Restaurant staff, with their automatic or canned lines drive me crazy
Do they really care so little about what the customer thinks?
Recently I was at a restaurant, and ordered Pork Rillettes. It was a Spanish restaurant, so I pronounced it as a Spaniard would “Ril-lets”. The server corrected me “It’s pronounced Ril-lays,” and then carefully pronounced it again when she brought the food, as if to remind me what an idiot I had been. Her condescending manner pissed me off, and since I was fairly sure she was wrong, I looked it up as soon as I got home. As far as I can tell, I was right, and even if it was a French restaurant, she was pronouncing it incorrectly. Then it would be Ree-Yet.
Eating out so often, I find myself recognizing buzz words at certain restaurants. There was a period at Clyde Common, when no matter what you ordered the server would say “Excellent”. Drove me crazy. “I’ll have that dog poo that just got tracked in the front door.” “Excellent!” I know I’m a genius when it comes to ordering, but I’d just as soon have you say something that sounds less rehearsed. At another restaurant the buzzword is “Gladly”. Next time I’m going to ask them to wash my car. There must be a dozen places where they always say “very good”. I’ll have the pork rillettes. “Very good!” Whatever. Mix it up now and then please.
Another pet peeve is servers who refuse to give an opinion. “Would you pick the duck or the pork?” I recently asked. “Oh, I couldn’t say,” she said. “Everything on the menu is equally good.” It turns out I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the duck, so that didn’t speak well for the rest of the menu. One night at a Thai place I made the mistake of inquiring about a curry. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never had it. I can’t stand Thai food!”
On the other hand, I love to hear which dish servers prefer, and then order the other one. It seems to me a restaurant is no better than its worst dish. I’m sure several servers have been thrown off when I’ve picked the entrée they specifically steered me away from.
One night I was in a restaurant – the name escapes me at the moment – and was served an entrée that was so bad I couldn’t even make a polite dent. The waitress came by and picked up my plate. “Oh,” she said. “You didn’t like that. I didn’t think you would. None of the other customers have either!” Huh! Then why the hell is it still on the menu?
One thing that sets a good server apart from the run of the mill is the ability to give direction based on what you order. I’m getting old. Half the time I can’t read the tiny print you kids put on the menu. Turn down the lights and I’m fumbling my way through blind. Heck, that’s how I ended up orderingt sweetbreads the first time; I thought it was the dessert menu. But I digress. If I ask for the pork vindalho, and it comes with rice, shouldn’t the waiter say something when I order rice on the side? A “Did you realize the dish comes with rice?” would do very nicely. Instead, most dash away to the kitchen. I picture them giving high fives to the cook.
Then there is the server that is overly familiar. While dining at a restaurant of great repute, I made the mistake of asking the waitress if everything was okay. She burst into tears. “My cat got hit by a car today. It was terrible! There were pieces of him all over the road, and I had to get a shovel and scrape him up so my dad could bury him.” She had the woman I was with in tears, and I lost my appetite. So much for that date. It was even more disturbing when she wiped her runny nose onto her hands and immediately brought our food from the kitchen.
I remember the familiarity of the servers at Gotham. Did anyone else ever have them sit down in the booth with you? It drove me crazy. “Oh my god,” one said. “It’s utter madness tonight. I just have to sit down for a minute.” We all scooted down so she could sit on the corner while she took our order.
I started this piece to link to Frank Bruni’s latest entry in his Critic’s Notebook, titled Tonight, Patronizing Language, but the words just flowed from me instead. It seems he has similar issues:
“Excellent choice,” says the waiter in one restaurant, casting my companion’s order of braised short ribs as a bold inspiration.
“Perfect,” says the waitress in another restaurant, and she says it after each person’s selection of an appetizer and entree, as if we’ve managed to home in on the only out-and-out winners in a tough crowd.
If we’d chosen differently, would she have made an icky expression, a sourpuss face? Would she have warned us that the squab tartare with candied jalapeños and a botulism emulsion was imperfect — and possibly ruinous?
You can read Mr. Bruni’s entire rant here.
Food Dude says
I meant to say, chime in if you have similar stories or pet peeves.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
I had the most bizarre and offending experience at a certain upscale Italian restaurant in NE Portland a couple of years ago that I haven’t been back there since.
