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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Meeting Us Halfway: The server and the diner need to be aware of each other's duties and needs.

Serves You Right

Every good dining experience depends on the delicate bargain between patron and server

By Christina Waters

WHY A RESTAURANT experience works well is harder to analyze than why one doesn't. If everything goes smoothly --service, ambience, flavors--it should be difficult to detect just how the illusion was created. But when things go wrong, it's usually easier to discover why.

A lot of problems that might arise during the course of a restaurant experience have to do with something summed up by Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is a failure to communicate." Patron and server need to be on the same planet. My theory is that miscommunication occurs most often when one or both parties are unclear (or unwilling) about their role in what I'll call the "dining contract."

Here's how it works. Once we've stepped into the restaurant arena, we--the server and the patron--are mutually obligated. I, the patron, expect a nice meal, personal attention, honest menu description and unobtrusive service--and in turn I agree not to be rude, or raucous, or surly, or ungrateful when it comes time to leave a tip.

In other words, with my right to enjoy the meal I'm paying for, comes my responsibility to act like a decent, respectful human being. And with the server's right to a 20 percent or better tip, comes the responsibility to help me have the best dining experience the restaurant can offer.

Now that's not exactly brain science. Surely that kind of exchange of goods, services and mutual respect should be obvious? Alas, the reality is all too often quite another matter. In an era where "manners" are considered offensive to many individuals' sense of entitlement or, worse, an elitist throwback to the Victorian era, there's a whole lot of rudeness goin' on in the restaurant biz.

PROBLEMS CAN BEGIN even before the meal starts. I received an email a few months back from a successful and hard-working restaurant owner who complained to me about the tendency of patrons to make reservations they fail to keep.

Her legitimate gripe was that these no-shows don't even bother to call and cancel their reservation. Don't people realize, she asked me, that in a small restaurant especially, each one of those tables represents a percentage of the evening's revenue? If the proprietor holds the table for someone who has no intention of showing up, she might have to turn away someone else who is there, and who wants to dine and pay.

Part of the deal is that when you make a reservation you expect the restaurant to hold your table, right? Well, then why don't you hold up your end of that deal and either show up or call up?

Now that we've got the concept down, let's dig in.

It cuts both ways. Here's one of my biggies: servers who ask what you'd like to drink before you've even looked at the wine list--or the menu. How in god's name can people order anything when they've literally just walked into the restaurant? Or is this annoyingly aggressive attitude a holdover from the "ancient days," when people managed to toss down a cocktail before dinner? No one does that anymore, so let's drop the mannerism. Please, servers, give people a minute to get their bearings, open the menu and look at the menu before your swoop down like the Furies.

On the patron side, let me immediately draw and quarter anybody who even thinks about leaving less than a 20 percent tip, unless they had a lousy dining experience. Those tips are factored into every restaurant employee's personal budget--they depend upon them, they work hard (usually) for them.

Restaurant wages aren't anything to write home about, and those tips (shared among the entire staff in case you didn't realize that) are vital to making ends meet. If you can't afford to include a 20 percent tip in your dining-out budget, don't dine out.

Okay, now back to servers. What are they thinking when they bring out the main course while you're still halfway through your salad or crab cakes? I know it's probably the kitchen's fault: the order is ready, it's hot and the server doesn't want it to arrive cold.

Perhaps the patron could be told, with an apology, that their main dish is coming up fast. That way there's time to, for example, rearrange the table and keep the salad throughout the meal, or have appetizers packed up to go--anything but suddenly face all the courses at once.

It's important to remember that the patron is at the restaurant not to chat with you but to have a nice evening with their companion. So a little sensitivity goes a long way. If two people are having an animated conversation, don't butt in. If they're gazing deeply into each other's eyes, allow time before you describe the evening's special.

Savvy waitpersons never intrude. Learn to read the cues: patrons are here for each other and the food, not to laugh at your jokes. Along these lines, I wish there were a graceful and articulate way to describe the evening's specials. An ability to answer questions is far more appreciated than a laboriously recited list of a dozen specials.

Please, I'm on my knees, if you don't know the vintage of the wine, don't fake it. You are not expected to be omniscient, just good-humored about admitting your uncertainty and willing to go check. Answering patrons' questions and needs (when reasonable) is part of your job. You're not doing me a favor when you check whether the mahi mahi is grilled or poached--it is part of the server/patron contract.

ON THE OTHER HAND, diners--if you don't know what "al dente" means, then ask before you order. That way you won't have to scream at the waiter for bringing "uncooked" pasta. The server is not responsible for your ignorance.

And the server isn't your personal property. Please respect their role and their humanity. Everyone cringes at the boor who yells across the room, "Hey, waiter--come here!" Nor is it the server's fault if you don't like the taste of the food. Please give credit--and assign blame--where it is due. And only where it is due.

In thinking about memorable meals I've had, I have to admit that the service was a huge factor in making the experience successful. Great waiters exude a positive attitude that doesn't feel prepackaged. They never try to sell you something you don't want. Their attitude is "Yes, we can do that," not "I'd rather be surfing."

A good server doesn't go into that trance state so prevalent among poorly trained waiters. Some waiters are actually able to avoid seeing people struggling to get their attention. Please, don't ignore patrons. They will be grateful for your noticing that they need more bread, or that their wine glass is empty, or that their salad dishes haven't been cleared.

Fairness isn't written into the human genome yet. Until it is, you actually need to think about how you treat others in a public, social setting. The golden rule is a terrific starting point for every positive experience--even dining out.

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From the June 6-13, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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