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Why Restaurants Still Can’t Shake Their Sexist Service Etiquette

When dining out, gender assumptions run so deep they’re sometimes unconscious — and more progressive approaches can hurt a server’s pocket

Amy, a 35-year-old writer in New York City, loves whiskey, but whenever she orders a neat scotch or an old-fashioned, it will inevitably be placed in front of her husband. Amy understands that this is because whiskey is coded as masculine, and it’s a mistake easily rectified by a simple drink switch after the server turns their back, but her husband has been in and out of recovery from alcoholism for almost a decade. “I can see him tense, and he goes quiet for a while,” she says of these serving assumptions. “Being sober in a drinking world is way, way hard for him.” 

Despite being a “big whiskey fan” — so enthusiastic about the drink she used to run a blog reviewing niche whiskies — she now orders more gender-neutral options like wine to spare her husband the discomfort. “It just felt like rubbing it in,” she continues, “and I got tired of watching him sweat.”

Gendered service like this is common: Sugary drinks, intricate cocktails, vegetarian and diet options, salad and white meat are automatically placed in front of feminine-presenting people, while whiskey, beer, red meat and other hearty, calorie-agnostic options like burgers get served up to their more masculine dining partners. “My long black always gets given to the guy, while I get his milky coffee,” says Meg, a 34-year-old CEO in New Zealand. For her part, Feliz, a 27-year-old writer in California, says her steak is often placed in front of her vegetarian boyfriend. “I always wonder why the servers don’t just ask which meal was ordered by who,” she muses, “especially with only two people at the table.”

In answer to that question, Connor, a 30-year-old bartender in Canada who has worked in the service industry for the past five years, says that “a lot of times when you’re asking a table who has what dish, people aren’t paying attention. You’re moving fast and have other things to do: maybe it’s running more food or drinks, or just getting to say hi to a new table.” 

Serving, of course, is difficult, skilled labor, often performed under stressful working conditions for little pay, and occasionally servers use gendered heuristics to keep things moving. Connor says he tries not to make assumptions, but is sometimes “beaten down” by the pressures of the job. “You’re in a rush, you care less, so you put the steak in front of the guy,” he says. “The times you’re right sort of roll off your back, but the times you’re wrong are mortifying.”

In a fine dining restaurant, servers might be expected to adhere to traditional service etiquette, in which women are served first, clockwise, at every stage of service during the meal, including wine. Failing to do so might mean being reprimanded by a boss or manager, or risk offending a traditionally minded customer. “As a server, you kind of have to stick to the norms,” says Ryan, who serves at a steakhouse in Minnesota. “If we don’t abide by rules like ‘ladies first’ while pouring, inevitably some old dude at the table who believes himself to be chivalrous will immediately remind us.” An insistence on bucking gender norms might hurt a server’s pocket, too: Ryan adds that this male objector “is often the person who will be tipping.” 

Payment is another area where gender assumptions run so deep that they’re sometimes unconscious. Plenty of feminine-presenting people report that the check is automatically handed to their masculine-looking dining companions, regardless of who has asked for it. Sophie, a 25-year-old Londoner, says this happened when she was paying for dinner for two in a casual noodle spot. “I handed the server my debit card and put my pin number into the machine,” she explains. “He took the card out and handed it back to my boyfriend.” 

The assumption that a man will pay is sometimes made explicit with separate “ladies’ menus” containing no price, which used to be the norm and are still found in some parts of Europe. “I was with my family in France and we decided to try some of the Michelin-starred restaurants, and in quite a few of them, they’d give my dad a menu that had prices on it, and the rest of the table — myself, my mother and my aunt — got a menu with just the dishes,” says Sarah, a 38-year-old buyer in Australia. “I’m not sure if we were supposed to find it charming or the assumption was that only a man could afford these fairly pricey dishes, but it was crazy to think that this was still being done.” These ladies’ menus existed in the U.S. too, until a feminist lawsuit made them too risky for restaurant owners

The experience of having your meal choice, drink and payment assumed on the basis of your gender presentation can be jarring, not just because of the sexism and binary norms these assumptions reinforce, but also the way in which they interplay with other realities in a person’s life (as with Amy’s husband and the temptation of her old-fashioneds). “My boyfriend is a teetotaling vegetarian, and he’s been served my beer, cocktails and steak before,” explains Emily, a 26-year-old student from London. “He was quite upset when he was given a cocktail once and didn’t realize it. He’s never drunk alcohol before and doesn’t drink because of religious reasons, so it was a damper on the evening.”

For transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming folk, these serving decisions are rife with the potential for misgendering. “I’m a masculine-leaning nonbinary person dating a femme woman, and almost every restaurant person calls me ‘sir’ by default,” explains Matthew, a 29-year-old software developer in New York. “And servers almost always hand me the wine list, and ask for her order first.” Matthew says this experience “stings” and adds that matters are made even more complicated “since we’re in a dominant/submissive dynamic with protocol about restaurants. I’m often ordering for both of us, and sometimes waiters double-check everything with her because they seem to want to make sure I’m not overstepping by making those choices for her.” 

Alcoholism, religious leanings, gender-nonconforming identities, BDSM relationships: All of these factors can mean that snap decisions made by servers can make for very unhappy customers, one reason why many restaurants, including high-end fine dining establishments, are doing away with gendered service in favor of neutral systems like serving clockwise

But as Ryan points out, this, in turn, upsets tradition-minded customers, some of whom see value in the old system. Steve, a 36-year-old former fine dining chef in New Jersey, still likes to use the traditional service he was trained in — women first, oldest to youngest and then men in the same order — when he serves Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at his home, even though it feels “very consciously antiquated.” “Such tiny courtesies were invented at least partially to paper over women’s daily oppression,” he explains. “I like to think the reason I do it is that it inverts the order of who typically receives deference and accommodation: Older women are made invisible, younger women are flattened into sexual objects, so serving them first says, ‘At my table, you’re a valued guest and your basic human need of sustenance matters.’” 

On how a nonbinary person might fit in with his serving system, he falters. “I could serve them first, the logic being that if I’m tipping the scales of oppression here, they’ve got it ‘the worst,’ but now this feels like I’m reducing everyone down to gender identity and centering it in a way that might even be embarrassing to someone,” he says. “And if they’re my kid, they’re privileged in several other ways, so it gets problematic quickly.”

“There’s no perfect answer,” he concludes, “which pokes a big hole in the entire thing.”