A Few Thoughts on Service

WaiterMy mother-in-law was a smart, elegant, gracious woman who was the most skillful hostess I’ve ever known. Over dinner at my in-laws’ home one time, we got to talking about etiquette, and she blew me away by defining truly good manners as the ability to make everyone around you feel perfectly at ease. This came as a revelation to me, since at that somewhat insecure time in my life (late 20’s) I would probably have defined etiquette or good manners as essentially a stick to beat others with: “I know the rules of proper behavior and you don’t.” My mother-in-law’s words came back to me as I was thinking recently about what constitutes good service in restaurants.
All too often – sadly, increasingly often – I find that upscale restaurants seem to define good service the way I used to define etiquette. The message the staff sends is “Our knowledge is superior to yours, and we’ve taken it upon ourselves to educate you.” Some examples:

1. The 1000-Yard-Stare Greeting: the host/hostess, after taking whatever amount of time he/she thinks is sufficient to make you aware that you’re a distraction from more important matters, finally deigns to look in your direction. Unfortunately, you’re looked past rather than looked at. (Needless to add, no smile.) Message: There might be someone WAY more important than you just coming in the door.

2. The Seating Dilemma: whether you’ve made a reservation or not, the host/hostess takes an agonizing amount of time to consult the reservation sheet and look around the dining room before (often with obvious reluctance) leading you to a table. Here, the message is that you just have no idea how complex and delicate the job of seating people in this Big Deal Restaurant is.

3. The Laying on of the Napkin: the moment you’re seated, the host/hostess picks up your napkin, shakes it out with a flourish, and lays it on your lap. As if you might possibly screw up this task if you did it yourself.

4. The Bottled Water vs. Tap Water Test: the server asks you what kind of water you’d prefer and exudes pained disapproval if you choose tap water. Of course, this is all about up-selling, disguised as a sophistication test. (The next time this happens to me, I’m going to respond with a short lecture on the environmental evils of bottled water.)

5. The Pronunciation Trap: the menu items are written in their native language, with words like “feuilletage,” “alla griglia,” or “huitlacoche,” and you mispronounce a word, at which point your server corrects your pronunciation. Of course, you feel like a total fool. This is especially painful if you’re on a first date.

6. The Laying on of the Napkin, Redux: if you leave the table to go to the restroom, setting your napkin next to your plate, the server (or, somehow even worse, the busser) comes by and ostentatiously picks up your napkin, folds it in half, and lays it over the back of your seat. Aside from putting you in your place (“You yokel, what makes you think it’s appropriate to leave your used napkin ON THE TABLE?!”), it signals to the entire dining room that you’ve gone out for a pee.

7. The De-Crumbing Ritual: after you’ve finished your main course, the server or busser comes by with one of those little devices that looks like a straight razor and very meticulously sweeps every visible and invisible crumb off the tablecloth. Message: “You slob!”

Well, I could go on, but you get my drift. All of these are minor humiliations that add up to making the diner feel definitely not at ease and perhaps even totally miserable. Why do restaurants think this serves any constructive purpose?? Why don’t they instead train their staff to be welcoming, flexible, non-judgmental, and genuinely committed to making every diner’s experience as comfortable and happy as possible? Having had some front-of-house experience myself, I know that sussing out each diner’s desires and expectations is a big part of the job: some people like warmth and banter, others just want you to bring the food; some want to savor their meal slowly, others are in a rush; and so on. The training of servers should concentrate on honing their skills at interpreting the subtle signals that diners give them, not teaching them pseudo-sophisticated rules and rituals.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Peggy says

    Yes, I have received snippy service (the other night at Alberta Oyster Bar) but more often in Portland’s many wonderful restaurants, I have received gracious “easy” service. I have only been to Noble Rot two times, but both times the waiter and hostess were absolutely perfect – just one example of many I could list.

  2. the mick says

    Being that I am at work right now, (busy folding napkins for guests in the bathroom, crumbing tables and pouring bottled water) I do not have the time to respond in the manner that I would like. but, needless to say; I am very disappointed with this post. It is written with a very negative slant, completely dissing common practices that take place in fine dining restaurants all over the world. There is only one or two comments that I would come close to agreeing with and the rest seems to be written by someone who is completely unfamiliar with what the service in a fine dining restaurant should be like. I will respond to every point a little later. When Food Dude mentioned a few days ago that he would be posting an essay on service I was very excited…..(being a service manager of fine dining restaurants across Europe and the US for the past 20 years) I thought it was going to be an educational, informative post as opposed to the idiotic rantings of someone who is obviously more at home in a sharis or tgifridays than in any fine dining restaurant worth its salt.

