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Some diners request seats in the ‘No Birthday’ section

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Though not all T.G.I. Friday's locations have singing waiters, the international restaurant chain has become associated with the tradition of loud birthday celebrations. (Photo by Yoree Koh/CNS)

David Hall is not asking for much when he goes out to eat. With so many things that could potentially go wrong—an overextended server, a cold soup, a loud group at the next table—dining out is rarely a perfect experience. But Hall said he has experienced all of these annoyances, and he lays the blame on one particular culprit: the Happy Birthday song.

The tune that is sung at kids’ birthday parties, usually accompanied by sugary cakes and paper streamers, has over the years taken on a life of its own within the American dining experience. Singing waiters, jingling tambourines or, in Hall’s case, the errant end of a strumming mariachi guitar knocking him in the head, have become a part of the merrymaking spectacle at restaurants whenever there is a customer celebrating another year older. But not everyone is into the festivities.

“The ridiculousness has gotten out of hand,” said Hall, 21, a junior at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. He recalled one occasion at Joe’s Crab Shack when a birthday girl danced on top of her table.

Although the song itself lasts for less than 30 seconds, the frequency with which the tune, or a variation of it (some restaurants opt to pen their own version to avoid copyright infringement) is sung can affect a diner’s entire meal. Some chains like T.G.I. Friday’s and Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar have made the birthday ritual part of a new kind of dining culture, with a monster desert accompanied by rhythmic clapping and singing waiters.

But some restaurants have banned the birthday song, offering customers some refuge. At P.F. Chang’s, a national chain based in Phoenix, Ariz., that serves modern Asian cuisine, the sound of wine glasses clinking or cell phones ringing may be the loudest ambient noises at dinnertime. The restaurant prefers a more understated approach to birthday celebrations, said Pete Marino, P.F. Chang’s spokesman. A manager may wish the celebrating customer a happy birthday by offering a free glass of wine or dessert, but never a song.

“People say it’s kind of an intrusion, and guests don’t like it when there is a big staff singing happy birthday, whether it be to them or at the tables around them,” said Marino, citing customer surveys. California Pizza Kitchen, an international chain friendly to families and shopping malls, takes a similar stance, but with a little more flexibility.

“If the server is so inclined and feels musical that day, we highly encourage it, but it’s a standard that we don’t do that company wide,” said Mark Vergara, the manager of a California Pizza Kitchen, in Tampa, Fla. “Most of our restaurants are usually not that large,” he added, “and having everyone scream and yell tends to offend some of our other patrons that walk through the door.”

Conversations have to pause and restart whenever a choir of waiters gathers around a birthday table. Standing next to the grand entrance to Daniel, the famous French restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (where there is no singing), Liz Pirraglia, a 40-year-old statistician, said her irritation level would vary depending on whether the restaurant was upscale or more theme-oriented. But her husband took a harder line.

“It’s just annoying,” said Matt Altwicker, 41, an architect. “I prefer a quiet place.” The biggest complaint from the servers themselves is in the lag time that is sometimes caused when they have to stop and sing. At the Applebee’s in New Rochelle, N.Y., where 20 or more birthdays could be celebrated on a typical weekend night, every employee is required to sing, including the busboys and managers.

“It’s a must-must,” said Abel Espinosa, manager of the New Rochelle branch, who said the servers need to run faster, never sing faster.

In a competitive restaurant industry, known for its anemic profit margins and frequent closings, birthday gimmicks are sometimes a part of the strategy to lure in more customers. The offerings range from gift cards to much more elaborate fare. At Lucky Cheng’s, a cabaret-like dinner theater in Manhattan and Las Vegas, drag queens pull the birthday boy or girl onto the stage for a serenade.

The staff at Benihana, a national chain known for its Japanese hibachi-style cuisine, sings first in English then again Japanese, and Mexican restaurants like Mama Mexico, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, hires a three-piece mariachi band that croons Las Mañanitas, the Mexican version of the birthday song. The band plays it up to 30 times on a typical weekend night, according to Isaias Garcia, assistant manager of the restaurant.

Among etiquette experts, there is little sympathy for patrons who complain about loud birthday songs in public eateries. Diners should have a certain level of expectation when selecting a restaurant in terms of ambiance and noise level, said Thomas Farley, former senior editor of Town & Country magazine’s “Social Graces” column and founder of whatmannersmost.com, a Web site about contemporary etiquette. One sure bet for a customer looking for a quiet meal is the classic diner, Farley said.

“You’ll be lucky to get a waiter to come to your table at all, let alone sing to you,” he said.

Birthday dinners call for some common courtesy from all sides, an appropriate noise level from the birthday party, accommodation from the restaurant and patience from the non-merrymakers, according to Lizzie Post, the great great-granddaughter of Emily Post and author of “How Do You Work This Life Thing?” a guide to modern manners. But both Post and Farley said the burden in dealing with such situations is mostly on the non-birthday patrons. Often the only option for them is to cut their losses, pay the check and leave.

“As frustrating as it is, the world can be a really annoying place, and sometimes you have those days when the world is being rude out there,” said Post.

On a recent Sunday afternoon at Minado, a seafood and sushi restaurant chain in New Jersey, Josie Glienoga threw her daughter, Monica a surprise 18th birthday party at the restaurant in Little Ferry. With a pile of presents in the corner and balloons strung to the backs of chairs, some 50 friends and family sang along with the waiters. Glienoga wanted to make this birthday a special one. It was the first birthday in her family of five children since her husband died last winter, said Glienoga. She believes the singing is all in good fun.

“Besides, it’s only 30 seconds, maybe 2 minutes,” said Glienoga. Monica’s party was among the first of a long afternoon of singing and shaking tambourines for the servers. “It’s funny, 90 percent of the time, people don’t know about the singing, so after the song we get six more requests,” said Jonathan Chung, 21, a waiter at Minado’s for more than three years. “We always hate that first song.”

E-mail: yak2106@columbia.edu