How to teach restaurant language

Summary: A guide to teaching language for hosts, guests and staff in restaurants.

Although it forms a minor part of most textbooks, for many students restaurants are the places where they most commonly use English outside the classroom, be it with Nepali waiters who don’t speak their language (well), with guests visiting from the UK, or in a Hawaiian restaurant while on holiday. Restaurants are also one of the best situations to practise vital functional language like requests and offers. This article gives tips on both how to teach restaurant language and how to teach useful language for other situations through restaurant situations. Photocopiable versions of many of these and many other socialising/ social English topics are available in an e-book here:


What students need to know about restaurant language

In a restaurant students are likely to have to speak to the waiting staff and the guest and/or host (depending on their own role in the situation). Depending on where they are, there also might be the chance of more extended conversations with the waiting staff, getting into conversations with the chef and other guests, etc. 

Things that students are likely to need to be able to recognise, produce and respond to related to the topic of restaurants include:

  • Invitations
  • Offers
  • Enquiries (asking for information such as ingredients)
  • Requests
  • Names of things and places in the restaurant (ash tray, bathroom, bill/ check, etc)
  • Names of common foreign foods (British food, foreign food that Americans often eat, etc)
  • Names of common ingredients (used to explain their country’s food to foreign guests, to talk about allergies, etc)
  • Descriptions of foods (verbs of different ways of cooking etc, tastes, smells, textures, etc)
  • Typical English descriptions/ translations of food from their country
  • Small talk while eating
  • Compliments
  • Thanks
  • Body language and gestures (the signing gesture when you want the bill, etc)

There are also quite a lot of related cultural differences, including some between different English-speaking countries. British and American English is also quite different when it comes to describing food, the bill/ check, etc.

A lesson or two on restaurant language can usefully be tied into a lesson on any of these points more generally, e.g. moving from “Can you tell me what this says?” and “Can I have the bill?” to “Can you send me a copy of the PowerPoint from this morning?”


Typical student problems with restaurant language

The biggest problems my students have with this language are:

  • Using commands when they should be making requests (Saying “Please give me another fork” instead of “Can I have another fork?”, etc)
  • Not being able to describe the food to the guest (and often finding that the translation in the dictionary of the fish name, cereal name, vegetable name, etc doesn’t really help)
  • Mixing up similar words, including things that might be the same in their language and/ or come up as translations for the same word in their dictionary, e.g. “grill”, “roast” and/ or “burn”
  • Assuming too much or too little knowledge of the food by the guest (including sometimes patronising people with questions like “Can you use chopsticks?”)
  • Lacking cultural knowledge and/ or vocabulary necessary to understand the menu or the host’s descriptions


How to present and practise restaurant language

Because everyone loves the topic of food and drink, if you find or make even a quite boring restaurant dialogue students are usually happy to do simple tasks like listening for what the diners finally decide to order. You can then get them to remember, analyse and practise the language in that conversation. The text can be made more interesting by adding problems (food not available, wrong food brought to the table, etc). More interesting listening tasks include students adding up the cost of the meal on a menu and saying what the total is just before the waiter does so. If you beep out the names of the foods and drinks ordered, they could also guess what the foods are from the descriptions and/ or from the guests’ reactions to them. Alternatively, there are more interactive ideas of what to do with dialogues below.

Things that they can analyse the text for include:

  • Saying which phrases are requests and which are offers
  • Identifying positive and (polite) negative answers
  • Finding categories of food vocabulary such as verbs of cooking (“boil”, “steam”, etc) and condiments (“salt”, “tabasco”, etc)

Although with this topic I would usually start with some kind of dialogue in this way, it is also possible to get straight into the language with games such as the Simplest Responses Game below. Guessing the foods from the descriptions is also particularly good near the start of the lesson.


Restaurant language mimes

Students try to think of suitable gestures for “That’s delicious”, “It’s a bit spicy”, “Thanks but I’m stuffed”, “Can I have the bill?”, etc, and/ or mime one for their partner to guess. They then mime something without their partner being able to see the worksheet for their partner to produce suitable language for.


Restaurants line by line brainstorming

Give students a dialogue which has dotted lines between each person’s contribution, e.g. between “Is this table okay?” and “Actually, we’d like to sit nearer the window if possible”. Students read one line, guess what could be coming next, then read the next line and check. They then do the same line by line through the whole conversation.

This can be made easier and more useful by adding a description before each line, e.g. “The customer politely rejects the table” between the two lines above. After brainstorming what could be coming next, the students check the hint to see if they are on the right track, and brainstorm again if they had the wrong idea about what was coming next. Then they check what the actual line is.

After they have gone through the whole text line by line, ask them to try to remember key language, analyse the text for useful language and/ or practise similar conversations.


