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The Waiting Game

Bad restaurant service might be your own fault


Published November 17, 2010 at 6:38 a.m.


Dining out is one of modern culture’s great equalizers and a cornerstone of social activity. It is an integral part of how we celebrate, conduct business, connect with friends, start dating someone new or simply unwind. A great dinner can set the tone for a whole night. Conversely, a lousy dining experience sours the mood like a plate of bad shrimp.

Many factors can contribute to a poor meal, including under- or overcooked food, screwed-up orders, long waits and, sometimes, poor service. Blame for that last misfortune might be placed solely on the server due to inexperience, inability or just an off night. But, more often than you’d think, bad service is the result of bad diners. How so? Read on.

Waiting tables is a grueling and often thankless job. For one thing, it’s physically demanding: Servers are on their feet and constantly in motion, often for hours at a time with no respite. They carry armloads of hot, heavy plates and precariously balanced drink trays, dodging errant toddlers or toddling drunks and weaving their way through crowded dining rooms.

Waiting tables is also mentally taxing. At any given moment, as a server you are keeping track of dozens of factors, any of which can derail a meal if improperly finessed. Consider: Table 42 needs another round, the woman at 45 dropped her fork and awaits another, the diners at 46 want their check pronto, a kid at table 50 has a potentially deadly nut allergy, and the guy at 51 is hitting on you. The list goes on — and changes from second to second.

Waiting tables is an art form requiring skill, mental dexterity, charm and diplomacy. Even so, it’s underpaid by design. There’s a good reason tipping is customary — some would say obligatory. And unless you’ve worked in food service yourself, you may not fully appreciate how much effort goes into ensuring you enjoy your steak frites, much less what you can do to garner a better dining experience.

Despite that age-old saying, the customer is not always right. Sometimes, the customer is wrong. Or misguided. Or just an asshole.

Seven Days recently polled some 20 servers working in Burlington-area restaurants. The objectives: to find out, from their perspectives, what behaviors contribute to bad dining experiences; and to solicit suggestions for how customers can get the most from their restaurant meals.

Responses ranged from the seemingly obvious (read the menu) to particular pet peeves (take your damn hat off at the table). But amid the wide-ranging and sometimes amusing list of gripes, certain themes came up repeatedly and fall into three overarching concepts. Keep them in mind while eating out and the experience is likely to be more pleasurable for both you and your server.

I. The Golden Rule

Remember that? Doing unto others, etc., is as applicable in a restaurant as in any other setting. In other words, treat servers with the same courtesy and respect you expect from them.

“People can be awfully nasty when they’re hungry,” observed a veteran waitress.

Sure, a server’s job is to cater to your needs, but that doesn’t give you the right to treat him or her like a serf. As one local waitress succinctly put it, “There is a big difference between a server and a servant.”

Generally, a modicum of politeness is all that’s required here. As a number of servers noted, “Please and thank you goes a long way.” So does paying attention when your server approaches the table. That means pausing conversations, making eye contact and putting away the cellphone. And it can’t hurt to interact with small pleasantries.

“I hate it when I ask a table how they’re doing and they’re, like, ‘I’ll have an iced tea,’” said another server.

And should you need your server’s attention, there are better ways of flagging them down than snapping or whistling. These are people, not livestock.

“‘Excuse me’ works just fine,” advised one waiter.

II. Be aware of your surroundings.

Is the restaurant unusually busy? If so, understand that service may be slower and there’s not much your server can do about it. Is the restaurant closing in 10 minutes? Maybe look for a joint that’s open later.

Waiting tables is an exercise in efficiency. Servers are constantly multitasking, trying to do as many things as possible in the fewest number of steps. Recognizing what you can do to streamline their service is invaluable, for you and them. For example, if your table is ordering a second round of drinks and you’ve still got a bit left in your glass, order another one anyway, instead of waiting to do so when the server returns with your companions’ libations. Little things like this can go a long way.

III. Communication

Be clear about what you want, and don’t assume your servers know. If they were mind readers, they might have their own cable shows instead of waiting tables.

Ask questions. Most servers are happy to guide you through an unusual dinner special or a voluminous drink list.

“I love telling people about new beers and helping them pair food,” said one waiter.

If you have a problem with your meal, let your server know immediately, not after you’ve eaten half of it. And should you have an exceptionally great meal, let your server know that, too.

“Positive affirmation is always nice to hear,” noted one waitress.

The best affirmation of a pleasant dining experience? A generous tip.