  3. Food Dude says

    I’m not real thrilled with the napkin manipulations, but the decrumibing doesn’t bother me either. I think it was Frank Bruni who launched into a tirade about still versus sparkling water not to long ago. I hate it, and they have a way of making you feel cheap if you don’t ask for the extra cost stuff. NPR did a story the other day, about a restaurant in Barcelona that has 75 different waters, and a water sommelier to assist you in selecting one for each course. Yeah, ok.

    I was at Bay 13 last night (quick hit tomorrow afternoon, I think), where we were informed that even the tap water was triple filtered! Gasp. What, are they getting out of an old well under the loading dock? Portland has some of the best drinking water in the nation.

  4. says

    I actually like decrumbing, especially if I will be eating a course after the one during which I messed up the table. Seeing that I start crumbing when the bread comes out, it’s usually very important.

  5. Pork Cop says

    If done graciously I have no problem with any of those things. The problem occurs when a server/host/busser etc gives off an “attitude”. Americans are basically pretty informal folks.Read your tables . Keep the ‘tude to yourself and it’s good service. It’s a very fine line sometimes.

  6. Suds Sister says

    While I like having my napkin folded and laid on the back of my chair, I think this article misses the main problem with service in this city. Namely, that there is none.

    I would tolerate any of the author’s perceived injustices if common service issues were taken care of: Take a drink order promptly. Have all the food arrive at the same time. Refill water glasses. Bring the check in a timely fashion.

    It annoys me that I can get better service getting breakfast at Leo’s No Smoking than I do for dinner at Fenouil.

  7. flavorcountry says

    I agree with the mick that this post is written completely with a negative perspective of service at fine restaurants. Some of the issues that well seasoned brings up are true, but some are ridiculous. I feel like most of these issues can be looked at from two perspectives: one, “they’re all judging me and looking down upon me”, or two, “oohhh! so thats you pronounce ‘feuilletage’!”.
    Although I wouldn’t go so far as to agreeing that well seasoned would be “more comfortable in a sharis or tgifridays”, I think that this post is slanted and not a best representation of the content of this website.
    But, to not sound like I’m just gunning down well seasoned, I have enjoyed and agreed with many of well seasoned’s comments on other posts on the website.

  8. JG says

    I oversee service almost everyday of the week and this post completely misses its intended point in relation to upscale and fine dining restaurants.

    The position taken by the author states that service staff’s knowledge of etiquette is used to “educate” guests rather than serve them. Unfortunately for the sake of that argument, the only point to which that applies is the Pronunciation Trap. Every other point of disagreement with service in this article is either due to the incompetence and indifference of the employee involved (host examples) or personal idiosyncracies of the author.

    As for that pronunciation trap, Chefs largely cook using techniques developed by non-english speaking cultures employing ingredients from all over the world. There is almost always going to be a word the diner does not know how to pronounce. Its the servers job to not correct you unless you ask how to pronounce it. To correct the guest in front of others is an affrontery to proper service.

    As previously stated the hosts cited in the post are simple not interested in their job. In a properly functioning restaurant, the host is the first line of contact with the guests and as such it is their duty to be gracious and welcoming. Offering to take coats when necessary, offering a drink or cocktail should the customer be made to wait for the table, and offering polite small talk when walking the guests to the table. Chairs should be pulled out for the guests and menus should be opened then given when the guests sit down. That’s properly functioning host duties. That they may take a minute to decide which table to seat the customer at, is a reality in a high volume restaurant. If they don’t seat guests evenly throughout the dining room the server will not be able to give adequate service no matter how professional they may normally be.

    Placing the napkin on the lap of the guest is something that I do not endorse as I believe it makes most people uncomfortable. Some establishments may do so, though I cannot think of anywhere in Portland where this has been a regular occcurence.

    Water service is simply that, you will be offered tap, still or sparkling in the vast majority of fine dining restaurants. If any employee of a restaurant turns up their nose when you ask for regular water they do not deserve to work in their field. Attitude is not a service issue it is a personal problem, just be sure your interpretation of their response is accurate.

    Napkins in a perfect world are not picked up and folded and placed on a chair – they are simply replaced with a fresh napkin. It is an extra step of service. Most restaurants don’t do it that way, especially in Portland.

