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Selective Service

[whitespace] Aimee Hobson
George Sakkestad

Learning Serve: Waiters and waitresses like Chez Renee's Aimee Hobson constantly strive to make the dining experience pleasurable--but diners need to mind their manners, too.

The continuing saga of our love/hate relationship with restaurant wait staff, and their viewpoints on patrons

By Christina Waters

FEW WOULD DENY that dining out is one of life's true pleasures. It lets us pamper ourselves and give in to a few delicious temptations, ideally in good company. No matter how fine the food, however, restaurant service can make or break the experience. I'll go further and make the claim that fine service can more than compensate for lackluster food, and conversely, mediocre service can destroy an otherwise lovely meal. Yes, service is that important. But over the years I've learned that the encounter between patron and server is definitely a two-way street.

Actually there's a ménage à trois occurring in all restaurant meals--the main actors being the patron, the kitchen (chef, sous chef, line cooks) and the server, who plays the go-between. Acting as liaison between the dishes being prepared in the kitchen and the "front of the house" experience being created at the table, the server can enable these two elements--food and guest--to meet, fall in love and enjoy a two-hour romance filled with tasty memories.

Ambiance helps massage these ingredients. Romantic but not murky lighting, vivacious but not distracting music, the hum of conversation, fresh flowers, some candles perhaps--all of these elements act like props on a theater stage, waiting for the evening's performance.

I'm convinced that while the wait staff should strive to achieve the impossible--being both visible and invisible at one and the same time--it takes two to tango. Patrons who approach restaurant meals with a sense of adventure, a sense of perspective and with something close to a positive attitude can go a long way toward making the partnership a satisfying one.

"The most infuriating thing that guests can do," believes a waitress at Convivio Trattoria, "is just not pay attention to how busy it is. When the place is really packed, I just can't get to every table as fast as I'd like."

She said that most patrons are sensitive to the pace on any given night, but occasionally guests will act like they're the only table needing attention. For this young waitress, who once observed a patron actually pocket her tip before she had time to retrieve it, waiting tables effectively can take guests on an enjoyable journey.

"I feel that I'm helping them to have a good time. I encourage them--I really believe in Marco [Verduzco's] cooking," she says. "I tell them about the specials and encourage them to try something new."

The most fun, she believes, "is watching how people enjoy the meal--I really have a sense of satisfaction when they leave obviously having had a good time."

She considers the staff part of a close family. "All of us radiate that attitude. I feel really proud to come to work here." And it shows in her nightly performance.

"Manners," says a veteran waitress at another of Santa Cruz's top trattorias. "The worst patrons seem to be unaware that they're dining in public--and they're incredibly rude. They let their kids misbehave, and bring cell phones--that's a big no-no in my book."

Another thing that bothers her is patrons who refuse to make eye contact when they order. "It's as if they think they're too good to look at the hired help."

She told me that tips are invariably shared among the staff. "At our restaurant, 10 percent goes to the kitchen--who should get more--10 percent goes to the bus people, 5 percent to the bar staff and the rest of it is shared among the wait staff." Many patrons might want to remember how far that gratuity has to go when they leave something for good service.

Our informant revealed that when she goes out to dine, she herself is most annoyed by a "waitperson who's pompous, and slow service. Slowness is very irritating, though it's often the kitchen being so busy that determines the speed of service."

RENÉE CHYLE, who for 15 years has been training the expert staff of Chez Renee restaurant, believes that "listening to what the customer is asking--even if they don't verbalize it--is crucial to good service."

Chyle admits that there's "an art to being able to gauge what patrons want. It's interesting how a wait person can make or break an evening."

Because she's in the business, Chyle considers herself "easy to please" when it comes to being a restaurant patron herself. "But I dislike when someone has given poor service all through the meal and then at the end they try to do a little something to recover in order to get a good tip. Still I give them A for effort if they do realize when they haven't done their best."

The restaurateuse admits that "if I can keep my staff happy, I know they'll keep the customers happy."

She's right. Invariably the best service comes from staffers who love their work surroundings. Satisfaction begins at the top.

"I think that waiting tables takes the kind of mind that can concentrate on many things at once," believes one-time waiter Noah, who is happy he no longer waits tables during summer vacations.

Noah admits that the cascade effect of forgetting to bring one item and then having to remember even more items made waiting tables a complicated job. "It's really a high-stress situation," he says, confessing that he was so forgetful during his first week on the job that one patron told him in disgust, "Don't even bother to bring it now--I'm not even hungry anymore."

There's obviously no magic formula for guaranteeing a memorable dining experience. But here's my well-educated wish list for waitpersons--an informal guide to helping the patron have a happy restaurant experience.

  • Make sure people have something to eat or sip the minute they sit down. They'll take more time ordering, and they'll be willing to wait longer for the arrival of that first dish.

  • Don't abandon the patrons. Work with them. If they ask for the wine list, check back with them. Chances are they want to order some wine.

  • Communicate! If the kitchen is running behind, come out and tell the patron. Offer to bring them something to fill in the wait--bread, another appetizer, anything.

  • Don't hover. Stop by once--briefly--to make sure they're satisfied with their dishes. Then appear to disappear.

  • Never argue with them. If they don't want to finish that prawn salad, they don't have to. You don't need to know why they didn't finish it, simply offer to wrap it so they can take it home.

  • Do not place the carryout box or bag in the middle of the table.

  • Don't assume that questions are designed only to irritate you--many patrons are knowledgeable about food and wine. They really do want to know the year of a vintage in order to decide whether they want to invest in a certain bottle or not. Offer to check.

  • If the kitchen allows it, be flexible. Offer to make that primavera with spaghetti rather than linguine if it makes your diner happy.

  • Don't fake it--nothing ruins the mood of a dinner more than a server who refuses to admit his or her ignorance. It's far worse to try to make it up.

And to restaurant guests:

  • Don't be rude--servers are human beings, professionals doing a job. They are not servants.

  • Preparing a fine meal takes time. No matter what television teaches, the best things in life are not instant.

  • Try to be clear about what you like and how you'd like things prepared. Waiters are not mind readers.

  • Express your appreciation. If you like your meal, say so. If you like your service, say so. And leave an appropriate tip.

  • Do not tip less than 20 percent unless service has been unacceptable or you're just plain cheap.

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From the March 3-10, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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