What happened was this (sorry its a long story): I lost my checkbook, someone found it and called me, I met this person at a public place and gave them a pretty nice reward (I think 50 dollars or so). I did this because he looked pretty down on his luck. He also had that trying to get off drugs but not being entirely successful look that anyone with experience with drug addicts (a member of my family is a drug addict and often has this look) knows all too well. Anyway, I gave him money for doing the right thing and returning my checkbook. This person was so happy he cried. Told me how he lost his job and was living in his van in North Portland, that this money would feed him for a week, etc. Anyway, I get my checkbook back, thanked him for doing the right thing, and left.
Fast forward to later that evening. I am sitting at the bar of said restaurant and telling the story of my lost and found checkbook to another bar patron. I think I might have said something along the lines of, “well, it was sad because I think obviously there was some drug use going on with this person.” Little did I know that a server (not even my server or bartender btw) was eavesdropping on the conversation.
The next thing I know she comes storming over from the corner where she was standing and loudly and rudely says, “Did you lose your checkbook yesterday?” Yes, I told her. “Did you get it back?” Yes, I told her. “Well,” she says very angry and loudly, “that was my roomate, and I’ll have you know he is NOT on DRUGS and he has been clean and sober for a year!” Of course everyone in the immediate area stopped what they were doing and stared at us. She was almost violently angry at me, and I was so shocked I think I just shrugged and said, “well my mistake then” and then looked down at my drink and then she stormed off. I looked at my fellow bar patron and we both were just puzzled at her.
I mean, 1) why was she eavesdropping so closely on my conversation anyway? and 2) She had absolutely no business interjecting herself in my private conversation and 3) The guy who gave me my checkbook told me he was living in his van. So how could he be her roommate?
Very, very unprofessional there and it left a horribly bad taste in my mouth. Even if I was wrong about her “roommate”, and she felt strongly about correcting me, she still had no business doing what she did.
I hate it when the answer you get to the question about which to have, the duck or the pork, is “I don’t know, I’m a vegetarian”. Has happened to me several times, and not just in Portland.
Or the server last month in Chicago who heard us discussing Moto and chimed in to tell us that she was offered a job there but turned it down due to their tip sharing policy and how she makes at least twice at the restaurant we were eating in. Then forgot to bring the dessert I ordered.
I had already read the NY Times piece, and I have to say your rant is the less petty of the two. The cat story is simply horrific, and most certainly inappropriate. And you do make a good point about the server who let you order rice when your dish already came with that – they should be knowledgeable enough not to let that happen. But I do have to come to the defense of servers with regards to saying “excellent”, or “good choice”, etc.. In a given week, a server might wait on 50 or 60 tables, and is quite often pretty busy, and to expect that person to consciously “mix up” his or her’s verbal expressions with each table so as not bother an overly observant person is pretty ridiculous. And as for deliberately ordering something that the server has steered you away from, I can see why as a food reviewer you would want to do that, but you do have to realize that most people are not knowledgeable enough to separate the food from the service, and they are simply going to tip poorly because they didn’t enjoy their meal.
Oh my god, where to begin?
How about this one…
At Pix Patisserie:
Me: “Can I order that flourless chocolate cake a la carte that is on your buffet instead of paying the price for the entire (picked-over and almost empty) buffet? Charge me whatever you think is appropriate.”
Server: “No, sorry. The leftovers from the buffet go home with the employees.”
(This being only one of many troubling service experiences at Pix, btw.)
Or this one…
At a really good S.E. Portland Bakery that specializes in cakes:
Me: “Is the frosting on that cupcake cream cheese or buttercream?”
Stone-Faced counter guy: “I don’t have any idea. I don’ like sugar.”
Or this one…
At the old Chez What on Alberta (no longer exists):
Me: “What, exactly, is in the ‘special sauce’ on this sandwich?”
Server: “I don’t know. You see, that item is made with meat, and I don’t eat meat. In fact, I don’t eat any animal products at all. I am a vegan…”
Me: Oh. Thanks. (I’m not making this up.)
And.. being corrected countless times on my pronunciation of the word “bruschetta.” It’s bru-sketta, guys. I don’t care if you pronounce it bru-shetta, but for the love…please stop correcting me when I’m saying it the right way.
So many more to add… but I’ve already outstayed my welcome.
Nancy Rommelmann says
Not a Portland moment but: when at Dodger Stadium, I asked the girl behind concessions what kind of cheese she was pouring on the nachos, and she said, “Orange.”