    In the same way sauces, butter, and bottles of wine are placed on coasters or side plates to ensure the tablecloth stays as clean as possible,
    crumbing a table is done to ensure that the table is as near to pristine as possible when serving the next course. It is done for the comfort of the guest not as a condemnation of their tablemanners.

    Obviously from the length of this reply, I believe a discussion about service good and bad and how it applies to Portland would be a welcome addition to this site. For all I know there are some in the archives. I think Portland has some wonderful food in its restaurants which is too often accompanied by average to sub-par service. These are constant challenges in every restaurant I’ve worked in or managed, I mean no disrespect to the author of this post, but its subject matter hits very close to home.


  9. M. says

    I find this article dismaying. While it is essential for a restaurant to create a comfortable atmosphere, I don’t agree that such classic service techniques as the courtesy fold or decrumbing make a negative impression on the diner. As a restaurant manager, I encourage my staff to anticipate their guest’s needs and to demonstrate attentiveness, sensitivity and grace throughout the service of a meal. As a frequent diner, such practices, done with agility and with good timing, merely signify to me that my server is aware of my needs and is paying attention to the table, even when I am not there. Walking into a restaurant anticipating that the staff will immediately treat you with disdain and contempt will only guarantee you a terrible experience. There are a few restaurants that make that disdain clear- so just avoid them! I think it is dangerous to villify actions as benign as napkin folding– The focus should be on warm, timely and personal service- I’ve found it in many Portland restaurants that practice decrumbing, offer bottled water, fold napkins, or occasionally struggle over the reservation book. So go ahead and enjoy yourself, and leave your insecurity at home.

  10. MyNextMeal says

    Must say that I’m not a big fan of this post either.

    Living on the east coast, midwest, and now the west coast…I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place where “foodie-types” were ever happy with the restaurant service in their respective finer-dining milieu.

    I happen to think that service in Portland is actually better than average. Bad experiences in Portland have been the exception and not the rule for me.

    At the end of the post, WellSeasoned writes:

    The training of servers should concentrate on honing their skills at interpreting the subtle signals that diners give them, not teaching them pseudo-sophisticated rules and rituals.

    Do restaurants *really* train their servers in the rules and rituals described? If so, I think the article might have been more interesting (and funny) if actual examples of bad-training (maybe an excerpt from an HR training manual) had been cited from the service side and not written from the perspective of the aggrieved diner.

    I also like decrumbing. I like going into my dessert course with a clean table – by removing all evidence of the courses that came before, I am lulled into believing that I can eat dessert with impunity. More psychological warfare tactics on the part of the fine dining restauranteur!!!

  11. heps says

    I love the “decrumbing.” I’m the type who’s constantly brushing crumbs off the table, any way, so I appreciate the extra effort to keep the table neat.

    I also like having water options. Sometimes I’m in the mood for sparkling water; sometimes tap is just fine. I haven’t really felt it to be a “test.”

    I don’t mind the napkin folding, although it can get sort of silly. I ate at an excellent restaurant in Santa Fe, Geronimo, and had to get up at least a dozen times to go outside to make and take phone calls (arrangements for a wedding the following day). Every time I got up, my server had to come over and neatly fold my napkin. It got pretty ridiculous, but by the end of dinner we were all laughing about it, and it became a shared joke with the server. His attitude was never negative, even though I’m sure it was annoying, and we definitely tipped more as a result.

    As others have said, it’s the attitude that’s key. And responsiveness. If the server is friendly and responsive, that builds a whole lot of goodwill.

  12. says

    My experience in fine dining has been that after years of working in upscale restaurants, some staff have actually been conditioned to provide aloof service, which is unfortunate.

    You see, for every fantastic table of Regular Joes out for a good time, there are another five tables of people seated in their section that are there for the sole purpose of critiquing every point of service.

    “She’d better seat us in a booth or this place has gone to shit.”

    “I can’t believe they don’t have [insert ridiculous bottled water here – Fiji, anyone?] – I should have brought my own.”

    “There’s a huge chunk of bread on my table and I can’t bear to look at it for another second.”

    Sometimes the only way to keep your sanity is to step outside of yourself and get through the night unscathed. It’s sad that good, polite, and enjoyable people become casualties of the fine dining process. A big smile and a hearty “thank you” can be a great way to distinguish yourself as a non-threatening patron. It always worked wonders with me.

