Here's What All Those Nonsensical Restaurant Terms Mean

Ever heard a restaurant employee shouting about weeds or fire or all day and wondered just what the hell they were talking about? Turns out, they’re not actually hallucinating,* and the random phrases actually have specific, important meanings.

This actually won’t be a list of weird pseudo-terms for specific foods. That one scene from Emperor’s New Groove may have been funny, but I’ve never heard that level of weird slang from anywhere I worked. I suspect that was more common 40 years ago, but now you’re more likely to hear one bizarre word or term pop up in an otherwise innocuous sentence. If you’re anything like me, hearing something like that and not knowing what it means will drive you up a wall, so if you’ve ever been curious, read on.


Meaning: Either the restaurant has run out of something, or a particular order is supposed to be served without something (e.g. “One Chicken Caesar Wrap, 86 Croutons”). A lot of places will have a dry erase or chalkboard where cooks write the things that run out as they disappear. My favorite example from my own time in restaurants is probably when someone wrote “Hope” on the 86 board.

Origin: This one has been around for forever; it’s quite possibly the oldest term on this list. There is some dispute about the earliest usage in popular culture, though it was definitely around by 1933, when Walter Winchell used it in a column exactly how it’s used today. There’s also disagreement about whether it was actually in use or whether Winchell was trying to make it a thing, which shows you how little we know about where the hell the term actually came from.

It’s so hazy, in fact, that the Snopes link above ultimate returns a result of “Undetermined.” No one can figure out where this one originated, though there are plenty of theories. One possibility is that it started as a rhyming slang for the word “nix.” Another theory is that it has to do with US Naval Inventory Code, where “AT-6” was inventory scheduled for disposal. It also could have to do with bartenders cutting overserved patrons from 100 proof whiskey to 86 proof. An unusually morbid (but entirely plausible, considering the general attitudes of people working in the restaurant industry) theory is that it comes from graves — eight feet long, six feet deep.

I’m inclined to believe the last theory, if only because it’s the most universal. The others all seem to lack the element of proliferation that would lend themselves to popular acceptance, but everyone knows the phrase “six feet under.”


Meaning: We covered this on Monday, but for those who missed it, cropdusting consists of a server farting at or near a table and quickly vacating the area. It can be done entirely on the movie or while briefly stopped at a table. The key is to stick and move; don’t linger, because then the table might figure it out. As in the above stories, it’s almost always used as a form of just revenge — with great flatulence comes great responsibility, and you should never use your powers for evil or to harm an innocent.

Origin: Come on. You know why we call it that.


Meaning: Pretty simple — you shout this when you’re either walking directly behind someone carrying something heavy/hot or coming around a blind corner. This is potentially the one restaurant customers are most likely to actually hear.

Origin: Self-explanatory. Restaurant employees would like to avoid smashing into each other if at all possible.

In the weeds

Meaning: Basically, being “in the weeds” means you’re so far behind that you’re having trouble seeing a way to not being completely fucked. It can happen to both servers and cooks, and both are equally likely to use the expression. If you’re a server, generally the best way out is either to get help from another server or to slow down just enough to catch your bearings and figure out how to deal with the situation. This can actually turn into a triage scenario where you sacrifice one table in order to not completely fuck up the other four, figuring that one shitty tip is better than five. If you’re a cook, the best way out is either to magically make things cook faster or to throw a sauce pan at that one Idiot Host (there is always one Idiot Host**). The term itself can also be used in adjectival form, e.g. “are you weeded?”

Usage here is a little odd, too, because people either never use it or use it constantly. It always sounded weird to me, so I don’t think I said it once in five years as a server. Don’t get me wrong: the condition applied to me all the time (I was about as average in skill level as someone could possibly be as a server), but there were definitely coworkers who looked at me funny if I said “I’m way behind.” By contrast, pretty much anyone who says it at all cannot stop saying it. Certain servers and cooks become weirdly obsessed with this expression.

Origin: The term seems to go back a ways, given its prevalence. Like “86,” there’s no consensus on where it came from, but unlike “86,” we’re left with even more rudimentary guesswork. The most plausible (and logical) explanation I can find is that when overwhelmed, servers/cooks feel like they’re being slowed down and tripped up by tall weeds. I guess. Maybe.

Look, this expression makes no goddamn sense to me (which is, as I noted, why I never used it), and the internet is no help at all here. This is just one of those weird things.


Meaning: Campers are people who finish eating and then just will not fucking leave. Frequently, they are Europeans, because apparently that’s how they do it in Europe, and while Europeans love exporting all the shittiest parts of their culture (Piers Morgan, dudes wearing skinny jeans, Nazism), they keep the good stuff to themselves (universal health care, intelligently-scaled taxation rates, the Eurovision Song Contest). Cropdusting is often a useful technique for getting rid of them. This is especially bad if they’re one of the last tables in the restaurant, because frequently a table like this will force a server to stay at work (making no extra money) for half an hour to two hours just because they didn’t feel like taking their conversation to one of the 8,000 Starbucks within easy walking distance. The term “campers” is typically said in a tone of voice that implies “worse than Hitler.”

