I recently visited the Casian Grill in Renton (Two-second takeaway: Unless you're a frog leg fiend, you're much better off getting your mudbug fix at the Cajun Crawfish), where my brusque server autocratically edited my party's order, stunk of cigarette smoke and didn't seem to care much about whether we were enjoying our evening.
That sort of service isn't unusual in an affordable restaurant catering to a primarily Asian clientele. What was unusual was the server's demographic: Although I didn't quiz him about his upbringing, best as I could tell, he was a white man who'd grown up speaking English.
While his service style is probably appropriate for the restaurant in which he works, and may very well be the style his manager prefers, my party found it infuriating. We didn't want our server to decide if we really wanted fish sauce wings, or to scoff when we declined a takeout box for a few vestigial spoonfuls of fried rice - behavior we'd probably have tolerated if we believed the server wasn't American by birth.
Mai Pham, who identifies herself as "of Vietnamese heritage," last year wrote a post for Houston Press' Eating Our Words blog entitled "Why I Don't Expect Good Service in Asian Restaurants":
"I (don't) take hasty as poor service, or unsmiling as unfriendly; it's just the way things are at Asian restaurants, where the focus is more on food than service," she wrote. "Generally, someone will come to your table, flip a notepad, ask you what you want, leave, come back with food, and maybe...bring the check to your table when you ask them to."
Pham believes the service style developed because customers don't tip in many Asian countries, so efficiency is prized above all. I'm fine with her explanation as it applies to immigrants: Heaven knows there's enough to master in a new country without worrying about whether folks want free soda refills.
But what about the restaurant owners' children and grandchildren, who've quite possibly had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the big grins, multiple table check-ins, and upsells that typify service in the U.S.? And what about our Casian Grill server, a guy who looked like he'd had his share of meals at Applebee's? Regardless of race, should servers get a pass because there are unfertilized duck eggs on the menu?
I honestly don't know the answer, which is why I'm posing the question here. I'd love to hear your thoughts: Is curt service a cultural difference we accept and honor when we patronize an Asian-run restaurant, like using chopsticks instead of forks? Or should we expect servers to conform to a certain standard, no matter what's cooking in the kitchen?