Restaurant language jigsaw tasks

Restaurants jigsaw texts

Cut up one or more restaurant conversations and ask students to divide them into different conversations (if there is more than one) and put them in order to make complete conversations. You need to make sure that the conversations wouldn’t make sense in a different order, and you can make it easier by making the situations very different, for example:

  • One self-service restaurant, one proper restaurant with table service, and/ or one pub
  • Different kinds of food in each restaurant, e.g. Chinese in one and Italian in another
  • Lots of problems in one situation and no problems in the other
  • Different issues in each situation, e.g. lots of food which has run out in one restaurant and a fussy guest in the other
  • Just one diner in one conversation and a guest and host in the other


Restaurant phrases jigsaw tasks

Split restaurant phrases and ask students to put them back to together to make “Do you have + a reservation?”, “A pizza is a flat + piece of dough covered with tomato and cheese and usually some other toppings”, etc. If this is likely to be too difficult, you can keep two or more cards on the same side together to make it look more like a real jigsaw (e.g. the “Do you have” card connected above the “A pizza is a flat” card). Other variations include having multiple endings for phrases like “Can I have…” (+ “another spoon?”, “the check, please?”, etc) and having phrases that work with and without the optional middle parts (“This one is” + “spicy” with “quite/ very/ a little” in the middle, etc).


Restaurants disappearing texts

Perhaps after doing one of the activities above such as jigsaw texts or line by line brainstorming, students cover a restaurant dialogue line by line and recite the whole conversation (including the covered bits) until they give up or have memorised the whole thing. You can also allow other things that make sense, but I usually do this as a straight memory game.


Restaurant language simplest responses game

As should be obvious from the descriptions above, the amount of language that could come up in a restaurant is almost infinite. Although you can cut this down by thinking about the kinds of restaurants, foods, etc that students are most likely to encounter in English, it’s still often useful to have a big review of language that could be useful.

The quickest and easiest way of getting through a lot of useful phrases and vocabulary is for students to listen and hold up one of the two cards that they have been given to show their basic understanding of what they have heard. The two cards could be:

  • “Staff” and “Diner” (depending on who they think said each line they hear)
  • “Host” and “Guest”
  • “(Self-service) fast food restaurant” and “Proper (posh) restaurant”
  • “Request” and “Offer”
  • “Positive response” and “Negative response”
  • “Beginning” (meaning up to ordering) and “Middle or end” (meaning while eating and when paying the bill etc)
  • “Good response” and “Bad response”
  • “A” or “B” (depending on whether phrase A or phrase B is better)

After the students listen to some phrases and raise their cards, they can label the phrases on a worksheet with “S” for “Staff” and “D” for “Diner”, etc, then test each other with the same raising cards game.

For more complex analysis of the language, students can also hold up cards saying “The same” or “Different” when they hear phrases with the same meaning like “Can I see the dessert menu?” and “Can you bring us the dessert menu?” and ones with different meanings like one of those and “Would you like to order dessert?” They then label the groups of phrases with “S” and “D” on a worksheet. The ones with the same meaning can then be analysed for any differences in level of formality.


Restaurants good and bad phrases

Students listen to good and bad responses and other phrases like “Can I have the bill?” “I suppose so”/ “Of course” and indicate which response they think is best (similar to the TOEIC listening task). If there are just two this can be done by holding up cards as explained above. With more than two responses, students can just call out “A”, “B”, “C” etc.

As there are many possible good responses in restaurants, I usually do this the other way round by getting students to listen for which of three, four or five responses is the only one which isn’t okay. They then cross out the same phrases on a worksheet, before testing each other in the same way and/ or seeing if their partner can respond to the phrases.


Guess the foods from the descriptions

Students guess what foods are being described from descriptions like “It’s mince and beans is a spicy sauce” for “chilli con carne” and “It is a mix of ingredients such as bean sprouts and mince wrapped in a kind of skin and then deep fried” for “spring roll”. The foods should be ones that they might have to explain to foreign visitors and/ or ones that they are likely to come across abroad, and the descriptions should include a good range of generally useful vocabulary for describing food like “baked”, “deep fry” and “skewer”. After they guess what foods and drinks the written descriptions match, students can search the descriptions for useful language and use the same language to describe other foods for each other to guess. They should then be ready for roleplaying taking a foreign guest out to eat, during which the person playing the guest should pretend that they have only the most basic knowledge (e.g. only sushi and sashimi if the host is Japanese).


Restaurant language bluffing games

Students make up fake descriptions of foods or change true descriptions to make them false, then see if another group can spot what is true and what is false. This can also be done during roleplays by asking them to describe all foods on the menu that their partner asks them about during the roleplay, then their partner guessing after the roleplay finishes what descriptions and details they just made up.

Other things that students can play similar bluffing games about include table manners (“In the UK nowadays most people put the napkin in their collar of their shirt”, etc) and body language (“Make the sign of a cross to mean that you want to bill”, etc).

There is also a description of a sentence completion bluffing game below.


Restaurant language cultural differences and useful phrases

Students read descriptions of restaurant customs in countries and label any that they think are the same in other countries such as their own with the name of that place. For example, they read that “In the UK people are usually too shy to shout out commands to the waiter, so they use more indirect language like ‘Sorry, can I?’ as the waiter rushes by” and write “F” if they think that is also the same in Finland (where they come from or know about).