  13. sidemeat says

    Yours is a most difficult case, Herr Seasoned.
    You feel alternatley ignored, fussed over, put upon,
    condescending towards and condescended to.
    You hear voices, and they mock you.
    You have a sense of paranoia.
    You believe that the service staff are sending signals to
    other diners about you bathroom trips.
    The man at the next stall questions your ‘abilities’.
    When you return, the laughter in the dining room quiets,
    only a few dare a sideways glance in your direction.
    The busser, having washed his hands in vomit prior to
    refolding your napkin, pours you another glass of tap
    with a sneer.
    Oh, you’re on to THEIR game!
    These people will get theirs someday, wih God, and
    yet another first date as your witness…..
    Your fantasies of revenge are interupted by salad.
    In the too many blows for one man to absorb story
    that is your life, it arrives chilled.
    Yes, a difficult case.
    All the more reason to begin treatment right away!
    In a case less severe than yours, I would start treament
    with a large chill pill.
    In your case however, I think a suppository is called for.
    Of course that requires that we first remove THE VERY
    Nobody said dining out was pleasant.

  14. Ellie says

    Sidemeat, you are killing me. I think I tore an abdominal muscle.

    Simple service from nice folk is all I need. If you crumb my table perfectly and you are a horse’s arse, the service sucks. If you forget to refill my water but you are nice enought to apologize, the service rocks.

    I love when a server tells me when they (or the kitchen) is in the weeds. At that point I can relax and quit worrying about what happened to my drinks, aps, or whatever.

  15. pdxeater says

    Hmmm. I like decrumbing. I guess I’m not that insecure about being a messy eater. I hate snotty attitudes from people seating or serving me. I also hate my pronunciation being “corrected” wrongly. If I had a dollar for everytime someone one mispronounced bruschetta, biscotti, or taglieteli I’d be rich. Seriously. If I could afford it I would drink only bottled water while eating out, I find the stench of chlorine very overwhelming.

  16. pdxeater says

    That would be tagliatelle. I can’t spell for crap, but I can and do pronounce it correctly or my grandpa will disown me.

  17. fuyuk says

    one of the best ways to sum up the whole service issue is the scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when they are in the restaurant.

    Maitre ‘d-“Mr. Froman, I’m so very sorry about the mix up”
    Ferris’ “that’s what makes it possible for us to tolerate a person like you”

    or something to that effect.

    seems to me that wellseasond mirrors the maitre ‘d to some extent, just from the other side of the table

  18. casey says

    this post was well meaning & totally off base, while this thread has within it the very worst of intentions & completely hit the mark.

  19. Diner says

    From a different viewpoint to the original post, I find the service at the restaurants I visit repeatedly in Portland to be very friendly and non-assuming. Down home with high-end food.

    Although I am offered options, I always drink tap water and no one gives me the stink-eye.

    Servers usually help me with figuring out how to pronounce words that aren’t part of my vocabulary, or better yet, explain it to me in plain English.

    I always make a dreadful mess with bread and appreciate the crumb fixer part of the meal.

    The whole napkin thing is neither here nor there for me. Servers can put in on my lap if they like, or not. It’s only a brief moment in time. And I don’t mind if they put it somewhere I can easily find it if I leave the table for a bio-break.

    As for snooty hosts/hostesses that also has yet to be an issue for me. I dine out at least once a week and have yet to be treated in a demeaning manner. That said, I do make reservations for dinner because I think it helps restaurant managers plan staffing.

    When I get there if I am directed to a table that I would not prefer, and there are other booths/tables open, I ask if a change might be possible. I have yet to have this request denied.

    So there you go. Another perspective.

  20. mczlaw says

    Diner. . .I’m 99% same same.

    It is amazing what a smile and vigorously upbeat demeanor will bring forth from a server. Actually, it’s not surprising at all: kindness begets kindness; joy begets joy. Usually.

    And I just kept the smile going the other night when our server proudly announced our “amooz boo-shayz”.


  21. pdxwineoh says

    I didn’t like this post either….JG did a good job of saying it for me. Bottom line is one size does not fit all, and as long as the server doesn’t have B.O. or bulls**t me, I’m gonna tip 20% every time. Crumbing should only be done on tables with linen, and you just don’t see many linen covered tables anymore. I love the way Paley’s Place crumbs, they use a stiffly folded napkin, and crumb into a clean side plate. Very classy. I don’t like tap water either, and am not happy with this new Anti-bottled water sentiment. It was invented for cheap people who should not eat in a dining room. Get it to go, and save the water cost and the tip. Bottled water makes the food taste better, and you drink more (water) so you get drunk less (from the wine). People crack me up; You’ll spend 75 bucks for a bottle of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, but you’ll bitch about 7 bucks for a bottle of Pellegrino of the same size? Guess what? They both cost the same to make! Who’s duping who?

