What do you say when you order food at a restaurant?

This post is not quite on my usual topic. It’s about a little linguistic issue that’s been bothering me of late – though it’s been around for a little while now. It’s this …

Cake with Cream

Albion Hotel, Braidwood

When you order food at a restaurant or cafe, what do you say? “May I have a long black please” or “I’d like the steak, medium rare, thanks”? Both of these sound reasonable to me, with the former being more formally correct. I did a little Google search, as you do, and I found English lessons for ordering in restaurants. At maltalingua.com, the recommendation is “I’d like the …” or, perhaps, “I’ll have the …”. Another site, elementalenglish.com, also suggests “I’ll have the …”. A third site, speakenglish.co.uk, suggests “I’ll have the …” too. “I’ll have the …” sounds a fair enough response when a server asks you what you’d like from a menu, though I’d prefer “I’d like the …”. But …

Where do the expressions that I seem to be hearing frequently now come from? The expressions I’m talking about are “Can I get …”, “Can I grab …”, or, less common, “I’ll take …”. Who is going to do the “getting”, “grabbing”, and “taking”? The customers? No, they are going to be sitting at the table or standing at the counter waiting for the staff to bring the items to them. So, why this form of ordering? It sounds less polite to me (though tone of voice can modify this). Does it matter? Am I being too pedantic?

62 thoughts on “What do you say when you order food at a restaurant?

  1. There seems scope for a dictionary about the origin and use of these sort of phrases – probably one exists and if not such a book would be both fascinating and useful. I think that yes, it kind of matters!

    • Thanks Ian, good point. There are books on almost everything else to do with food and restaurants, so why not this? I am conflicted about changes in language. I know it happens, but what does each change say about us? Sometimes I’m not sure I like what I think some changes mean.

  2. I have a terrible confession to make. I nearly always say, ‘Can I get a coffee, please?’ Instead of ‘May I have …’. I know it’s wrong and I used to squirm hearing other people saying it, but now I do it myself. WHY? It has wormed its way into my brain and I have no idea why it has become so ubiquitous. Where did it come from? ‘Friends’, perhaps? I’m sure it’s an Americanism, but why has it permeated Australian speech?

    • Thanks for being honest Teresa! (My husband has found himself doing the same!) I was thinking that it might be an Americanism.

      As for why you do it, I guess because you hear it all the time. That’s how language changes, isn’t it.

  3. No matter with what phrase you order your coffee/meal the reply will probably be ‘No worries’ or ‘No problem’ to which I am frequently tempted to reply ‘I should hope not – you are being paid to do it, and possibly be tipped, too.’ So far I have resisted the urge but I fear it will come out one day. As an octogenarian I would prefer a little more formality in our ‘public’ relations. Old habits die hard.

  4. I’m not sure about seeing this more informal usage in the public domain as “Americanism”. (Though one might argue that the ubiquity of US interview television/sit-coms on commercial television/in US movies must have some degree of influence.)

    I think it reflects rather the lessening of boundaries increasingly over what we think of as polite-formal contexts compared to the informal-colloquial. So as a child in the mid-20th century I was reminded to stand when a woman came into the room/allow females to precede me through the door/walk on the gutter side of the pavement – the woman to be on the shopfront side/to say “May I…” and using English language forms such as “I’d (I would) like…” or “Would you mind…” – when as we of a certain age recall being told that children were to be seen and not heard – when many attended one or other of the various churches and heard the polite-formal registers from priests/pastors – in formal rote prayers – or in the extempore prayers of the fundamentalist sect in which I was raised: “Heavenly Father we pray for your divine guidance…May we follow thy teachings…”! (When “can” meant ability to do – and was strongly contrasted with the request “may”!)

    I am uncomfortable about suggesting that what appear to be negative changes are “Americanisms”. I understand the feelings behind the sentiment – “our great and powerful friend” but I think several comments, including from WG are on the right track. Language changes – it always has – the OED is the greatest dictionary of English – and in its first incarnation was The New English Dictionary – based on Historical Principles. Printed by the Clarendon Press in Oxford – it took on that town’s name. The history of each word was given – we can read how over the centuries – some meanings have altered quite considerably. It gives us solid evidence for your understanding. When I was a young chap we used the word “chick” for young woman. That’s gone! As have many other words! Phillip Adams loves to keep using words like wireless and bonzer – but words like aerodrome seem gone!

    And there is no need to apologise for using the language of the moment as it sifts into and lodges in our language cortex and issues from our mouths!

