ESL Restaurant Conversations

If you think ESL restaurant conversations are dry or contrived, think again. One of the simplest and most helpful things ESL students can do to improve their English is to anticipate what other people might say to them and think about how they will respond. When you go to a sit-down restaurant, for example, you always have the same six conversations with your host and server. When you arrive, you are greeted and seated by the host. Then you are greeted by the server and asked for your drink order. Then you place your food order, the server asks if everything looks good, the server asks if he can get you anything else, and you finally ask for the check.

The host and the server usually speak very quickly, and restaurants can be quite noisy, making the English even more difficult to understand, but by and large, they say the same things in every American restaurant. If students can anticipate the kinds of words, phrases, questions and idioms they are likely to hear, they can go out to eat with greater confidence and have a more enjoyable dining experience.

There are any number of grammar books and websites with prescribed ESL restaurant conversations to practice, but real life is not that scripted and easy, so try this instead. Have students make up their own conversations by choosing bits and pieces from a list of common restaurant utterances. By mixing and matching conversation pieces, students will begin to anticipate what is coming up and how they might respond. Start by making your list of things students might hear at each point in the dinner.

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Getting Seated

When you arrive, the host asks a few questions:

  • How many?
  • Smoking or non?
  • (Depending on the restaurant) Inside or outside?
  • (Less common) Would you like a table or a booth?

Then the host will either seat you, tell you how long you must wait or give you a pager.

Allow the students to work with a partner, taking turns asking and answering each of these questions in varying orders, and then giving each other a wait time or saying, "Right this way, please," or, "Follow me." Then move on to the next conversation they’ll have to have.

Ordering Drinks

When you are seated, the server appears, introduces himself and asks you what you’d like to drink. He might also tell you about a special dish that is not on the menu. They talk so quickly that a lot of Americans have a hard time understanding it all, so tell your students not to worry. It’s OK to ask them to repeat it if needed. His whole speech might go something like this:

"Hi, how’s everybody doing tonight? My name’s John, and I’ll be taking care of you this evening. Our special tonight is the slow-roasted mountain trout served with almond gnocchi, green beans and a brown butter sauce. It’s $16 and comes with your choice of soup or salad. Our soups today are the New Orleans Corn Bisque with Smoked Sausage and the Butternut Vegetable. What can I get you to drink?"

Go over each sentence in this little spiel, and have your students brainstorm other ways they’ve heard each one said. For example, the server might say, "Hi, how’s everybody doing tonight?" or, "Hey, how’s it going, y’all?"

Make a list of all the possibilities, including, perhaps, a few side lessons on various cooking methods (slow-roasted, steamed, smoked, etc.), types of soup (bisque, chowder, stew), or the names of more obscure foods for advanced students.

Have students take turns acting as the server and the customers, allowing everyone to practice speaking, listening and ordering a drink.

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Ordering Food

When the server comes back with your drinks, it’s usually time to tell him what you’d like to eat. Many times, you’ll also have a choice to make. Do you want soup or a salad, french fries or chips, cole slaw or fruit salad? Usually the menu tells you about these choices, so you can get ready for the server to ask your preference.

The server might ask any of the following questions to take your order:

  • What can I get for you?
  • What would you like?
  • Can I start you off with any appetizers?
  • And for you?

Again, have students brainstorm other possibilities and practice them with a partner. You can bring in menus from a local restaurant for reading practice, vocabulary building and a more realistic ordering experience.

Checking In

The next two conversations are very short and similar. When the server brings out the food, he’ll ask if everything appears to be in order and if you need anything. Then, he’ll return a little later to check on you once again and refill your drinks.

Encourage students to practice these little conversations and to include requests for things like ketchup, mustard, more sweet tea or extra napkins. Remind them that it is perfectly acceptable in American culture to ask for these things, and talk about polite ways to make requests.

Splitting The Check

Finally, the server will ask if he can take your plates away, if you’d like any dessert, and how the check should be divided. Once more, demonstrate and brainstorm various ways of asking all of these questions, and have the students practice in pairs or small groups.

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Putting Together ESL Restaurant Conversations

For practice, divide students into even groups and have them write out the exchange between a host, a server and a few customers. Then have the groups trade conversations, make any necessary corrections, and act out the conversation. Then assign roles and have students improvise restaurant conversations.

ESL restaurant conversations don’t have to be boring or overly scripted. For lower level students, it’s probably better to keep variations to a minimum, but at any level, allowing the students to make their own choices with the language will make the lesson more challenging, fun, memorable and helpful for them.