  22. Hunter says

    I can honestly say that, until now, I have never been admonished for choosing tap water over bottled water.

    We live in Portland with some of the best water out there. Having lived in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, this is H2O heaven. I just don’t get it but hey, if you desire fancy water, more power to you. It’s your money.

  23. Tim L says

    In my opinion there perfectly delicious $25 bottles of Willamette Valley Pinots available. To take this bottled/tap thread to the extreme, pdxwineoh, I refuse to pay $75 for pinot or $7 for Pellegrino. In 2002 I did a solo kayak expedition above Baffin Island at 73 degrees N latitude. I camped on the land and, while wandering across the mountainous landscape, quenched my thirst by simply kneeling down onto the tundra to drink out of meltwater pools that were everywhere. There are no intestinal parasites existing at this latitude. The water is free for the taking. There are no intestinal parasites at these latitudes. The water on the landscape above King George Society Cliffs is the best on this planet. My reputation as a “foodie” is certainly at risk when admitting that I survived on freeze-dried fare but even this made my experience of once again kneeling down onto the tundra to pick and munch on the mountain sorrel, the best salad course I’ve ever dined upon. So…Each time I decline the $7 Pellegrino, I’m adding to my travel fund for the $3000 PDX > Ottawa> Nanisivik plane flight!

  24. Well Seasoned says

    Okay, okay! Some points well taken and a lot of misunderstandings, for which I take total responsibility. I was trying to start a discussion of service by being provocative in what I intended to be a humorous way. Humor isn’t my forte, so (judging from the posts) it came off as sarcastic – or, even worse, as the rant of a tetchy paranoid. My list of the ways in which overly-ritualized, attitude-laden service can make diners uncomfortable wasn’t so much a reflection of my own angst (having spent years as a server myself, I’m a very relaxed and forgiving customer, though pretension does bug me) but an expression of my fear that this style of service turns a lot of diners off. So I wrote hyperbolically, using worst cases, and imagining a diner who would be vulnerable to humiliation – a persona, not myself. Looking back at what I wrote, I can see that there’s a very confusing tone shift between the opening and the listing of “grievances” and then again at the closing paragraph. So, no one’s fault but my own that you guys didn’t get what I was trying to do. And, Food Dude, if I ever again submit an attempt at humor, don’t publish it!

    Just a few responses:

    the mick: I’ve been waiting for your point-by-point response. You get the prize for the first personal attack, which is also one of the silliest.

    FD: I went really overboard when I added the decrumbing bit. Just another misjudgement in a badly written piece.

    Pork Cop: Point well taken. I’ll accept almost any exaggeration of formal service if it’s delivered gracefully and with a sense that the server sees me as a fellow human being.

    Suds Sister: Amen! The implicit point in my criticism of over-ritualized service is that the basics DO get missed, while the rituals trudge on. And it’s indeed galling when you get better service at a little mom-and-pop café than you do at a fancy, white-tablecloth establishment.

    JG: Thanks for a thoughtful response, which could be a springboard for some truly interesting discussion. And thanks for agreeing about napkins!

    M: Sorry for the dismay. I basically agree with you, as I agreed with Pork Cop, that any level of service can be made comfortable for the guest; but I do feel that it takes an especially skilled server to make every diner, especially an unsophisticated one, comfortable with extremely formal service rituals.

    sidemeat: Your post disappointed me the most, because I always enjoy your posts so much. (I’ve come close to wrecking my laptop more than once by spraying coffee because I was laughing so hard.) I hope by now you understand that the character you’re flaying isn’t me and in fact is a made-up jumble of insecurities; but I’m kind of shocked that you’d think it was okay to pile onto such a person.

    casey: Thank you!! You get the prize for the most astute comment so far.

    Diner and mczlaw: Good examples of how people who are comfortable and relaxed have happy restaurant experiences. Unfortunately, not everyone goes into a restaurant either comfortable or relaxed, which is why servers need to tailor their approach to each party.

  25. sidemeat says

    A made up jumble of insecurities?!?! Sir, I will have you know THAT is the reg trade mark pat pend all rights reserved intelectual property of sidemeat llc! Today is a good day to sue! To the ramparts! Where are my ramparts? No, not my pants, no, not the keys to my truck, RRRRRRRRRR! Prepare for litigation!

  26. the mick says

    After a few days I have had time to digest well seasoned’s “few thoughts on service”. My disdain for the authors point of view has waned a touch, as I can more clearly see the points trying to be made. As mentioned in my previous post, I have managed restaurants for many years-and so my reactions to essays such as this is usually one of defense. Defense of a business that I have given my life to….a business that I love very much!