Origin: Campers essentially pitch a tent and decide they’ll leave only after an extended vacation. I had a table once refuse to leave until 11:30, when they’d gotten there at 7:30 and we closed at 10. I was not the closer that night.

I don’t care how well you tip — don’t fucking do that.


Meaning: “Regular.” Nothing different about the order — so “Chicken Sandwich, reggae” means to make it exactly how it looks on the menu. This is more rare than you might expect.

Origin: Restaurant employees love goofy vocal shorthand, and “reggae” is a fun word to say.


Meaning: Back of House/Front of House. Back of House employees include cooks and dishwashers, Front of House include servers, hosts, bussers, and either a foodrunner or an expo if one exists. Managers are typically kind-of, sort-of Front of House, at least if a Chef is there, because no one in their right mind, not even a Manager, would try to argue with a Chef, because they will stab you.

Origin: We don’t feel like saying “back of house” when there’s a perfectly good acronym available.


Meaning: You know when you order an appetizer and an entree at the same time, but they don’t show up at the same time? The reason a that happens is because while a server might send both orders to the kitchen at once, the entree order will be held back until the customer will soon be ready for it. When that happens, cooks are told to “fire” the order.

Origin: The order is being “fired” like it’s being shot out of something, so this one isn’t hard to spot.

All day

Meaning: A modifier to let the kitchen know how many total of a particular item is needed based on the tickets up in the window. So, let’s say the kitchen has two different tables with the same item between both — let’s use the stuffed salmon as an example. So, table 1 orders three of them, and table 2 orders two of them. The expediter (usually a manager, although some places have a dedicated expo) will call “five stuffed salmon, all day.” I spent a few years in the industry hearing managers shout this every day and wondering what the fuck it meant.

Origin: There’s no concrete evidence on where this one came from, but it seems to be one of the more recent expressions; the earliest mention that I can find is in an article from 2000. We can safely assume this was in common usage at least as early as the 90’s (and possibly earlier), but it doesn’t appear to be nearly as old as a term like “86” or even “in the weeds.”

As far as why it’s used, as weak as this will sound, it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Moreover, it’s just fun to say. Try shouting “I need three steaks, all day” out loud; it’s oddly energizing.

Double/Triple/Quadruple seating

Meaning: When the host, sometimes due to necessity, sometimes due to dumbassery, and most commonly due to outright sadism, seats you with multiple tables at once. Double seating is generally simple enough to handle unless it’s a difficult table, but anything more than that can rapidly become a nightmare. Often results in the phrase “I swear to God I’m going to stab the Idiot Host in the neck with an oyster fork.”

Origin: Self-explanatory.

Dead food

Meaning: Uneaten food that a customer sends back, either because it was prepared improperly, or wasn’t what they ordered, or, I don’t know, Mercury was in retrograde. Dead food doesn’t get thrown away; instead, when an item gets sent back to the kitchen, servers, bussers, and occasionally cooks and dishwashers (if they don’t have forty other things to do at that moment) descend upon it like a pack of angry vultures. Ever seen a National Geographic special where hyenas attack a gazelle carcass en masse? It’s basically that, but with less adherence to table manners.

Origin: You’ve probably gotten the impression by now, given how many of these terms have to do with death, that restaurant employees have an unhealthy fascination with human mortality. Or we wish we were dead.*** Either way, the food is “dead” because it can’t be sent back out again, which, as noted, sure as hell isn’t going to stop servers from eating it.

Kill it

Meaning: In contrast to “dead food,” the kitchen is told to “kill” something when the customer wants it horribly overcooked: extra well done steak is the most common, but it can be used for any item for which a customer wants the scourge of flame to be used to burn away all semblance of flavor. Chicken, fish, vegetables; this can apply to basically anything if the customer’s taste buds are shellacked enough.

Origin: Well-done steaks (or other overcooked food) look like they’ve been violently murdered by a serial killer of goodness and light. Yes, always. Stop arguing.

On the fly

Meaning: When someone sends something back, or an order is forgotten, or anything happens that results in a particular order needing to be done right the fuck now, a server will tell the kitchen they need it on the fly. It then goes right to the head of the line of stuff the kitchen needs to do, circumventing everything in there before it. Woe betide the server who abuses “on the fly” when it isn’t strictly necessary, because cooks are the most creatively vindictive human beings on the planet.

Origin: “HOLY FUCK I NEED THIS RIGHT GODDAMN NOW” is a bit too wordy, and “on the fly” is a common enough expression in civilian life that it translated easily to the restaurant industry.

* OK, some of them are definitely hallucinating.

** You’d be amazed how true this is. The vast majority of hosts I worked with were really good at their jobs, but there was one (and never more than one) unbelievably dumb host at every single restaurant where I ever pulled a shift. I swear there’s a quota that there must always be a single host on the payroll who seems like they’re going to spend their entire shift shoving crayons up their nose. Their omnipresence is such that they definitely justify the capital letters, because Idiot Host is practically an official position.

*** We absolutely wish we were dead.

Image via Kzenon/Shutterstock.

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