    • Good comments Jim, with which I generally agree, except for a niggle. Is it a case of “anything goes”? And if it is, what does that mean for nuances of meaning? It seems completely paradoxical to me … And I struggle constantly with it in this little brain of mine.

  5. I’d never thought about it, but yes, we do take liberties with language when ordering. No, we don’t physically get or grab a coffee, but I think we’re trying to be informal and friendly when we order like this. Of course, it’s all to do with the tone of voice, inflection, posture, etc., you use as to how friendly we come across. Interesting point to raise, Sue.

    still order the way I always have done, with, ‘May I have the …’ Sounds quaint when I write it …

    • Ha ha … Still old school Louise! I think I often go a little less formal, with ‘I’d like …’ But I still also use ‘May I …’ too.

      I think it is trying to be friendly though the words themselves almost imply the opposite … The words aggressive to me though the tone, as we’ve discussed, rarely is.

      I was thinking about writers too … Should have put this in the post. What do you do if you have a scene with people meeting in a cafe? You need to be up with the usages of the period you are writing about’, don’t you?

  6. What we think we say and what we actually say may be different. I would have said that my usual pattern was “Could I have the barramundi please”. However, I had a casual meal at the Green Bamboo earlier on this evening, and I remember that what I actually said was “I’ll have the chicken pho, please”. The server did not, I am pleased to report, say “no worries”, but just checked back with me: “Chicken Pho” (with a rising intonation) and similarly with my dining companion for her order.

    • Lol, Glenys, I think that’s right about what we say and think we say. I think I now mostly use the ‘I’d like’ or ‘I’ll have’ … Depending a bit on how the server phrased it. I think I usually add ‘please’ at the end.

  7. I’ve noticed the ‘can I get’ thing recently here in Scotland. I really don’t like it but it seems to be the way younger people speak now. Languages always change I suppose and can’t be set in aspic but, it’s not always for the better.

    • Thanks piningforthewest, this brings in the whole question of “better” in language doesn’t it? I think our fear relates to several things, loss of nuance, loss of sensitivity to language (if you use incorrect forms/words then what does that say about your knowledge of your language?), and loss of, perhaps, understanding of social meanings that go with different usages. This latter may be a good thing in some instances where different forms/words can signify hierarchy?

  8. Who is going to do the “getting”, “grabbing”, and “taking”?

    Well I don’t know about you, but I’m doing all the grabbing.

    Seriously, I’m vegan so I rarely eat out.

  9. Here I am, American – and I’m beginning to think that many of our newer expressions are coming from Australia – (read The Slap or some other literature) – but lol – it’s probably us.

    I do NOT like “Let me grab a ….” it makes the speaker sound like he’s jogging or something quite active – walking out the door. I had one of my Kindergarten students say that – “Let me grab a pencil” – and English was his 2nd language! I could only think he’d got it from his parents – also 2nd language trying to incorporate slang into their more formal situations. (sigh)

    I usually say, “Could I have a …” or “I’d like a …” and choose something from the menu. Then I let the waiter ask me about the options – how its cooked, salad dressing, soup, what’s on the potato, etc. (And I think “Gimme a …” is totally rude.)

    Bottom line I think times change and language changes for a variety of reasons. I don’t have to approve or use it.

    I worked as a waitress getting through school and one time I asked a customer, “Will that be all?” and he blew up at me – “Isn’t that enough?” – lol – his wife had to settle him down.

    • LOL Bekah, I haven’t heard “gimme” yet, though maybe I haven’t been eavesdropping enough!

      What’s wrong with “will that be all”? I suppose it would be better to say “would you like anything else?” BTW waiters must see some interesting couple dynamics still times!

  10. WG,I have characters saying ‘A coffee would be lovely, please’ and ‘I could murder a gin & tonic’, so that doesn’t help much!
    I have no idea what I say (and will now be far too self-conscious to order honestly) but I do know that when I moved back to Australia from the US I was taken aback by the complex self-deprecation of Australian ordering ‘if you wouldn’t mind,could I just, if it’s not a problem could I,I was thinking that…’. After four years of ‘I’ll have the eggs over easy on rye, butter on the side, coffee and I’ll take another to go’ it seemed very odd. But in the ten years since I think the over-politeness has diminished quite significantly.