Perhaps after comparing with another group, students try to remember the useful phrases that were hiding in those descriptions such as the “Sorry, can I?” phrase for getting the waiter’s attention.


Restaurant roleplays

After presenting any useful language with dialogues and/ or the games above, students will need lots and lots of practice. Students often find describing food from their country, arguing about who pays the bill etc amusing enough that no further stimulus is necessary, but the activities below add more intensive practice, more challenge, more language and/ or more fun.


Restaurants positive and negative responses games

Students playing the roles of the guest, host and restaurant staff give a mix of positive and negative responses to questions like “Can we smoke here?”, “Do you want any more wine?” and “Do you know what is in this one?” Students can simply be told to give a mix of responses during the roleplay. Alternative, there are descriptions below on how they their which responses can be decided by cards, a coin or a dice.

With cards, it can also be nice to play the game the other way round, with students placing down one of their cards that says “Positive” or “Negative” face down on the table before they say “Can you pass the salt?” or “Does this have frog in it?” They are then able to leave that card there if they get the response that they expected (a game that I call Restaurants Answer Me).


Restaurant step up the pressure roleplays

Students start with very easy roleplays and move onto more and more difficult ones, e.g. starting with “Go to a fast food restaurant and get one food item and one drink, take out” and ending up with “You take an important guest to an expensive restaurant. They are a fussy eater and don’t understand what any of the foods on the menu are” with medium-difficulty ones like “Go with a colleague to a bar and decide two dishes that you will share with your drinks” in the middle. To make their progress through the roleplays quicker (especially if you managed to think of more than ten levels of difficulty) and make it into more of a game, you could let students skip levels depending on the score that they get from their partner, for example:

  • Quite smooth and polite = skip 1 stage
  • Very smooth and polite = skip 2 stages
  • Extremely smooth and polite = skip 3 stages

Judging how far they skip ahead can also be done with a list of criteria, e.g. skipping one roleplay for each of the criteria they meet from the list of:

  • Little or no silence
  • Polite
  • Smooth starting
  • Smooth ending


Restaurants problem roleplays

Students roleplay restaurant conversations in which they have to deal with difficulties like having to complain about the food, guests with dietary restrictions, the guest wanting to cook the same dish at home, etc. It is good if at least some of these are things that students might actually come across like needing to get the waiter to explain things on the menu, but it’s also nice to add some crazier ones like “The guests come and go throughout the meal” and “One of the dishes seems to still be alive”.


Restaurant vocabulary roleplays

The roleplay situations can be used to teach and practise useful language like “steamed”, “starter” and “spicy” by putting them in situations like “You are on a diet and so you want mainly steamed food”, “Only one person wants a starter”, and “One person loves spicy food and the other person doesn’t”. After doing a few roleplays and answering questions about what they all mean, you could test students on the vocabulary in another way, e.g. matching the key vocabulary to definitions.

Alternatively, students can be given a list of language that they should try to use during the roleplays, with one point for each thing used from the list if you want to make it into a competition. These can also be on cards, in the way described below.


Restaurants card games

Students are given cards with language on that they should try to use during the roleplay(s), such as:

  • Sentence starters like “Can I…?” and “Would you like…?”
  • Key words like “steamed”, “bill/ check”, “menu” and “another”
  • Lots of cards with just one or two key words that they can use over and over during the conversation such as “Sorry” or “but”

As mentioned above, cards with “Positive” and “Negative” on can be used to decide how students respond during roleplays.


Restaurants coin games

As explained above, a coin is good way of deciding if people should respond positively or negatively, or if they should try to get a positive or negative response. In addition, a coin can decide who is who in the roleplay, and/ or which things they do and don’t need to do during the roleplay. For example, if they toss a coin five times before they start, each heads or tails can decide if:

  • the other person is a guest (and the teacher is the waiter)/ the other person is the waiter (and you are dining alone)
  • you know what you want to order/ you ask for recommendations before deciding
  • the menu has everything on it/ there are also specials which aren’t on the menu
  • you need to leave your table during the meal (to go to bathroom or take a mobile phone call)/ you don’t need to leave your table during the meal
  • one person pays/ you split the bill


Restaurants dice games

Before a roleplay, dice can decide who plays which role, what kind of restaurant it is, what problems they will have to deal with (“1 = one person has several food allergies”, etc), and/ or how many items each person will order. During the roleplay, the dice can decide how they will respond to questions, for example:

1 or 2 = positive response

3 or 4 = negative response

5 = think about it and/ or check with someone else before replying

6 = free choice


Restaurant roleplays board games

Prepare a board game with one stage of going to restaurant on each square, e.g. from “invitations” to “thank you email” via “recommend”, “decide who pays”, etc. Progress round the board can be decided by how well someone performs in that roleplay, e.g. points between one and four depending on how well they did, perhaps from a list of criteria like those described in Step Up the Pressure Roleplays above.

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Written by Alex Case for

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