What Is Excellent Service?
As a mother of four, I am well-accustomed to screaming my order into the clown’s mouth then having my food thrown out a window in the general direction of my driver’s side window. The contrasts between ordering popcorn and a slushy at Target’s snack counter and a formal dining situation are not lost on me but I’m no snob. While I “eat for a living,” I also live to eat.
In these times of counter service and steak joints with peanut shells on the floor, I have started to wonder – just what IS excellent service? Can the principles and standards of the fine dining atmosphere be carried over into more casual situations and applied to enhance the experience of diners? Are waitpersons even taught these skills anymore? What are they and why did they ever exist at all? Does truly fine service enhance the dining experience in direct proportion to the energy expended to give it? Is it even worth trying?
Please understand that I am not suggesting that underpaid, overworked wait staff at the Waffle House should be using silver coffee services. But, I do wonder if providing a fresh fork before pie would be more conducive to happy customers, rather than saying, “You best hold onto that fork, honey. You’re gonna need it!”
Even if you’re just fine with licking the Jack Daniels sauce off of your spoon before diving into some sort of Chocolate Lava concoction at Chili’s, what about beverage service? Whether you drink a beer out of crystal or a plastic go cup, is it any less flat if the server pours it straight in instead of tilting the glass?
Some questions are even stickier than that. When serving beverages, classic table service dictates that beverages be served first to the women in the party, then clockwise around the table. Is this sexist or is this part of the no-man’s-land (pun intended) embodied by holding a door open for an able bodied woman? Should women and children still be the first in the lifeboats? Personally, I don’t really think that impacts diner enjoyment. Typically, diners would not even notice.
Servers at every restaurant should know which diner ordered which food. I understand that this is a matter of memory and experience, but the “auction” method is ridiculous. I can’t believe that my server cares about me or the food if the way it is served is by yelling, “So, who got the fish?” while people are deep in conversation. Write it down if you don’t remember. Good service is about being helpful when needed and unobtrusive when you’re not.
I’m also not fond of being asked to fish my wet straw out of my drink before it is taken away to be refilled. I don’t know how much plastic we’ll save by cutting back on straw consumption, but I would greatly prefer to have a fresh straw rather than being told “please take your straw,” as if I have committed an oversight, before refilling. If they truly don’t want to give out another straw, then refill with a pitcher rather than using the fountain. Problem solved.
One of my first memories of eating in a restaurant was at the Silver Cup in Cumberland, Maryland with an ancient great-aunt. I distinctly remember being roughly eye-level with the table as the server expertly flicked a small silver crumb roller over the tablecloth. It was elegant and at the time seemed very, very necessary. Would it be out of line for table service restaurants to simply wipe the table between courses? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen a crumb roller in about two decades.
Back then, it was a point of pride to have “servants” – while today, calling Merry Maids is seen as a lazy person’s luxury. We have become uncomfortable with the concept of allowing someone to “serve” us. While this attitude is democratic and decent, we must remember that while we should be humane to servers, their job is to serve us. Many chains have gone far to “personalize” service by having servers greet customers by introducing themselves and encouraging “flair” as a means of personal self-expression.
If you take a look at La Bernardin’s list of 129 “sins” of service, you’ll see that this four-star restaurant headed by the famous Eric Ripert is guiding wait staff to be polite and most importantly, not to do anything which would interrupt the enjoyment of food. They are instructed to greet guests with a smile and eye contact. This means that they shouldn’t be “invisible slaves” but rather a friendly yet professional partner in the experience.
From there, Ripert guides servers away from numerous “sins” which would interrupt the smooth flow of service. Sounds like clattering dishes and being chatty, smells like perfume or smoke and visually unappealing mistakes such as dirty tablecloths can ruin a dinner. Some mistakes involve being sanitary. No one can properly sanitize a broken or cracked dish or plate. They should be thrown away.
These rules shouldn’t only be about outstanding fine dining – these are rules which would benefit any restaurant’s business. Contrary to how it may seem if you work in a restaurant, most people will not complain about service – they just won’t come back. If I feel as if the server is “doing me a favor” rather than being paid to serve me, I will NOT be back – I don’t care if it’s at McDonald’s or The Wine Cellar.
Some rules seem arbitrary – such as serving from the right and clearing from the left. Why do that? I would guess it is because the majority of people are right-handed. I would imagine that wait staff can avoid awkwardness if the diner happens to reach again for something on the plate as they try to take it away. Personally, I would be happy if the plate went away at all. These days, it seems that long after I pay my check, my plates are left on the table. Take it from wherever you’d like – just take it!
I greatly prefer to be asked if the bill will be separate rather than trying to divide up a check, with all the requisite social faux pas and math involved. Separate checks are a hassle for servers, but if it is only two or three people, it is a nice touch to at least ask. The whole idea behind eating out is the experience of enjoying food while paying someone else to do the work. If I have to do long division without the help of a calculator, it kills the experience for me. I majored in English, you do the math.
Furthermore, I DETEST being asked if I need change. A server should ALWAYS bring change unless otherwise instructed. Tips are up to the diner, not up to the arbitrary amount left over from a bill. Also, unless a restaurant is dealing with a group of six or more, tips are not mandated. Some of the “finer” establishments (one in particular that I have reviewed) do this during prix fixe events. Auto-tipping implies that people dining during a prix fixe event do not have the social skills to tip properly. When I see an automatic tip amount, a part of me screams, “DON’T JUDGE ME!” In most cases, I would have tipped more than the 18% added, but I didn’t – just out of spite.
After the meal is over, I find it extremely enjoyable to have leftovers taken away, packed in the kitchen and then brought back to the table but I don’t especially mind them being packaged at the table. I DO mind having a flopped open Styrofoam box that is three sizes too large being thrown at me to box up leftovers myself.
Of course, all of this is predicated on the idea that the diner is also accommodating. A reservation is an appointment. Just like any other appointment, you should show up on time and dressed appropriately. If you’re going to be more than 10 minutes late, call to let the restaurant know. “Stiffing” a waitperson is never acceptable. Nor is the absolutely disgusting “penny commentary” on service. (Leaving a penny for a tip.) If you have such a deep seated beef with wait staff, you should have asked to see the manager. Many restaurants split tips with other front-of-house staff and support staff. “Stiffing” is more of a commentary on your behavior than your server’s.
On a personal note, if a server is ridiculously rude to me, I try to ask myself if this seems like the server is having a bad service or if this server is a jerk at heart. If it’s just a bad day, then I probably wouldn’t say anything and tip 15% (the absolute minimum in my opinion). If it seems that the server has a personality problem then I would discreetly mention it to my hostess or a manager if it was extremely serious. There have been times when a server seemed to be overly flustered or angry that a kind word went a long way toward a much more pleasant experience.
We are lucky to live in times that provide almost every level of restaurant experience. Various cuisines and standards of service are available at price points to match any budget. However, in tough times, restaurants will need to balance being cost-effective with providing customers with service which makes eating out worth the expense. In most cases, proper training of servers will pay huge dividends to the customer, server and restaurant.
…And don’t forget to tip your server!
Other articles on restaurant etiquette:
Eric Ripert: johnmariani.com