Are you being served?

Ten things I wish every waiter would stop doing.

Years of restaurant reviewing have left me somewhat jaded on the subject of service, which, judging from the numbers who get it wrong, must be extraordinarily difficult to get right. I have worked in a restaurant, and I am well familiar with the challenges that afflict the best of waiters: testy patrons, kitchen politics, unexpected slams, late busers, hosts who seat every 7pm reservation in your section, and on and on. Waiting tables is one of those hard, sweaty jobs that—done right—demands you make it look effortless, and that is no cakewalk. But every so often, when the moon and stars are aligned, a waiter waltzes into my life and restores my faith in how fine, even artful, service can be. He is efficient, but not robotically so, evincing actual personality, but not cozily or artificially. Instinctively she senses when to be available and when to disappear. He knows everything there is to know about the food. She is, in short, a pro. To inspire more waiters to follow in her estimable footsteps, I've compiled the following list of service gaffes I would deeply love to never encounter again (sort of like the Zagats' Diners' Bill of Rights, only solely about service). It's not world peace. But it could be a better evening out. Introduce himself. This cheesy practice, pioneered by "service-oriented" chain restaurants in the '80s, sought to establish individual rapport between server and patron but wound up delivering only the cheapest counterfeit of intimacy. Why on earth would a diner need to know her waiter's name is Tim? Might she need to shout for him across the restaurant? No, no, no: This first-name-basis routine—still performed, unbelievably, in more than a few places around town—is an immediate signal to the diner that the service will be rote instead of reflexive; that personal regard will be faked instead of felt. The practice thus accomplishes exactly the opposite of what it intends, as insincerity usually does. Leave me standing stupidly at the door because it's not her job to greet guests. How many times have you lingered in the foyer, the host having decamped for who knows where, while waiters scurry past without saying a word? Would a smile and a "someone will be with you in a moment" kill them? Probably no single gesture is more off-putting to a diner than a complete lack of welcome—and no gesture is easier to provide. Know nothing about the menu. Now, I'm no salesperson, but it seems to me that rule number one in that game must be: Know your product. This is why the number of waiters who know zip about the food they're serving amazes me. No idea about the preparation methods, the side dishes, anything. For goodness' sake, sample the food you're serving! If you can't because of dietary restrictions, ask the chef for details! The chef can't promote his food to every table; it's your job to represent it for him. Be a vegetarian waiter in a steakhouse, if you like—but please, don't act like one. Touch me. Some study reportedly once revealed that waiters who touch patrons lightly while serving them get bigger tips. I am happy to report that this has only happened to me twice. Let me hasten to add that both waiters got small tips. Sit down with me. A trendlet sprouted in the early '90s in certain jumpy, youth-oriented restaurants in which waiters sat down with diners to take their orders. I haven't seen this stupid little affectation in ages, but its first cousin, Inappropriate Familiarity, is alive and well in restaurants all over town. Just last week a waitress stood at our table and told us all about her trip to Montana. (Before we'd gotten our order in, no less.) I've had servers who've begged my pardon for overhearing, then plunged forth with commentary on whatever my table had been discussing. Far be it from me to demand poker-faced efficiency from waiters; I want a waiter to be a human being, to have a sense of humor, to discreetly interact with the ebb and flow of my table's conversational dynamics. But the key word is discreetly. A good waiter reads her table and interacts accordingly, leaving the moonstruck lovers to their private bliss and the arguing colleagues to their argument, gently entering in only when a particularly gregarious or food-loving table gives the signals. Sorry if that seems like you're being treated like the help. You are the help. Respond to "What's best on the menu tonight?" with "It's all good!" Grrr—this one really sets my teeth on edge, for it reeks of PR when what you're looking for is substance. The fact is, some dishes are simply better than others. The best waiters not only know everything about their menu, they reveal a refreshing candor about it that provides gentle but firm direction. At the risk of seeming like a restaurant nerd, there is something wonderful, even thrilling, about being in the hands of such a maestro. I recall a wonderful dinner at the Post Hotel at Lake Louise in which our waiter—an old-school career waiter, a real pro—settled my indecision with an easy flourish. "Oh, get the veal tonight," he decreed, describing it as so fresh and decisively glorious that any hesitation was completely erased. That was a memorable meal, partly because the veal was decisively glorious, but also because I left with the feeling the waiter was in cahoots with my pleasure in eating it. Ask how everything is. You know the drill: The waiter saunters by midway through your dinner to ask, "How is everything?" and you have to stop your conversation to assure him that everything's fine. I call this the "fishing for compliments" portion of the meal, and a lot of otherwise fine waiters practice it. A great waiter, by contrast, knows that such an inquiry does not justify an interruption of the meal, but merely an alert proximity. He may walk slowly by the table, making reasonably sure that the diner knows he's there, just in case he's needed. That's enough. Remove my partially eaten meal without asking. I know that servers have my best interests at heart here, but please ask before taking. What if I want to swab the rest of my bread around in those last traces of sauce? What if I want a doggie bag? Please don't just assume I'm done—it makes me feel awfully piggy to have to beg for my plate back. Assume I don't want dessert (or wine, or to hear the specials...). A lot of women, I'm told, are never offered dessert at all. Perhaps so few want it, waiters consider offering it wasted energy. Please don't make that assumption. If dessert is part of your restaurant's menu, it should be offered regardless of your chances of selling it. Same goes for wine, cocktails, and the evening's specials, which for some reason I've lately had to drag out of my waiters. When taking a cash payment, say "Do you need change?" It ain't nothin' but a cheap ploy for a big tip, you transparent little operator, you, and making a patron feel cheap for wanting her change back is tawdry. Just make the change, already. And then let the diner decide if you were worth it.

 
comments powered by Disqus