Dining Out and Restaurants

Negotiating Social Transactions on The Spectrum

What This Is

This is a part of a list of miscellaneous adaptations and accommodations that are useful for people on the autism spectrum. Dining out and restaurants are sufficiently ritualized to be an issue by itself.
"The Spectrum" generally means the autism Spectrum, including Asperger's syndrome, HFA, PDD, Kanner's autism, and other autism spectrum conditions. Many of us are comfortable with the generic reference of "autistic".


exercises.html and etc.html describes where people on "the Spectrum" have difficulty in understanding the nuances of daily negotiated transactions. This page addresses specific social issues and customs related to dining out.

BORING TEXT WARNING: A lot of this is obvious and therefore boring. I've noticed in life that some things are obvious only in hindsight.

Dining Out is a Social Situation

... and carries issues ranging from awkwardness and manipulation
In general, dining out is a chance to see NTs at their best, meaning being exceptionally polite and accommodating.
There are still social tricks to be aware of.
A mixture of cynicism, in combination with a presumption that the other person is making an effort to be accommodating is a good approach. It is important to presume the other person is being helpful until proven otherwise.


Food service people are among the most dedicated to customer service, but the intensity of customer interaction sometimes leads to less-than-satisfactory results. In all cases, the idea is to make the transaction go smoothly.
Read the menu and plan accordingly.
This is something many autistics miss, perhaps because the social cues which suggest expediting ordering are not always obvious. To complicate this, a routine that works with a familiar restaurant, where the menu is almost memorized, doesn't transfer where there are no obvious favourite choices.

The idea is to avoid delaying either the order taker or your friends while giving your order. If you are trying to decide while your order is being taken, you are delaying others.
(Provolone is generally available in the Northeast US.) In the first example, the order-taker may only remember "cheese" and you get the default type. If you don't use the word "cheese", that becomes difficult to confuse. If asked if I mean "Provolone cheese", I'll say yes, but at that point, there is no longer an ambiguity.

Sometimes a "long form" of the request makes more sense:
"May I have a slice of real butter; not margarine."

Priceless Items
described below

Ordering and Questions

It is important to avoid delaying people when ordering.

Ideally, this means knowing what you want and ordering when asked. It is considered rude to delay a group or server while deciding. Exceptions are brief delays responsive to a selection.

Avoiding Delaying Others

Sometimes delays are easy to avoid, but sometimes there is reason for indecision. Here is where it takes a conscious effort or strategy:
Look at the menu and make decisions at the earliest convenience. In a few instances, it may even be possible to preview the selection on-line. Regardless, the time to deliberate when deciding is before being asked.

In many cases it is possible to delay. If you are undecided, say so. ("I am not ready.")

Have a "backup" selection.
It is generally possible to ask about one item, and in cases of cryptic menus, several items. If, after getting the answer, you are unsure of the item, you would then be able to select the "backup" selection.

It is also possible to ask the server to get back to you or ask people you are with to go ahead of you. The key is to avoid delaying the group or the server.

Avoid too many questions
It's okay to ask a few questions about the menu items, but if you expect to have a question about an item, identify a second menu item in case you don't like the answer.
If asking questions, make sure the questions are reasonable.
Some of this is cultural. You should determine that a question is culturally acceptable to ask before asking it.
For example, if "meatballs" are described on a menu, it is generally acceptable to ask, "What kind of meat is in the meatballs." (i.e., meatballs are made of different kinds of meat and it is reasonable to want to know what kind.) Similarly, some items are prepared from fresh or frozen items. It is sometimes (perhaps not always) possible to ask if the item is fresh or frozen.
The general criteria for asking questions is whether the questions are polite and culturally acceptable, and whether the questions are seen as delaying people.

It is always okay to ask about allergens (if allergic).
Most people with allergies have strategies to determine if the person answering understands the allergin to the extent necessary to give an accurate answer.

Use unambiguous language.
I often order food with a cheese other than processed cheese food (called "American cheese" in North America). Consider:
1. "with Provolone cheese"
2. "with Provolone"

If expressed politely, it is likely that the waiter will remember you and remember your requests. Still it is best to repeat the requests (at least in an abbreviated form) because human memory is not the equivalent of what is on this computer.

Manners While Dining

Learn the manners necessary for the venue.
It is not always necessary to use formal dinner manners, but there are only a few instances where applying formal manners to an informal situation is inappropriate.

