Monday, December 22, 2008

Rules #1 and #2 for Waiters

I started this blog originally as a place to vent my spleen about various unsatisfactory experiences in restaurants. I am, how you say, a jerk, and I'm easily annoyed by incompetent wait staff.

Actually, I'm usually more annoyed at the restaurant that failed to train their staff properly. But it ends up being the same thing: a disappointing dining experience for me. That is partly why I don't eat in restaurants too often, except for quick and cheap lunches during the workday. (The real reason -- that I'm cheap -- is too embarrassing to mention here.)

Why do I feel qualified to express my opinion? Who am I kidding? I'm not qualified. But I did work in some excellent restaurants in my youth in Mendocino, and learned all aspects of the restaurant business, both front and back, from some of the best. I know good service when I encounter it, and it's a delight.

Anyway, there are two Most Important Rules about waiting tables that I want to emphasize, even though I covered it in an earlier blog post:

Rule #1: Make eye contact.

Dear Waiter... How do you know when to approach a table in your station, and when to leave them alone? If your boss told you that you must always visit the table shortly after serving and ask if everything is OK, then your boss is an idiot. It's really much easier than that...

Here's what you do: You merely walk past your tables and glance in their direction. If a customer doesn't look at you, then they don't want to talk to you. You never need to ask, "Is everything OK?" or, God forbid, "Are you still working on that?"

Really really, you do not need to ask if I'm enjoying my food while I'm still chewing it. Not only have you interrupted the meaningful (or trite) conversation at our table, but you've basically forced me to be rude by either ignoring you or talking with my mouth full of your wonderful food. Bad waiter!

Seriously, this little bit of waiter-etiquette is fading into memory. Everybody is apparently now being trained in the "The more you ask if everything's OK, the bigger your tip will be" school of waiterly annoyance. The number of times I've been able to enjoy a good meal in a restaurant without being harassed by an overly chatty waiter is... well, it's a depressingly small number.

Rule #2: Be personal but not intimate.

We used to make fun of the eccentric kook waiter who would stand casually at our table (or, God forbid, sit down in our booth!) and tell us his name. ("Hi, I'm Seashell and I'll be your server today.")

Dammit-all if the eccentric kook hasn't become the norm! Somewhere along the line, this "introduce yourself and make small talk with your customers" philosophy has become standard operating procedure for wait staff.

I'm very sorry, and I'm sure you're a wonderful person, but no, I don't care what your name is. And I am not here to make friends, at least not with you. I was hoping you'd take my order and then disappear, like morning fog lifting off the fairway grass, beautifully and without a sound.

To be fair, some people love it when a waiter disgorges personal information and hovers about like long-lost pals at a high school reunion. I'm not one of them.

One of the best waiters I ever had the pleasure of working with -- Robert, at the Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino -- this goes back 25 years -- taught me this basic rule... The best waiters are like polite and benevolent spirits. You hardly notice them at all, but you always have just what you need, when you need it.

The point is... the customers in a restaurant come in to enjoy each other's conversation, not yours. Let them be.

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