    The ever-increasing popularity of websites such as portlandfoodanddrink.com is both a blessing and a curse to me for a couple of reasons: I read them on a daily basis to keep abreast of current trends. To see what works and what doesn’t. Peoples likes and dislikes and to learn the nuances of service that will set my restaurant apart from the rest…..and yes, to learn what irks those of you who are kind enough to grace my doorstep. On numerous occassions throughout the week I am known to regale my staff during our daily pre-service meetings with essays, reviews and manifestos, using them as an aid to constantly better our service. I have always maintained that one bad comment card is worth a hundred good ones-because my staff and I all know what we do well….it is only by correcting and eliminating that which we do badly that we will continue to grow and succeed as a restaurant.

    The curse of these websites is the immediacy of response. i have always been one to react quickly to situations and coupled with my opinionated nature, I tend to have my fair share of healthy debates/heated discourse/blow-out arguments….and in this case, my response the other night (in my defense, after 13 gruelling hours of work) was contradictory to my philosophy of turning negativity into a positive force. So, even though I came out of the gate running the other night, I have reigned in my thinking on these “thoughts on service”. There are a couple of good points that I can use to further educate my staff.

    1) The 1000 yard stare greeting: I do know (and agree with) exactly what the author is saying here. I find the more popular the restaurant-the more common this behaviour. This similarily extends to phone etiquette….when you call to make a reservation and you get some curt/snooty host/hostess who act like they are doing you a favor by taking your reservation. From an insiders point of view, the only excuse for this type of behaviour is bad management. A well managed restaurant will hire the right people, and then train and consistantly monitor their day to day actions and interactions with guests.

    2) The seating dilemma: There are many reasons that can be construed as “an agonizing amount of time to consult the reservation sheet and look around the room before leading you to a table”. In a busy restaurant the success and failure of a night often comes down to how the room is sat. Most guests are unaware as to how intricate a job it is to “run the book” in a busy restaurant. a host-to a restaurant- can be as important as a conductor to an orchestra. Starting with reservations-seating times must be spaced so that the kitchen is never overloaded with too much at any one time. Tables must be evenly sat for individual waiters for similar reasons. Particular tables must be sat at particular times in order to turn for later reservations. Special requests need to be accommodated. There are also the nights when the “campers” are out and there are no tables ready for later reservations. That’s when the abuse starts. Hungry, cranky unhappy guests descend upon the host stand like vultures to a fresh kill. the host can’t leave the desk….there is nowhere to hide….yet they keep smiling through adversity. Now, this is not always the case, but with this little insight maybe next time some of you will give your host the benefit of the doubt. I can safely say that the majority of host staff that you encounter are doing there best to get you to your table in a timely manner without incident.

    3) The laying on of the napkin: This practice of removing the napkin as the guest is seated, and placing it on their lap for them, is (and this is where I am in full agreement with the author) in my opinion, a little over the top and is an unecessary invasion of the guests personal space.

    4) The bottled vs tap water: Over the years the offering of bottled water as opposed to tap or iced water has become more and more the norm in fine dining establishments. 15-20 years ago I would not allow my staff to give the guest a water choice (if they want bottled water they will ask for it). I too considered this a “hard-sell” and felt it was the wrong way to start a ‘relationship’ with a table-for all the reasons mentioned. No guest should ever feel that their server is just out to pad the check in any way they can-but, as the years passed and this service step became increasingly more common, I realize that it is just that:- a step of service solely for the guests’ benefit. these days more and more people are drinking bottled water, and from a guests perspective the offering of bottled water should be no different to how one feels when ordering a martini, and the server asks you if you have a preffered gin.

    5) The pronounciation trap: I consider myself very well versed in menus and cuisines of the world. (but I am not pompous enough to even think that I know close to everything). i still find menus on a regular basis with words that I am unfamiliar with which I cannot pronounce. Firstly, dear author, if you try to pronounce a word that you are unfamiliar with-and do it wrong, you are in fact the fool that you felt the server was making you out to be. If you don’t ask how to pronounce these unfamiliar words you shall continue to remain that fool-because it is obvious that you are not taking any further steps to educate yourself.

    6) the laying of the napkin redux: the napkin over the back of a chair when you are away from a table is not actually a sign to the rest of the restaurant that you are taking a pee. This, in fact, is intentionally done to deliberately piss the customer off. In Oregon’s secret restaurant manager meetings (held quarterly) we are constantly looking for little service touches designed to irk our otherwise comfortable customers…..it keeps them on their toes!