  11. I think that there are cultural differences in the way we order. When I was learning French, I was told by my (French) teacher that French waiters think you’re terribly rude (!) if you don’t preface your order with Bonjour, Monsieur, and then continue with ‘je voudrais…., s’il vous plait’ (I would like….please). I try to be a low-maintenance tourist so I comply with what she said, and have no problems with French waiters. (As long as they condescend to stroll over to my table, that is).
    But I people watch what happens with other customers. And invariably I see that Americans cop great hostility when they order by simply stating what they want. ‘Hey waiter, (from across the room) ‘butt’r here.) Not even a ‘please’, not even an English ‘please’). I saw this in (pre the Ukraine contretemps) Russia too, and once had to rescue a confused middle-aged man who had no idea that he had offended the waitress and just kept barking coffee at her over and over again, louder and louder while she pretended not to understand what he wanted. He was such a nice man, friendly and interesting to chat with, he was just doing what is (I assume) perfectly acceptable at home but not at all acceptable where he was.
    And I think that while there is a conflating of cultural mores among English speaking countries because we all interact with each other in a globalised world, and so the differences are generational (LOL you and I being old fogies with our formal ways, in my case exacerbated by me being resistant to popular culture) – this conflation is perhaps not happening in multi-lingual non-English speaking places, where cultural differences can cause misunderstanding and offence.

    • Interesting point Lisa – I like the way you put it – conflation of cultural mores. When my Jane Austen group was talking about “vulgar” characters yesterday, one of the definitions was not behaving/speaking appropriately to the situation – so your American tourist was being “vulgar” in Russia but at home was probably perfectly fine. It’s important, I agree, when travelling to be attuned to the mores of the place you are in.

      I think mores are changing somewhat in Europe too – though at maybe at a slower pace because they are more insulated via language from outside influences. For example, I’ve heard that there’s been some relaxation in the restrictions on the use of familiar pronouns in France.

      BTW, when it comes to language I resist popular culture too. When I went to university I never used the word “uni” though I must admit I’ve succumbed in recent times and do sometimes use the abbreviation. But then, I start think, that what I believe is correct or polite or formal language was probably once popular and rejected by the elders of the time. That disconcerts me!!

      • The thing is, it’s hard to be attuned to the places you go to. Guide books often don’t tell you what you need to know, and tour guides don’t either. (Imagine a tour guide telling a bus load of American tourists that their friendly, relaxed, frank-and-open informality when speaking is considered rude!! There go the tips LOL!)
        And besides, this very post shows how confusing it all is. If one were trying to advise someone to be attuned to Australian ways, what would one advise him/her to say when ordering?
        (And there you see my own fuddy-duddy way of speaking, using ‘one’ as a generalised 2nd person pronoun instead of the specific ‘you’. How old-fashioned, how plummy British is that?!!)

        • Fair enough Lisa … And yet I’m not sure you can’t tell people what behaviour is expected in different countries. Our guide in Spain did.

          As for “one”, I seem to switch between the two ie “one” and “you”. Neither is comfortable.

  12. I’m often amused at the response “Not a problem” that the waiter gives after you’ve placed your order. Surely if it’s a cafe/restaurant that sells food and it’s on the menu, then it shouldn’t be a problem, should it??

  13. I’m not sure what I say now! I don’t think I’ve ever said “can I grab”, but probably have said “could I have”, which I guess is asking permission in a way, but I think I most often say “I’d like the …”. Apart from the grabbing, most of it doesn’t bother me. And generally as long as they have what I’m trying to order I don’t think I notice what the waiter says back to me. I must say that the word that leapt out at me was server- I find that dreadfully American (although I’m not certain that it is- and you do eat out much much more than I do). Actually I think perhaps we respond to however the waiter asks “what would you like?” “I’d like”; “what will you have?” “i’ll have”. At least I suspect I do.

    • It’s hard, Louise, to think about what one says when asked, I think. Re server, I tossed up between waiter and server, but often for the latter on gender grounds! There’s no servress as far as I know, but there is waitress, so I decided to use the term that is totally gender neutral.

      The phrase I hear most commonly is “I’ll get” with the “grab” variant coming in second. But, maybe I only hear the ones that jar and most do say “I’d like” or “have”.

  14. This is interesting. I had a similar conversation the other day with a friend. Another language though. He said he was always shocked when overhearing German’s order because they say “I get a ….”, while in Switzerland – in Swiss – a German dialect – you’d never say that. It’s beyond rude. You’d say “I would like to have …. “.

    • How fun, Caroline. There certainly is a cultural element to this isn’t there? Thanks for sharing this. I’m enjoying hearing all the responses from Australia and other parts of the world.

  15. Careful, careful – you’re beginning to sound like me, Sue …
    I’m usually babbling away so much that for the waiter to be able to extract my order from all the verbiage is a major challenge.
    Bottom line: I probably say something like “Ummm … are the garlic prawns big ones ?” and, upon the affirmative, follow that with a big beaming smile.