There are a number of different explanations of table manners, on the web and elsewhere, in different formats. If you are unsure in this area, read up on it. Once knowledgeable about the subject, it should be apparent what is important and what is not.

Avoid cellphone use (unless relevant to the immediate conversation).
Usually the "hang up  button will terminate ringing. If the call is important, excuse yourself and go to a restroom or outside. In most cases, if it's important enough to interrupt present company, you probably have aides who can handle such emergencies. Exceptions are people expected to be "on-call", such as some physicians.

An Example of Public Manners - "Priceless" Items

Please excuse the details -- If you're experienced in dining out, treat this as a kind of sardonic commentary on life and enjoy! If this seems boring, just skip over it!

The "priceless items" issue was chose as an example of a social situation which requires careful responses to avoid social offence, and also requires different approaches in different circumstances.

The "priceless items" issue involves the confluence of:

  1. distinguishing the problem from very similar circumstances where the problem doesn't exist
  2. determining whether circumstances are appropriate to raise the issue
  3. determining how to raise the issue without offending friends
  4. objecting in a polite manner, and in accordance with social norms

Also (in sharp contrast with the Telemarketing "exercises it is important that, You should be careful to not be rude to the server or wait-person.

The analysis of the social situation is very complicated, but the required behaviour is fairly simple. In addition, it is possible to "back out" at any time.

So here it is:

"Priceless" menu items at restaurants make good exercise material for negotiated transactions because this involves a confluence of the negotiation, social situations being exploited, and a need to match the negotiation to socially acceptable customs and norms.

In a typical example, a restaurant waiter or waitress presents what in the US are referred to as "specials". (These are items not listed on the printed menu. Historically, in the US, "specials" were particular items offered as a slight discount from comparable items on the menu, or in some cases discounted menu items. More recently, "specials" were increasingly used to describe items not on the menu. Some restaurants started charging prices in excess of comparable menu items for "specials" and are likely to recite the items and "forget" to mention price.)

The problem is a social one which is taken advantage of some unscrupulous restaurants and their staff. The patron would not wish to object because doing so can be perceived as rude.

The exercise is to:

  1. determine whether to say anything; and
  2. how to say it in a gracious manner.
  3. how to avoid social stigmas, even if the price enquiry is done graciously.

So according to the two steps:

  1. it may be best to not say anything; and
  2. if anything is said, it must be done in a gracious (polite) manner.
If you decide to say something, you would still follow the four priorities listed in exercises.html.

There are, of course, several alternatives. For example, you can either ask for the prices, accept the prices, or request time to discuss the order. Discussing the issue with someone with you has the advantage that you would not be in the socially awkward situation of simultaneously objecting to the "forgotten" prices and explaining your objection to your friends.
My own take is that if an establishment is embarrassed about the price, then the item is probably not worth it.

Your objection must be such that your friends are not offended, embarrassed or outraged.

Do make sure that the items are indeed "priceless". (e.g., the item could be priced on a board near the entrance, or generically listed on the menu with a price as a "de jour" item.)

Also determine if the absence of the price is intentional. Some items are at a presumed price, such as beverages and even desserts in some cases. Decide if the missing prices would normally be understood in the culture. If something is made to appear to have a presumed price, it's often possible to say, "I don't know the customary price for these items."

The situation is complicated with a group party sharing a single bill. It's sometimes possible to tell a dining partner that you prefer to avoid the unpriced items, or that you suspect there is a reason the items are "priceless". You can also agree in advance to avoid "specials" if there's no price.

A better approach is by NT-style indirectness (useful when dealing with NT crap). Ask for "a minute to think about it (the selection)" and when discussing it privately, comment that the 'specials' sound good but they have no prices."

In the worst of circumstances, you can pay your share and discuss that "priceless items" are often that way for a reason, and that the amount charged for these were out of line with the prices for listed items.

Or just "blow it off" (ignore it). To paraphrase a comment often made by those who usually have others pay the bill, "If you have to ask, then you can't afford it." (If you can't discuss it with that person, you can't afford to invite the person out to a dinner. That's why they have Starbucks.)

Some Techniques for "Priceless" Items while in Social Situations

Pick your battles on this one. The approach should be polite and non- confrontational. If you're with people, a request for prices should also sound reasonable. For example "priceless" menu items may be double the price for comparable items with prices. In some cases it's easier to simply avoid the priceless items. Possible ways to ask for the prices:

"These sound interesting. May we have the prices for these?"

"May we have the prices?"
As you can see, it is particularly difficult to ask this one in some circumstances.