    7) The decrumbing ritual: This doesn’t even warrant a response! here “well seasoned” becomes, “overly salty”.

    So what will my service staff learn from this nonsensical diatribe when I read it at tomorrow’s service meeting:- sometimes the customer isn’t always right……and even fools need to eat.

  27. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    I think this article is pretty fascinating, and the commentary following it even more so. Having worked FOH in places as diverse as a snooty celeb haunted so-so restaurant in SoHo (NY), to an historic greasy spoon off I-5 (In-between Portland and Seattle), I have experienced a huge range on that side of the equation. On the dining side, I also feel that customers play a huge responsibility in their dining experiences.

    Thus it forms an intricate dance between diner and restaurant staff. Sometimes it’s a perfect waltz with everyone knowing the dance steps and is pleasant, perfectly acceptable to both parties, yet unsurprising. Sometimes it’s a fiery tango with the diner swept up in the seduction and beauty of the experience, and sometimes it’s a disastrous clash of awkward JR High School stepping on toes, dancing to the off beat, percolating emotions, and sad disappointment and misunderstanding.

    I look at it this way: A dining experience, like life, is not canned and thus it is never perfect nor will it meet everyone’s pleasure or expectations all the time. This is especially so in a country such as ours where we currently seem to be really redefining all kinds of “institutions” such as the workplace, what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in public, and in dining as well. Emily Post no longer applies to every situation, there is no longer a strict code of Victorian era books on dining do’s and don’ts, and so it is no wonder people are confused and that misunderstandings or flustered dislikes happen.

    Regardless, what it comes down to for me is respect and intentions. Of course there is no strict definition for this, more of a “feel” perhaps. Regardless, I have a high tolerance for mistakes and silly customs, but a very low tolerance for disrespectful behavior on the part of either restaurant staff or diners.

    P.S. The Mick – THANK YOU. Well said.
    Also, decrumbing – doesn’t bother me in the least.
    Finally, I believe that all Americans should be required to work a customer service job at least once in their lives in order to understand the difficulties and crap that service folks face on a daily basis and that it is friggin’ time to make etiquette classes mandatory in schools.

  28. sidemeat says

    Your better at this than I am.
    Would you provide the link to that Onion bit about waiters swearing so much?

  29. Carolyn says

    Note to self:

    Never write anything recounting a bad restaurant service experience without preparing yourself for personal attacks from touchy readers. (oops … too late … )

    Did it occur to anyone else that this was written with a Seinfeld-esque sense of humor: “And what’s up with the waiter’s preoccupation with my napkin? I mean, enough already. Where am I going to hide the bite of gristle if you’re going to shake out my napkin when I get up to visit the restroom? I mean, come on!”

    I thought it was a funny post. Read it again.
    … and …
    “Lighten up, Francis.” – Stripes

  30. the cobra says

    the tone was clearly intended to be funny, and while i’ve never been a fan of over-reaction, i found it totally pleasing to see restaurant professionals showing their resolve. we’ll never be truly great without people like these laying the difficult, thankless groundwork.

  31. QuoVadis says

    An old post but one I enjoyed so I thought I’d add my belated 2cents.

    The Mick- where’s the next quarterly meeting? I’m new in town and need to make sure my servers will be sufficiently pissing of the guests from the get go.

    Re: crumbing… it was mentioned by many that they don’t mind it but I didn’t see anyone mention the real reason for it- to keep the crumbs from getting on people’s clothing. It shows care on the server’s part.

    The real problem with crumbing? More and more it is done by servers who haven’t been properly trained how to do it. You end up with a server or busboy spending 3 minutes leaning over each person at table, one after the other slowly gathering cumbs. Properly done it should involve a few deft strokes and no leaning.

    Improperly trained servers crumbing=bad

  32. says

    Picking up on the running-the-book issue:

    This is only partly a service issue, I think; it’s also a matter of how the front-of-house space is designed, and entirely too many restaurants at all levels of the spectrum have really badly designed entry/waiting areas. Two recent experiences come to mind:

    My parents and I had Mother’s Day dinner at the Harborside at Riverplace; we had a 5:30 reservation and arrived dead on time. Unfortunately, the Harborside front of house is cramped, and to make matters worse, the passage to the restrooms goes right past the host’s station. There were at least half a dozen parties squashed into the waiting area and spilling out the front, a couple of them sizeable. Result? It took us about ten minutes to be seated, during which time I and several other guests were listening to the host/waitstaff juggle table assignments in some detail — including handling another party of three that had come in without a reservation, whom they managed to seat just before they got to us.