  16. I am late in joining this very interesting discussion. Because I use set expessions to teach how to order in Japanese I wondered what fixed expressions ESL teachers use to teach English learners how to order. I looked up several sites and found that without exception the most common and polite form is “I would like”. One very helpful language learning site broke down the language into polite, less polite and least polite with “Get me” or “I want” as less polite. Of course, as many of you mentioned, the tone of voice and body language add to or subtract from the politeness level too. From now on it will be fun to keep a mental note of how the people I’m with order at restaurants. One thing I can say for sure is that I have NEVER heard anyone in Southern California use the expression, “I will grab” when directly ordering from a server, but I’ll keep my ears open.

    • Interesting Carolyn. The sites I checked for teaching English went for less formal options – “I’ll have” or “I’d like” but “I would like” is very similar to “I’d like” isn’t it. I love the fact at least one of your sites broke it down into levels of politeness, which I expect could almost correlate with levels of formality?

      Do keep a mental note – I’d love to hear. I should say that want I’m hearing here is not “I will grab” but “Can I grab”. Mostly I’ve heard it with coffee orders: “What would you like?” followed by “Can I grab a latte?”. Sounds so weird to me!

    • Used in a different context “I would like…” drives me mad. It is when someone is starting a speech. Most likely at a wedding. “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to talk about Bob and Belinda…”. It’s waffle. I feel like yelling “don’t like to do it, just do it!” which would be counter-productive. Grrr!

      • Oh yes, good point Neil. I catch myself doing things like this at times, as in “I’m writing to tell you…” It’s obvious I’m writing so just get to the point. I’m sure I don’t always catch myself, and I’m sure I’ve done the “I would like to talk…” but I agree with you in principle!

  17. I’m pretty sure I say “I’d like” or “I’ll have.” I wonder if the “grab,” “get,” and “take” might not have crept in from saying things to friends like “I’m going to go grab a coffee before the afternoon meeting” or “I’m getting take-out for dinner tonight.” It seems only a small step from asking a friend if they want to go “grab a bite to eat” to actually saying that while ordering.

    • That sounds very plausible Stefanie … Good thinking. I think I have heard those sorts of constructs. It makes me realise how little people, we, often think about what we say … But just burble out the first thing that comes into our heads!

  18. “Let me grab a ____” sounds like a quickie coffee or snack or something. Not what I’d say in a nice restaurant. lol I think at a Starbucks I might say something with a more casual and “on the go” ring to it, but probably not at Guillaume’s – (is that right? Sydney’s top restaurant?)

  19. An ex of mine would always (always!) say “Give me the…” or “Gimme the…”. It was like nails on a chalkboard – drove me insane. He didn’t say it in a demanding way but it just comes across to me like something more appropriate if the context is that you’re sliding into your favorite barstool at the local watering hole. I’m either “I’ll have” or “I’d like”. For each of us, it did not matter whether we were in a fast food restaurant, a chain restaurant, a bistro, or a fine dining setting – I stuck to my manner of ordering and he stuck to his (despite a once gentle suggestion from me). In contrast, saying ‘give me’ in French doesn’t sound bad to my ear at all.

    • I thought I’d replied to this but it clearly didn’t take April. Thanks for sharing your story here. I’m with you. That would have driven me insane too. Funny how it can be the little things.

  20. According to good etiquette books you should order by saying “I’d like” or “I’ll have” followed by “please.” Saying “May I” connotes asking permission; say “Can I” is asking if you’re able. You’re in a restaurant responding to the waitstaff’s question “What can I get you” or “What would you like?”

    • Thanks Joanne. Yes, my preference is to say in answer to the question “I’d like…”. “I’ll have” is OK but sounds a bit imperious/commanding which is valid if you’re paying but I don’t much like it!

      As one schooled in the difference between “may” and “can”, I agree that you are quite right that “May I” is not really appropriate in a situation where you are being served for a meal you’ll pay for, and “Can” is not appropriate either. I shouldn’t have said that “May” is more formally correct in a restaurant situation.

      However, the main issue for me in all this related to the use of the verbs “get” and “grab” which patently the customer is not going to do. In the end, I’d prefer the gentler “may” (given most people don’t understand the distinction) to “I’ll get” or “I’ll grab”!

      Oh, and yes, the “please” should always be there!

  21. I’ve heard “I want” along with the other versions mentioned. They all make me cringe. I say “I’ll have______, thank you.”

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