Turning the Tables 

What do veteran waiters expect from the people who wait on them?

The ritual of being served dinner, the procession of small courtesies that grows more complex as the price of the meal rises, intimidates many Americans. Our class paranoia blooms: Is the waiter looking down on me? Am I looking down on the waiter? We often worry that one of us isn't doing things right.

How do you judge good service? I asked waiters at five of the East Bay's top restaurants what they expect when they're dropping serious cash on a meal. Surprisingly, they spoke little of the fine-dining rituals -- the proffering of the cork, the decrumbing the table before dessert.

Instead, they focused on servers' attitudes, and the graciousness they show their customers. "As soon as you can, greet your table and let them know that you're in charge of their experience," says Lalime's Aaron Dritz. "Get them drinks right away. Don't have them sitting there looking at the busboy."

Words such as attentive or unobtrusive came up a lot, but the most common adjective was friendly. "You've got to enjoy what you're doing," says Shelley Mulhall of Chez Panisse. "When you do, a certain amount of friendliness comes through" in your service.

Brian Cooley of Bridges, in Danville, looks for "someone who doesn't give you those canned answers and phrases that they use on everybody." Adds Dritz: "It's important to make people feel good about what they order."

Good service also relies on intuition. "The waiter has to feel the table," says Mulhall, "to sense if they want to take a long time or if they want one course after the next without too much time in between. That depends on the mood of the diner."

The waiters reserved their criticism not for servers who get the little details wrong, but for those who don't bother trying. Naso Eleftheriadis, the sommelier at Prima in Walnut Creek, gets annoyed when servers "omit things, or forget to check back with you. For example, if they deliver your second course but omit to bring the appropriate silverware for you to eat it. It just shows that they don't consider you a valuable customer."

A good waiter, says Jessica Montalbano of Garibaldi's, will "bring you everything that you're going to need so you can go on with your business and not have to pay attention to where they are." On the other hand, Dritz advises patience when you arrive in the middle of a rush. When the restaurant gets slammed, he notes, slow service "often has nothing to do with the waiter."

The other crucial element everyone mentioned is knowledge: when to show it, and when not to. "I'm much more interested in good, warm, friendly service than having somebody who's going to blow me away with their knowledge," said Cooley. But he loves hearing stories about an ingredient or a dish he's eating. Mulhall elaborates: "I like the waiter to be knowledgeable but not necessarily volunteer information. If I have questions I'm going to ask, I want them to be accurate in their replies."

Montalbano sums up the thought most succinctly. "Don't educate me like you're going to school me," she warns. "Be nice about it."

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