"These look very interesting. I don't know the customary prices."
Sometimes affected. May be mildly aggressive or assertive. This works best if the immediate circumstance suggests asking for help (at one extreme) or false presumptuousness on the part of the staff (at an opposite extreme).

This approach has the advantage in that if the prices are within a customary range, you are simply asking for help in understanding that range.

For items which have a presumed customary price (beverages and desserts, but you don't know the customary prices) - "I don't know the customary prices for these items."
That places the "blame" on the patron, but in a favourable manner. NTs (neurologically typical people) consider this to be good diplomacy.

"I don't know the customary prices."
This variation has the advantage that it directly states a part of the problem, with the speaker "owing up to" the statement.
(The "owning up to" the statement comes from the part where the problem is stated in terms of the person making the statement. The prices may be hidden, knowledge of a social custom presumed, and social pressure tricks being employed by the business, but the problem is stated in terms of the result.)

At this point, the server can claim not to know (but will somehow be able to write the bill), but at least the charade of nonchalance over price is terminated.

"You're not giving us the prices. Does that mean that the prices are the same for comparable menu items?"
- This is more accusatory ("You are"). That's confrontational and not always acceptable conversation. If you don't know if the conversation is unacceptably confrontational, don't do it.

The "You're not giving us the prices." part may be too aggressive or assertive.

"I take it these are in the same price range as printed on the menu?"
This avoids the "You're not giving the prices" statement. The employee can either give the prices or withhold them. Either way, you know where you stand.

"I presume all of these are priced the same?" (similar items such as desserts)
If the answer doesn't include the price, then it's probably polite to ask what the price is. A reply without the essential information is called a "negative pregnant", meaning that the absence of information in a statement (the answer) carries significant information (in this case that the price is not forthcoming). At that point, directly asking for the price is acceptable in some circumstances.

"You forgot the prices."
That is probably too abrupt, but it looks good on paper.

Ask an indirect question about prices.
If done politely, this can be a good option. This can be used to deflect social stigma and direct confrontation: "How does the restaurant decide on the prices?"

One possibility is to "triangulate". "Triangulate" means to shift the "blame" or cause for concern to a third party. (This can be polite, good or malicious, depending on circumstances.)

If you are in a situation where you can use the term "shared" regarding price, you can state concern for your friends: "I'm hesitant about buying 'priceless' items unless I know for sure I'm the one paying for it." (This is called "triangulation" because you are expressing concern for your friend, but the situation also concerns you.)
At this point, you may be with others and not know the correct response. The easiest way to handle this is to:
  1. Determine if it will help to interrupt the order so as to discuss the issue with your company. If it's appropriate to interrupt to discuss the menu, then it may be okay to interrupt the order.
  2. Ask the server if you may have a minute or two "to decide" (or to discuss with the group).
  3. When alone, ask the other members if the issue "is okay" with them. If necessary, apologize for not being familiar with the custom.
Your company or guests may be the major impediment. You need to be "gracious". This can include NT customs, but also includes social customs which are learned from experience.

If you feel "rolled over" to the extent that you are unable to say anything, it's always possible to say, "we need a minute to discuss it. Then you can say to your company that you don't know the restaurant's customary prices.

You may suggest an alternative, for example if the priceless item is dessert, simply say it's more fun to go elsewhere (or that it's more fun to go elsewhere and you're uncomfortable with unstated prices). Autistics are good at pre-planning for anticipated events, so use that skill!

Prior Arrangements

While not directly a part of the "exercise" agenda, it helps to anticipate your position. You should build a favourable consensus ahead of time among your friends. It is definitely a part of social etiquette to have exchanges go smoothly.

It helps to make arrangements with dining partners ahead of time in cases in which the bill is being paid by you. This can be:

a general comment describing "priceless" items.

Simply mention to them that when prices aren't stated it's because they are out of sync with the prices on the menu.
Direct and sometimes the most expeditious. Make sure your comment doesn't sound too affected or petty. Don't apply your statement literally because others may not consider things like unpriced coffee in that category.

If it is appropriate to say that the person is dining as your guest, you can add, "except for 'special' items".
This presents a socially acceptable way to state generosity, but also state limits to the generosity.

Specific Example - Mid-Meal Marketing at Restaurants

This example is described here at The Telemarketing Scum Page

back to Exercises

back to etc.

back to Relationships index

First posted 11-Jan-03. Last revised 13 Nov 11.

Questions - see FAQs.      

Comments about this site: email me

SCN Home Page