The astute among you will recognize that this is a list of pet peeves disguised as a paean to beautiful restaurant service. And yet, it seems right to give thanks and praise for that rarest of dining experiences, the synchronicity of perfect food perfectly served.
Perhaps I am sensitive to restaurant service because I once worked as a server myself and learned what a difficult job it is to do correctly. As a matter of fact, I was terrible at it. We were not permitted to use a pad to write down orders unless there were four or more people at the table. In my case, that was a very bad idea. The one durable skill I learned was how to use a waiter’s corkscrew to open a bottle of wine. I still prefer it to any other tool.
Here are the factors I consider essential to great service:
Timing: It takes skill, experience and great chemistry between the kitchen and the servers to ensure that the successive dishes of a meal arrive not only hot and freshly plated, but also when the diners are ready for them. Ever had your appetizer and entrée appear simultaneously? Then you know exactly what I mean. I will say nothing of restaurants where you wait twenty minutes before you even see a menu or a beverage.
Detail: Yes, it is lavish and wasteful to have one’s silverware replaced between courses. But how lovely to be pampered once in a while. How lovely to use beautifully crafted dishes and utensils, perfectly suited to the food. How lovely to find your napkin/serviette folded when you return to the table.
Affect: The best servers have a magical ability to fool you into believing that they are delighted to be waiting on tables that evening, and especially happy to be looking after you. They make you feel welcome without obsequious fawning. They have their own dignity, and take pride in a task well-performed.
Knowledge: A good server knows how every item on the menu is made and whether it includes gluten, peppers, chicken broth, etc. A good server can make a respectable wine recommendation, in the absence of a sommelier.
Watchfulness: When you eat in a restaurant, you may not even realize this aspect of good service–unless they screw it up. Good servers watch you and your dining companions, and they wait to approach you until there is a pause in the conversation. They definitely do not break in on a romantic moment, or when you’re in the middle of trying to say something really important. Somehow they can tell. When you rise, a bit tipsy, to visit the powder room, they are never dismayingly in your path with a tray of food. And if you need something, you never have trouble catching their eye.
Grace: I can’t decide whether this skill is learned, or whether you have to be born with it. In the finest restaurants, there is a rehearsed choreography of presentation that verges on the balletic. At Jean-Georges, the Long-Suffering Husband and I sat side-by-side on a banquette. Our dishes were presented symmetrically and simultaneously by two servers. In more modest surroundings, the best servers move economically and confidently. They are a pleasure to watch.
The other side of the coin, of course, is that rara avis, the perfect restaurant patron. Asshole patrons are a much more numerous species. If you want to read about this (and the diabolical punishments devised by waiters for the unruly, the arrogant and the just plain rude), be sure to read Waiter Rant. This is why I always tip 20% (or more) unless the service is truly heinous.
I have my own memories of –ahem– “difficult” patrons. I was a server back in the days when we were referred to as “waitresses,” and when private parties of drunken Shriners thought nothing of patting me on the ass as I made my way between the rows of tables, laden with a giant tray of highly symbolic T-bone steaks.
I well remember being chastised by our head waiter for allowing a patron to take a bottle of wine from me and open it himself. He was one of those cork-sniffing, pontificating types.
Another time, a fellow waitress and I were serving a particularly snotty group of sorority girls, who took pleasure in complaining about the food, rejecting perfectly good dishes, and sending us scurrying for a bottle of ketchup with which to anoint their filets mignons (!) or an extra lemon wedge for their tea. One imperious blonde sorority “sister” was the bitchiest of all. Yet she was no match for my server colleague, a woman of infinite resource and cunning. Her methods were elegant– no spitting in the food for her. As we were serving the dessert –ten dishes of vanilla ice cream per tray, which were rapidly melting in the Georgia heat– she suddenly lowered her tray and raised it in such a way that the tip of this girl’s flirty blond pony-tail was saturated. The next time she tossed her head, she spattered her neighbor with melted French vanilla.
I adore that pony tail story. Huzzah! I do agree, great service can elevate dining to a rather magnificent level. There is a restaurant here in Sydney called Est that has regularly held two or three ‘hats” (an Aussie fine dining rating) for a number of years now. When the service staff bring out the food it is like a ballet. Every plate is place on the table at exactly the same moment. Magic. They also have a champagne cart/trolley. If I had a champagne trolley at home I would be a truly happy woman. (Along with being off my trolley…on second thoughts, maybe these delightful inventions are best kept for fancy restaurants?)
A Champagne trolley is what I want for Christmas! (LSH, take note…)
That kind of service creates a lasting memory, so it’s worth the money now and then. It has made me more sensitive to bad service, however. I don’t mind if the “ballet” is lacking, but I don’t like to wait ages and then have all the food arrive at once.
I’d be a complete disaster… my bodily coordination skills are abysmal, and when people are staring at me expectantly, I suddenly lose the capacity to perform any kind of arithmetic 😦
Exactly. I was clumsy, far too introverted, and impossible at multiple memory-tasking. I also had a much less exalted serving job, at a cinema, where I ferried beer and nachos to the patrons for 25-cent tips and made change at their tables… I learned how to do it, but it was not my finest hour.
I do admire people who can keep it up all day, for years, and do it well. I had a friend once, who was horrible to waitstaff at restaurants, despite the fact that she had worked at a waitress herself. We are no longer friends…
Yes, it is a test of character. And when people make a big deal of complaining and fussing at the server, it ruins the meal for everyone else. On the other hand, there are those unfortunate times when a dish really does need to be sent back. I once dined in a “destination” restaurant and was served a vegetable pot pie that was frozen in the middle. But that wasn’t the server’s fault.
Yeah, I only sent something back once. It was inedible. But no reason to be rude to the person who served it, I agree.
Ha ha, I love that server’s approach! Genius!
And yes, yes, and yes! I hate bad service. I wrote about this several times in LV – it was abysmal there. Thankfully, in Germany it’s been really good – so far 😉
I would expect nothing less from the Germans!
I love them 🙂
My brother is a chef and I got to meet some truly excellent servers. You’re right, they have talent…it’s not at all easy to be at this level. And at this level, they make serious $ too, as well they should.
I’ve always known I could never be a waiter, not at any level. I could do the memorization part, but nothing else. I helped my brother cater some events and I too learned how to open a bottle of wine using the waiter’s corkscrew. “Tina! Don’t make that sucking sound! Don’t hold it like that. Don’t do this, don’t do that.” Bleh. No grace. I loved serving drinks though, because as people got sloshed, they got a lot more easy going and they seemed more comfortable the more I made mistakes.
I’m a laid back kind of girl. I get a little nervous when they start changing out silverware and things like that. 🙂
Well, you get used to the silverware thing. That’s another difficult one, replacing the silverware without awkwardly leaning all over the patron. Though there are certain individuals whose silverware I wouldn’t mind replacing 🙂
HA! That’s a good one. “Oh here, let me get that for you…pardon the reach.” You naughty girl!
Cork-sniffing T-boners, ponytails a la mode and you haven’t written YOUR book? Highly informative and entertaining linnetmoss 🙂
Thanks Mike! I have written several books. None are of the waiter rant genre, but I often use my experience of restaurants good and bad 🙂