Pet peeves: sitting at the table with the diners. Unless we are extremely close, and preferably blood-related, please don’t.
When you ask a server about a particular wine and he/she stares into the middle distance and, because he/she has no idea, starts in the most generic terms to describe it. Listen, it’s okay not to know; I would be many times more happy if you said, “You know, I don’t know, let me get someone who does,” rather than a questionable, “It’s a pinot… from Oregon…”
The waiter recently at Clarklewis, who gave no indication he was our waiter. He just looked like some tall slacker-preppy guy, lackadaisically loping through the room. I finally gathered he was our waiter, and indicated it might be nice if he came by, which he did, and took the order, but it was almost like, we were all at a party in the Hamptons, and he was a guest too, and we were sort of the boring people, but — sigh — he’d get us what we needed.
No, Nancy, I think the girl at Dodger Stadium got it right. There are only two types of cheese that you pump onto nachos at a concession stand: orange or yellow. I prefer the yellow.
Nancy Rommelmann says
You’re right, ckrogstad, and her line made it into the article… and clearly, beyond!
delightful server says
Question? What the hell would you like a server to say? I don’t like the duck, it taste like shit? Don’t get the pork or you will be sorry? Why did you come in to eat in the first place? Because everything here is crappy. That is why you came in right? Just so you can say how crappy everything was. As a server, you want me to think for you. ” Do you think I can eat the gnocchi and the pork, or will I be too full?” How am I supposed to determine how full you will be? Did you have a big lunch? Are you a big eater? Are you going to scrarf down a loaf of the free bread I am about to bring? Here’s my favorite question. “What’s good?” I then list 4-6 of the 7 entrees we offer, somehow missing the one you were eyeing in the first place. Then your response is, “Oh, you didn’t mention the halibut, so it MUST not be good, otherwise you would have mentioned it.” That’s right the halibut sucks that’s why we put it on the menu, it’s disgusting. Think for yourselves people! You want my opinion and as soon as I give it you want to fight it. IT’S MY OPINON. You like duck get the duck. YOU ARE EATING. YOU ARE PAYING. How should I know what your personal tastes are? I would like to think of myself as a foodie, I enjoy the finer things, but I’ll be damned if I don’t love a little ketchup in my Annie’s mac n’ cheese. Do you like that? Do ya? Probably not, so we have different taste!!!! Ask me a valid question,”How is the duck prepared?” I will gladly tell you and then by my WONDERFUL description you should be able to figure it out for yourself if the duck is something you would enjoy. My job is server, as in I serve the food, I tell you about preperations, I make wine suggestions. I am not your mama.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
Oh, here is another one I witnessed from a former co-worker of all people. I used to work in a fancy cafe in Seattle known for their desserts, however they also did a booming take out espresso business as well. One time I was pulling the espresso while a co-worker was taking orders and doing the register.
Well, this was one of those places with bad signage: you know artsy-fartsy hard to read hand drawn cursive lettering menu signs placed out of eye shot, no real menu at the counter, etc. Now remember this was back in the era when there were only a couple of Starbucks in Seattle at all and lattes were still pretty unheard of in the mainstream dining scene.
A guy walks in, looking about as far removed from the Seattle Capitol Hill hipster scene as possible. Honestly I think he was a construction worker from across the street. Anyway, he looks around for a minute or so while my lovely coworker loudly taps her pen against the counter while staring at him with a look that can only be described as a cross between smug, bored, and filled with animosity. He looks confused and out of place and looks like he needs some help and direction. Co-worker loudly sighs and continues her pen tapping.
Finally he looks at her and says, resigned, “I’ll have a coffee please.” So easy right? No guess work. Nothing intimidating or difficult about that. She looks up at him, and I’ll never forget this, with an evil smirk on her face and says, “we don’t have coffee here. We have Am-er-ic-an-os (she says this really slowly like he is mentally handicapped).” Then she adds, “And they are better than regular coffee (she uses the hand quotation signs in front of him) anyway.”
I remember I chewed her out after he left, told the owner, and put in my notice at the end of the shift. What a bee-otch. She just felt like picking on a regular working guy because he wasn’t cool enough in her mind. It still ticks me off to this day.
I think the weirdest service I’ve ever had was at a breakfast place in Redding, CA. We were on a road trip but didn’t want fast food. We certainly got our wish. I ordered a cappuccino instead of regular coffee, which turned out to be a mistake. We sat there for what seemed like an eternity without coffee.
