A note to those intending to get good service in great restaurants

As I nibbled at my barramundi, I could sense the waves of middle class bitterness from the next table over. I daintily flaked another piece of delicious fish off and stabbed viciously at a chunk of asparagus, pondering the amazing combination of flavours and textures going on at my plate. I love asparagus, I love innocent sea creatures, and I adore fingerling potatoes. It was, in a word, brilliant. Just when I thought the depths had been plumbed, a whisper of radish would emerge, a sliver of scallion, and my transports of delight would return*.

And the next table over was providing my entertainment for the evening. The book of the moment flopped listlessly by my side, as about halfway through my fish consumption I wasn’t even pretending to read it–I was observing the drama.

You see, I am a regular. As a regular, I am entitled to little things like sneak peeks at menus, bussers who remember that I prefer oil and vinegar, and other little touches of personalized service. As a regular, I try not to abuse my privileges. I love the wait staff, and I treat them well, and in return, they treat me well. When I bring needy (read: celiac) diners, the staff accommodate them. I am treated lovingly, with respect, and never have cause to complain about my service although sometimes I can be quite demanding. (And I’m often that obnoxious late table.) Sometimes something goes awry with my order–usually I gently bring it to the attention of my waiter and it’s fixed. This has happened perhaps twice in the entirety of my time dining at the Bistro. And once it was my fault, because I clearly misstated my dining desires and the hapless waitress duly brought me what I asked for.

Now, I think that the level of service I get from the wait staff is comparable to that which any table receives. Waiters might linger and chat for a moment longer than they do with one offs, but we both hear about the specials. If we have questions about the menu, our waitperson will duly trot to the kitchen and find out. If we have special needs or requests, they are addressed. So it was with amusement that I observed my neighbors, you must understand, tempered with frustration for humanity. I always spot the Bistro staff going above and beyond the call, busting their balls for their tables. Even on busy nights, the personal loving service is there, and that’s why I recommend the Bistro to anyone looking for food of any kind ever. Except at lunch. And breakfast. Ok so really I recommend it to people looking for dinner. But you get the point.

You see, I have long believed that Americans should be forced to endure mandatory service. For two weeks of every year, every American not in the service industry must work a service job (unless he or she can produce service discharge papers indicating that they have done their time). Every American should know what it’s like to be a waiter on a busy Saturday night, a busser at a crappy fish and chips joint, graveyard at a 24 hour restaurant. Every American should feel the pain of retail and video rental, gym assistant and barista. Then perhaps they would understand when they are being unforgivably rude.

You see, this table next to me was quite large. Now this doesn’t guarantee rudeness, but usually yuppies in large groups are rude because they are under the mistaken impression that they are entitled to things. So all their food wasn’t coming out at once. Case in point number one being a salad, and I could hear them murmuring among themselves about the salad. Now, when I have concerns about my food, I address my waiter politely, and with respect. I might say, for example:

“Pardon me, good sir, but might I enquire about the fate of my salad?”

Or perhaps:

“Excuse me, madam, but I am afraid this is not what I was expecting.”

So when their long suffering waiter stopped by to check on them, the lady said:

“Uhm, yeah, I ordered a half salad? I’m just wondering where it is?”

“Oh, of course,” the waiter said. “That will be up in just a moment. I apologize for the delay.”

Low and behold, a few moments later, the salad arrived. And then she bitched about the size.

“So this is a half salad?”

“Yes, ma’m, it is.”

“Well, it’s awfully BIG for a half salad!”

And so forth. It wasn’t even just the language that she was using, it was the tone. She may as well have said:

“You servile peon, you are worthless!”

And he still would have responded:

“Ah, of course, let me check on that for you.”

So the table is being loud and bitchy. For me, this is mere entertainment as I dip my bread in olive oil and vinegar. The next table over, also getting superb and graceful service, looked mildly discomfited at the middle class mutterings next door. Now the table is bitching about the President, and next about Katrina victims. As their waiter stops by again to clear salad plates and check up, one of the men says, loudly:

“We’re ready for our entrees now. You can bring those over right away.”

This statement gave me room for pause. A dedicated trencherwoman, even I had to set down my fork and marvel at this man.

You see, the thing is, and this is where you need to pay attention, kids, some foods take longer than others to prepare. With lengthy prep times, wait staff will usually warn you. But, in general, you don’t want your entrees coming out “right away.” You want your food being lovingly made from scratch by a dedicated kitchen staff. You don’t want half cooked food listlessly thrown onto your plates. Wait staff try to fire your entrees in a timely fashion, so that there won’t be a delay, but when you are ordering a lot of food, some of which takes a long time, it gets fired in such a way that it all comes up at once. So that the fettucini isn’t arriving at the table half an hour before the chicken. Believe me, even on busy nights, the wait staff have not forgotten about you or your food, and they will hasten to get it to you. They don’t want it sitting up waiting for you any more than you do, because the flavour is compromised (and chef gets pissy!) So please, for the love of god, don’t make an ass of yourself and complain about the cooking time. And please, doubly for the love of god, don’t go lurk by the kitchen for your food. It’s done when it’s done, and the waiter will bring it out for you. I promise.

This table wasn’t as bad as some tables can be, but I writhed in sympathy for the poor waiter, who was providing excellent service and being treated like garbage at every turn. You see, the thing that people who haven’t been in service don’t seem to grasp is that service providers are professionals. As professionals, most of us endure a lot of training. As professionals, we take pride in our work, and in providing a wonderful experience to our clients. As professionals, we take your concerns very seriously, and we do our best to foresee and meet any needs you may have. And as professionals, it wounds us to be treated as expendable. I want to see you out on the floor of a busy restaurant, middle class self entitled yuppie lady. I’d like to see you behind the desk of an establishment providing and scheduling myriad services, snooty yuppie man who was willing to quibble over a two dollar charge.

As professionals, we are well aware that any complains about us reflect upon our establishment. That these complaints translate into lost business for the company we love to serve. And this, in turn, translates into lost work for us. We want to help you, and we want you to have a wonderful experience with us that keeps you coming back again and again. An experience that causes you to recommend us. As professionals, we have keen eyes for details you can’t even imagine. And we are constantly trying to stay two steps ahead of you, so that you have a seamless, smooth, consistent, and wonderful experience, whether you are dining alone or bringing a bridal party to a spa.

So please, help us help you and treat us with the respect we deserve, as professionals, but also as fellow human beings. Smile back at the clerk at the grocery store. Respond with courtesy to the request by the staff at the salon. Respect that we do things in certain ways for one reason, and one reason only: to serve you better. Don’t treat us like we are stupid, like we can’t make change or understand a basic request. Many of us have hard earned college degrees, and may in fact be better educated and traveled than you are. Above all: never assume.

I guarantee you that you will always get excellent service by being polite to those serving you, and that being rude will get you nowhere. Especially with the owners, who worked their way up through crappy service jobs. They, in particular, are unimpressed with tables of whiny assholes, generally. Believe me, they have seen every preposterous demand under the sun, and dealt with it–and they value their hard-trained wait staff a great deal more than one table of tourists. So play nice.

*the scallops looked delicious, by the way, and I will probably try them when next I am in. I am a sucker, as stated above, for innocent sea creatures. Now if only deep fried tentacles were to appear on the menu…mmmm…I love me some tentacles.

**Cookie report for JSP: my god, molar peril! A soft pillowy exterior belied the dangerous currents that lurked below the surface, hastening the flow of gold into Dr. Martin’s already crowded coffers.

[restaurant etiquette]