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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007 11:22 pm

Server pet peeves

Make no mistake about it: waiting tables is an art

Untitled Document “I’m a restaurant’s best friend and worst enemy,” my daughter, Ashley, said recently. I knew exactly what she meant; I could say the same about myself. We’re both aware of the stress and amount of work involved in the restaurant business and so are empathetic toward staff in both the kitchen and the front of the house. At the same time, because we know how to prepare excellent food and give excellent service to paying customers, when we eat out our standards and expectations are high, whether it’s a hotdog joint or a hallmark of haute cuisine. The food should be delicious and the service appropriate to the setting.
For example, if clearly overworked servers are rushing to accommodate diners in an overflowing restaurant, I’m not going to get upset if the service is slow. Probably they’ve either had an unexpectedly busy night with a lot of walk-ins or a server has called in sick or failed to show up. On the other hand, if it’s a slow night and my server disappears from the dining area for long periods or can be seen chatting with other servers without keeping an eye on the customers, I’m not a happy camper. The same thing holds true in that hotdog joint: If there’s a long line and the people behind the counter are working to move things along as fast as they can without getting sloppy or messing up the orders, fine; if they’re taking time to flirt or discuss sports scores, well, that’s another story. New restaurants are in a category all their own. I enjoy going to new places and finding out what they’re about, but I’m always willing to cut them some slack. Anyone who goes to a brand-new restaurant — say, four to six months old or newer — should expect that the service and pacing will be awkward and some of the dishes uneven. New restaurants need time and experience to perfect their pace and rhythm and find out what works, both in the kitchen and in the dining room. Give ’em a break, folks! Of course, if the food is really dreadful, the place may need a lot more than a little time and experience.
Ashley’s and my ensuing discussion started me thinking about some of my service pet peeves. I admit, most are minor annoyances, not major complaints, but they’ve occurred more than once and have affected the quality of my experience. Servile servers — Maybe some people get an ego boost from all that bowing and scraping, but I’m not one of them. As far as I’m concerned, it’s demeaning to them and embarrassing to me.
Snooty servers — This is the other end of the spectrum. Do they really think I appreciate their condescension? That I’ll enjoy the experience more if I’m made to feel that they’re conferring a special honor on me by allowing me to eat at their establishment? Fortunately, both types of servers are becoming less common. The trend these days is what I used to think of as the French and Californian schools of servers, probably because France and California are the two places in which I first consistently encountered them. French servers have a reputation here as ultra-snobby, but my experience in France has been radically different. Quite possibly that’s because I’ve almost exclusively eaten at well-regarded but small bistros instead of such classic gourmet temples as Tour d’Argent (translation: “tower of money/silver,” which is pretty much what one needs to dine there). The servers in those bistros have almost always been pleasant without being overly chummy, forgiving of my halting French, and willing to help me decipher the menu in their sometimes halting English. I remember with particular pleasure the server at L’Ardoise (“the chalkboard”), a tiny 10-table bistro in Paris. Instead of printed sheets, the daily menus were written on small slates and passed from table to table. The single server would take our order, then return with our bottle of wine, which she clasped firmly between her jeans-clad thighs while pulling out the cork. All these French servers, young and old, working in new cutting-edge or venerable bistros, clearly took pride in their job and regarded it as a profession. If I respected them, they’d respect me. During the ’90s, my husband and I were in Northern California frequently, and our servers there had the same attitude: helpful, knowledgeable, and courteous, yet confident. It’s the kind of service with which I’m most comfortable.
Your food is coming right up” — I have absolutely no idea why, but whenever a server says this, I know that I might as well settle back and have another glass of wine, or take the opportunity to go to the restroom, because it’ll be at least another 15 minutes before my food is served. Since first noticing this, I’ve begun keeping track. Try it yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.
Oh, they never let us taste anything” (when asked about items on the menu) — This isn’t the fault of the servers, but it says worlds about the management/chefs. How do they expect servers to be able to tell customers about foods they’re not allowed to sample? What does it say about their attitude to their front line, the folks who are actually interacting with the diners? Do I really want to eat there?
It’s one of our most popular dishes” (when asked for an opinion and description of a particular item) — That’s not what I asked. I couldn’t care less what other people think. I want to know what’s in the dish and what the server thinks of it. On the other hand, if a server tells me that he or she doesn’t like or is allergic to something and says, “I’ve gotten a lot of positive comments about it,” fair enough.

“Did you save room for the best part?” (a.k.a. dessert) — I realize that this is trivial, but it bugs me nonetheless. Neither my husband nor I have much of a sweet tooth; we almost always order appetizers and rarely dessert. The implication that the best part of any meal is dessert seems like an insult to the kitchen staff who prepared our appetizers and entrées, and it’s a sad reflection on the increasing dominance America gives to sweets.
“Wow, you must’ve been hungry!” — Is there any purpose in commenting on my having eaten everything on the plate? If I’ve eaten quickly, it’s probably because I have somewhere to go after dinner, perhaps a movie or concert.
“You still working on that?” — There’s a special dynamic to removing plates from the table. Ideally servers are keeping an eye on the table and aware that diners have finished, even if there’s still food on the plates, but if things are especially busy that may not be possible. On the other hand, if my plate’s empty and a server asks whether I’m finished, I always have a perverse desire to reply, “No, I wanted to lick it clean first.” (So far I’ve never had the courage to do so.) Better to ask in all cases, “May I remove this plate?”

Next week: Servers’ pet peeves about customers.

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