Normally we would just walk out, but we had already been sitting there for about 30 minutes. How much longer could it be? Our table was near the pass-through window, so we were watching what was going on in the kitchen. At last we spotted a glimspe of our waitress (hurray! she didn’t walk out in the middle of her shift!) She was making something with the espresso machine (yipee! that’s my drink!) We had been sitting there for 45 minutes.
She got a little wild with the foam and the drink started to overflow. She just took a big slurp off the top and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. A few seconds later she came around the corner and delivered it to our table. I was speechless, but my husband said to me, “You don’t have to drink that, but if you send it back I’m getting up right now and going to McDonald’s”.
It was yummy.
Typically, I get great service wherever I go, but one thing that comes up is the whole macchiato thing. I’ve resolved that by ordering an espresso macchiato, but I have been subjected to some pretty annoying comments about the Starbuck’s version.
Dim Sum place on Clement Street: 2 tally marks got us eleven siu mai. We paid for them. Luckily, they were cheap as heck.
Dave J. says
For some reason, I really get annoyed when waiters use the “I have” phrase instead of “we have.” As in, “for the specials tonight, I have a halibut braised in….” or “the wines I have tonight include…” I know it’s not a big deal, but it annoys me. I don’t know why.
As for bad service anecdotes, once had a waiter at a Denny’s in LA drop his used band-aid into the tomato soup (well, someone dropped it there, as it was there when it got to the table) then refuse to go get us another soup when we pointed it out to him.
Kevin Allman says
Ever since David Machado’s comment in that New York Times article that the city has a “regional level of service,” I’ve been thinking about it.
1 I think Portland’s egalitarian nature lends itself to some awkward customer-server relations. Of course we’re all equal in the eyes of the law and God and whatever else, but the fact is: when I’m in a restaurant, customers and servers are our roles. No one is demeaned if we’re both minding our manners and treating each other with professionalism and courtesy.
2 The notion of a “career waiter” isn’t as developed or respected in Portland as it is in other cities. There are few places like Jake’s Grill or Huber’s where I get the impression that the servers have been there for many years and know exactly what they’re doing. (And even some places like Shari’s would fall in that category – it may not be the best coffee in the world, but my cup won’t sit empty for long.)
3 The “special snowflake” syndrome. It’s just a hunch, but the lackadaisical service in so many local restaurants seems to have an undercurrent to it, an attitude of “I’m not really a waiter; I’m the next great musician or short-story writer or bike activist, and my languid airs and inattention to the basics prove it.”
4 Lack of training. I don’t know why local restaurateurs are out to impress with the provenance of every Strawberry Mountain Rogue Valley item on the menu, but couldn’t seem to care less that their staffs aren’t trained. But I see it again and again.
I still remember going to a very nice local place with a frequent poster on this board. The proprietor obviously knew him (though probably not that he was a regular on PF&D) and came over to say hello. To him. Not me. He acted like my friend was dining alone.
Then it got better. He came back with an amuse that he was thinking of adding to the menu, set it in front of my friend (with one utensil), and sat down at the table with us for about five minutes, discussing its merits and shooting the breeze. He owned the joint, but he couldn’t be arsed to introduce himself or welcome me to the place. After a couple of minutes, my friend asked “Do you want to try this?” It was so stupid it was funny, but I won’t be going back, despite the excellence of the product.
I dunno. We live in a place and a time where food is being fetishized like never before in Portland, but I don’t know why restaurateurs who fuss over their heirloom lettuces and pizza-Nazi ways and menu “statements of purpose” haven’t figured out that a trained, cheerful server is worth a thousand imported salts.
The first restaurant owner in Portland who fetishizes good, consistent, basic service is going to reap a fortune.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
Thanks Jo. What would I do without your eagle eye? Suffer bad grammar and spelling I suppose.
Eves dropping… is this something one might have found in the Garden of Eden after some not-so-fresh apples were eaten? Oh, sorry. I guess that would be Eve’s dropping.
Man, tough audience.
I don’t give a rip if my server sits down, shmoozes, offers their wisdom (or not), does the shoulder touch, etc. CBF’s odd tale excepted, if the food comes within a reasonable amount of time and tastes good, I’m a happy patron.
