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.