When I lived in Portugal, one of the simplest things to do was really hard for me: ordering food at restaurants. I worried about being laughed at or not being understood. Often, I said just the name of the food and “please,” instead of full sentences.
Ordering food in a foreign language can be frightening! But in today’s Everyday Grammar, we’ll give you some expressions and suggestions for ordering at American restaurants.
Begin by greeting
Let’s begin with greetings. When ordering food in any restaurant, it’s a good idea to greet the person taking your order. You can say things like:
- Hi (or) hi there
- Good morning, afternoon or evening (or)
- How’s it going?
In the United States, asking someone you’ve never met how it’s going is just a friendly way of saying hello.
Kinds of restaurants
The language we use to order food usually depends on the kind of restaurant. Is it a casual place where you order at a counter? Or, is it a full-service restaurant – where a server comes to your table and takes your order?
Let’s listen to four common expressions used at American counter service restaurants. Imagine that you want to order tea:
- Can I get a medium tea, please?
- Can I order a medium tea, please?
- I’ll take a medium tea, please.
- I’ll have a medium tea, please.
The expressions “I’ll have…” and “I’ll take…” are useful at both counter service restaurants and full-service restaurants.
Listen to someone ordering food at a counter:
Hi there! How can I help you?
Hi, how’s it going? I’ll take a medium tea and a toasted whole wheat bagel with vegetable spread.
The worker might respond with one of these questions:
- Do you want anything else with that?
- Will that be all for you today?
If your answer is no to the first question or yes to the second, they might say this next:
Is that for here or to go?
They are asking whether you will eat at the restaurant or take the food away to eat elsewhere. The appropriate response is:
- To go, please (or)
- For here, thanks. *
OK, let’s move to full-service restaurants. These can range from very casual to very formal. At casual restaurants, you usually do not need a table reservation. But, at very busy restaurants and for formal dining, you often do.
At places where no reservations are needed, a host or hostess will greet you at the door with something like this:
Hi, welcome to Paprika! Party of how many?
They are asking how many people are in your group. Or, they may simply count your group and confirm the number:
- Party of four? (or)
- Table for four?
At places that require reservations, if you are the first of your group to arrive, tell the host what name the reservation is in and the time, for example:
Hi, I’m here for the 7:45 reservation for Bryant.
If some of your group members have not yet arrived, you will likely have to wait to be seated.
OK, so imagine that you are now seated with your group. Here’s what a server might say when they first come to your table:
Hi, my name is Alice and I’ll be your server today. Our special today is a tasty vegetable gumbo. Can I start you off with something to drink?
If you’re ready, you can respond:
- Yes, I’ll have an orange juice.
- Yes, I’d like an orange juice.
When they return with your drinks, they’ll likely check whether you’re ready to order food or have questions:
- Do you have any questions about the menu?
- Are you ready to order?
You can tell them your questions, if any. Or, maybe you’re unsure what to order. In that situation, ask for a suggestion, more details or more time:
- I’m having trouble deciding. What would you recommend?
- Can you tell me more about today’s special – what’s in it?
- We just need a few more minutes, please.
Paying the bill
OK, now imagine you’ve enjoyed your meal. It’s time to pay your bill. You can use eye contact to catch the server’s attention or just raise your hand halfway when they look in your direction. Here are three ways to ask for the bill:
- We’re ready for the check, please.
- Can we have the check, please?
- Check, please.
If people in your group wish to pay separately, you can request separate checks. Many – but not all – restaurants offer this.
And, lastly, at an American restaurant, don’t forget to leave a tip! A good tip is between 15 and 20 percent. But, read your bill carefully since some restaurants add the tip into the bill.
Ordering food in a foreign language is not easy at first, but after a few tries, I promise you will feel more at-ease.
Here’s what I suggest:
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Even if you use different expressions than you learned today, your server will probably understand you if you speak clearly. Also, don’t be afraid to ask the server to repeat themselves if their words are unclear or they speak too quickly.
Enjoy your meal!
I’m Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
*For many of these expressions, either “please” or “thank you” is acceptable.
Now, tell us about you! Answer one or both of the following questions:
1. Have you ever ordered food at an American restaurant – or any English-speaking restaurant? What was your experience? Were the workers friendly and easy to understand? Did you find anything pleasant, memorable, strange or funny about the way things are done?
2. Some food names are not what they seem. Have you ever ordered the wrong food in another language? For example, in America, sweetbread is not bread and head cheese is not cheese. What did the server do to help resolve the situation?
Words in This Story
greeting – n. something that is said or done to show people that you are happy to meet or see them
casual – adj. designed for or permitting ordinary dress, behavior or language
counter – n. a piece of furniture with a flat surface that workers and customers stand on opposite sides of
bagel – n. a bread roll shaped like a ring
formal – adj. requiring or using serious and proper clothes and manners
reservation – n. an arrangement to have something (such as a room, table, or seat) held for your use at a later time
bill – n. a document that says how much money you owe for something you have bought or used
check – n. a bill for the food and drinks that are served in a restaurant
tip – n. an extra amount of money that you give to someone, such as a server, who performs a service for you