    On one hand, it was clear to me that the staff was handling things about as well as they could given those conditions, and no one was less than courteous to us. But whoever designed that entryway was an idiot, because the lack of space didn’t just crowd us, it made it actively harder for the house staff to do its job properly.

    Contrast: Monday evening the three of us were coming home from a Memorial Day trip via I-5, and stopped at the Red Lobster just off the freeway at Kelso, Washington. Now Red Lobster may be a chain/franchise operation, but they had a large front waiting area, very distinctly set off from both the dining area and the host’s station. That’s a well-designed layout, equipped to handle sizeable crowds and organized so that the host can do his or her traffic-directing without unduly involving the guests.

  33. Bill_C says

    Generally I’m a lurker because I simply enjoy the opinions and information, but service is an area I feel the need to comment on. For me, restaurant, lounge, and bar work (both FOH and BOH) has been a back-up, rather than a profession. I found early on, that if you were clean, hard-working, reasonably polite, not afflicted with major ego problems, willing to work for relatively little money and relatively ridiculous hours in conditions that varied from stone-cold boring to somewhere between chaotic and psychotic you could support yourself (and your family). That said, my wife and I have outfitted our kitchen and pantry well enough that we are able to dine very well at home, when we go out, we go more for service, ambiance, than food. Excellent service and just adequate food is more valuable to us than excellent food and just adequate service. Good service for us is simply recognizing us as both people and paying customers. We’re not disturbed by by waitstaff that can say “I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out”, or “We’re in a rush we weren’t expecting”, or “We’re having some small problems and we’ll be a little slow”, just acknowledge us and let us know what is going on (not in detail). The bottom line line is we go out four to six times a month and each time is special for us, but the staff (FOH and BOH) this is another workday.

  34. easycougar says

    Regarding upselling, I was once a server and I get it.

    BUT, my wife and I were recently in one of the more expensive restaurants in Portland and we cringed at the way the server tried repeately to trick (there’s no other word for it) us into upsold items.

    We ordered an appetizer. Our server then asked if we would like salad “before or after” our appetizer, as if salads came with our entrees (they did not) and she was merely asking about the timing of serving them. We had to awkwardly clarify whether our entrees came with salad.

    Then, our server asked if we would like “the works” on our baked potatoes and listed a topping that was not complimentary along with toppings that were complimentary. We discovered this upon receiving the bill.

    It’s not about the money. It’s about feeling relaxed in a fine dining establishment, which should be a refuge from crass attempts at nickel and diming.

  35. Pork Cop says

    I worked with a server who would try and intimidate every table by telling them that the menu was “designed” as a 5 course meal (it was not). Basically making them feel like bumpkins if the didn’t order a app, soup, salad, entree ,dessert. He would then do the same with the wines that the “Chef had matched with each of these” Really gross. Unfortunately..it worked more often than not.Although I’d betting that most of them didn’t come back.Personally, I’ve always preferred that people return. No repeat business= no business.

  36. pdxyogi says

    The fact that so many took the article as a paranoid humorless rant (as I did) even though the author’s intent was secretly satirical speaks for itself, whatever was privately on the apparently-ineffective author’s mind.
    Loved Sidemeat’s little “poem’ response. I laughed so hard it hurt. So funny and true.

    I love it when they crumb me! I don’t give a rat’s ass if they think less of me because I wish to drink some of the best tap water to be found anywhere. And I have a true laugh riot when some hipster-poseur server from hillbilly country of eastern Washington presumes to correct my French . Me: “I’ll have the Chocolate Marquise (“s” is not silent because of the ensuing “e”). Server: “You want the Markee?”

  37. WellSeasoned says

    Yikes, I’m amazed that my hideous flop as a satirist is still garnering responses! (BTW, I think it’s appropriate to refer to my authorial skills as “ineffective,” not “apparently-ineffective.”) I always cringe when I see that a new comment has been added, but the last one made me laugh and also reminded me of a story a friend told me years ago. He had stopped at a motel in far northern California, near the Oregon border, and in the motel dining room he decided to order a bottle of Cabernet. Being a professor of French, he didn’t want to flaunt his accent to the server, so he asked for a bottle of “cab-er-NAY so-VIG-non.” The server frostily corrected him, “Sir, we say ‘cab-er-NET so-VIG-non.'”

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