How waiters should respond when a customer says, "What do you recommend?"

Have you ever gone to a restaurant and said, "It's our first time here. Everything on the menu looks delicious. What do you recommend?"

When a customer asks that question, it's an opportunity for the waiter to shine, to kick off the next hour together with a positive interaction. The customer is giving you a bid, and you can respond by leaning in. What ensues could lead to a lively exchange and transfer of knowledge about the juicy eats that the restaurant has to offer.

But sometimes, what happens is a frustrating impasse.

The customer asks, but the waiter doesn't want to answer the question. It could be for good reason. Perhaps in the past, you recommended something but a customer didn't like it, or you truly can't decide because you enjoy different dishes equally.

Why you should answer

One of the worst things to do, though, is refuse to answer.

I've seen this at a wonderful restaurant in Napa, where the waitress INSISTED that everything on the menu was good and "really so different." I'm sure everything was good, which made it even harder as a customer to decide.

I even narrowed it down to two options. "I really can't say. Those two are just so different," she said.

The question behind the question

Sometimes a customer just doesn't want to choose. We're looking for deniability from the having to pick from too many options.

If you choose for us, you take away the stress from having to make a decision when we don't feel informed to make one. I just want to know what you recommend, so I can pick something, and go back to enjoying conversation with friends.

It's analysis paralysis and decision fatigue – and we want you to step in. If you can help the customer feel good about what he chooses, everyone wins.

With that in mind, here are some frameworks on how to address the question when a customer asks, "So what do you recommend?"

(a) What is popular among customers

"Our most popular dish is A, and B is our signature. Many customers like C. If it's your first time, I would recommend trying one of those."

The customer gets to experience the bestseller effect of knowing that whatever they bought has been validated by hundreds or thousands of people before them.

Even if they don't like the dish, they can't feel too bad. After all, everyone else ordered it and liked it, so the customer thinks, "I must be the anomaly for disliking it." This reduces the perceived risk and downside in choosing the dish.

(b) What you personally like

"I personally like A. It's amazing because of X, Y, Z."

If you suggest your personal preference, you give yourself a bit of deniability. Your caveat is that this dish might not be for everyone, but if the customer wants to know what you personally like, you'll share that.

If you give reasons for why you like the dish, it gives the customer more of a chance to see if they agree with the criteria you mentioned. Or if they're looking for the opposite, which is useful to know so you can make a different recommendation.

(c) Taste preference, or category preference

"If you're in the mood for something light, I'd go with A. If you want something richer, go for B."

"If you're in the mood for meat, I'd go with A for sure. If you want pasta, then B is really unique and has a mix of X and Y flavors."

The takeaway: if customer asks for a recommendation, try to tell them something. Chances are that they simply don't want to decide. Make the decision for us, and we can both continue on with an amazing meal.