At worst, I am bemused by the linguistic contortions I sometimes encounter as a regular restaurant diner. If Bruni is truly troubled by the sometimes stilted patois, maybe it’s time to move on to other endeavors. I’m guessing he was just having some fun with his piece.
“delightful server”: a bit mega-snarly perhaps, but otherwise a well-aimed high hard one. With all I’ve seen, you couldn’t pay me enough to work as a server.
Starbucks must train their baristas to be annoying. “How’s your day going so far?” is surrealistic at best, 6:00AM Sunday morning when I have dragged my sorry self and dog to the local outlet. A polite “Good morning” or even companionable silence would suffice.
If only it was as simple as knowing what extraordinarily good service is perceived as from inidividual to individual. It’s like making spicy food, if one can nail it for 80% of the people then one only has 20% that may say it wasn’t spicy enough or that it was way too spicy. I think our servers do an awesome job of expanding that 80% to more like 99% and I think maybe one out of the last 160 comment cards said something other than best ever, perfect etc etc. And despite reading review negatives like they “lacked a bit of sophistication” on the internet they continue to give it 110% every day.
Kevin Allman – we’ll provide you dinner a couple of Friday nights in the middle of the rush in return for mystery shopping my people and sitting down with us to talk about your experience since I think we fetishize constructive criticism of every aspect of what we do, as do many more people out there than I think are being given credit for it actually. We’ll even finish your Strawberry Mountain tenderloin with Maldon salt if you like.
Dave J. says
LaurelB: well, with all due respect, that’s what you get for going to Starbucks. Sunday morning is the one time when I’m grateful for the hipster indifference displayed by the Stumptown barristas. They’d rather talk to their friends about the new Okkervil River album, I’d rather get my coffee and try to wake up, and so there’s really no need for the small chat.
Here, here . . . so well said, I can’t add a thing.
What about when servers, or bartenders ask your name and continue to use it throughout the meal as if they’re your new BFF? I am at a loss at how to respond in this situation. I can’t be overtly rude and say I’d prefer not to tell you, or tell them my name and ask them not to use it. To me, it feels like a fake over-familiarity akin to a server sitting down at a table.
This certainly does not apply to situations where I’ve been a customer more than twice, and the server/bartender truly does want to know my name. In those situations, however, I rarely have them saying my name every time they approach me.
-FG (not my real initials)
I was eating dinner at Nutshell for the first time last week and asked our server to suggest something that would pair well with our entree. His response was, “I think everything on the menu pairs well together.” A pretty bold statement for a menu that vascillates between numerous ethnic regions. Needless to say, we got two appetizers, neither of which seemed terribly complimentary to the main dish.
In genenral, it drives me crazy when a server is apathetic in regards to the menu. When I ask for a recommendation, it’s because I actually trust the server’s opinion and would like him/her to guide me to my most satisfying dining experience. It’s not that I’m lazy or in need of extra attention.
Another reason I love Pok Pok (not that I need one more) is that the servers are straightforward and helpful. These folks are completely well-versed in the details of each menu item. No bullshit – just straight talk and fine delivery to match the mindblowing food. They are not shy with recommendations, either. I know that at lease one of the servers cooks one day each week. Does anyone know if that is standard policy at Pok Pok? If so, it would explain the knowledge and enthusiasm level.
One recent evening at Pix (the N. Williams location,) the conversation with our server went something like this:
Server: “Do you know what you’d like?”
Me: “May I see a menu?”
Server: “The menu is too laborious (no joke – he actually used that word) – just tell me what you are looking for, and I will suggest something. I’m familiar with everything on the menu.”
Me: “Uh, actually, I think your menu is cool, and I like to browse through the drink selections.”
Server turns, shrugs, and huffs off to get me a menu.
Let’s give Pix on N. Williams credit where it is due:
It is perfectly consistent. . .every time I’ve gone the service is pathetically slow AND either incompetent or snotty.
If only the desserts weren’t so goddam good I would ignore it altogether.
At Giraldi’s, a little café that used to inhabit the space where Fondue-rama/Bartini are now, next to Trader Joe’s on NW Glisan, the owner, Warren, comes by with a trayful of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and offers them to the table. We all take one, and thank him.
When he presents us the bill a little later we see an unfamilar item n it. When we ask him what it is, he says, “The cookies. Good huh?”
He opened another place on NE 28th, which has since shut down. They had an incredible pesto-veggie hero.