at Restaurants

The following are some other helpful phrases and words that you may hear while dining at a restaurant:

– The bill or check: This is the name of the receipt with the total cost for your meal. At most formal restaurants, your waiter will bring it to your table for you to leave your payment method, then take it back to process your payment at the back of the restaurant. Don’t forget to leave your tip at this time, too! It is common to leave between 15-20 percent of the total cost of your meal for a tip.

– Appetizers: These are shareable food items that you can order at the start of your meal. If you go out to eat with a group of friends, you can start your meal by ordering one or two appetizers so everyone can socialize and share different foods.

– Hostess: This is often the first person you will meet and talk to at a restaurant. The hostess, sometimes called the maitre d’, will take down your name and the number of people in your group, then seat you at your table when it is ready.

– Reservation: Often, restaurants in New York City can get crowded, and you may have to wait before you can sit down to order your food. You can always call ahead and make a reservation, which lets the restaurant know what time you are coming and how many people are in your group. That way, they can save a table for you, and you don’t have to wait.

Don’t Stress—Just Keep Practicing!

Remember, your experience at a restaurant should be friendly, informal, and focused on the good food. Don’t feel intimidated by a new space or speaking in public. At ALCC American Language, we can help you hone your English skills with courses for Conversational English and Accent Reduction so you can feel even more confident. Register online today to get started.

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