Friday, March 02, 2007

Field Guide to Bad Servers Pt I

Didn't mean to take an impromptu break from blogging this week, but it's been a little busy. I usually complain when work gets in the way of eating, but this week, it feels like eating has gotten in the way of blogging! This week I had a meal or snack at PF Chang's, Jazz Kitchen, Yat's, Ocean World, The Oceanaire, Sullivan's, Shula's, Starbuck's, and McDonald's (hey, I'm coming clean here). I still have a dinner at Oakley's tonight, then I can take a breather. Ironically, or rather unironically here in Indianapolis, I'm having a hard time coming up with the Three Latest and Best. For all the restaurants I dined in last week, I encountered a major problem with more than half the meals. Meals at two were severely marred by poor service which made the mediocre food worse. I've had several conversations with foodies, writers, and chefs this week on service and the conclusion is that great service can make a mediocre meal better. Poor service will reflect poorly on even a great meal.

Anytime you want to define excellence, it's always a start to learn what *not* to do. And thanks to my best friend, gross overgeneralization, let's call it the North American Field Guide to Bad Waiters. This is, of course, a partial list. Feel free to suggest your own.

The Frat Boy Thing Has Worked So Far: This server is common at chains and is especially popular in the bartender model. He has thick, well cut plumage and dresses in a hip manner. He is *cool*, and the bartender of the species is frequently seen sauntering from one end of the bar to the other, busy, but not really busy taking food orders at the bar. Recently, at PF Chang's, as I ate my bland veggies and overcooked shrimp with white sauce (as opposed to their other lunch options, bland veggies and overcooked chicken with brown sauce), service was peppered with phrases like "Is that working out OK?" and the cringe-worthy "How's that coming out for you?" Aside from the 12-year-old humor inherent in the latter phrase, I wanted to ask him why I couldn't get my ice tea refilled or the special sauce mixed for me like he was for every other group of people eating at the bar. This kind of service stems from what I call lack of awareness. He's unfocused and doesn't have any idea how his style is "working out for him."

Stop Doing Me Any Favors: This server works mainly at more expensive restaurants (because you know, the rest aren't good enough.) He is vastly superior. You are merely a problem in his day to be dealt with, dispatched like a naughty child to supper in the nursery. He's doing you a favor by serving you. He assesses how you're dressed and whether or not you'll tip more than 20% (if you can *afford* to.) He has concerns about whether or not you are good enough to eat the food he will serve for any number of reasons: you're a woman, you're on your own, you're ethnic, you're gay, you're young, you're old, you're dressed poorly (in his opinion) -- and my own personal favorite, you're not ordering wine. (We've all known this guy when we go to dinner at a nice restaurant with a friend who doesn't drink, or our parents, and we don't order a bottle of wine! You've seen that look!) This guy is most frustrated that you're wasting his time. You're taking up one of his tables where he could have a serious group of foodies and wineheads ordering $700 worth of French wine. Some species of this server will loosen up when they realize you know what you're talking about when it comes to food and wine (they're probably most concerned you might be *somebody*). But ultimately, I shouldn't have to square off my food knowledge in a Jeopardy match against my waiter in order to have good service in a meal.

Who Cares? I Don't. Our server couldn't have announced it louder if he'd said it. I'm bored. I'm bored to be here. Serving you people. Who probably will be demanding. And ask for more than one wine glass for the multiple bottles of red wine you just ordered. You're going to expect me to check if you need extra forks and bring them. And if you need bread plates. And knives. Oh, here, let me decrumb you again. Slobs. At a recent steakhouse dinner, our entire experience with this waiter was summed up with the wine ordering discussion. As we examined and questioned him on the half-bottles of red wine (so we could taste a flight of California cabs with our steaks), he half-heartedly said, "We have some bottles that aren't on that list." Long pause. "Well," we asked, "what are they?" Sigh from our waiter. "I'll have to go check." We were terribly sorry to inconvenience him.

Churner and Burner: This server is frequently found in high end restaurants, and lower-end chains, and identifiable by his ability to rush diners. His abiding motto? The faster you clear this table, the faster I can get another turn in here. At first, you're happy with how smoothly and quickly your first courses flow, but by the time your entree arrives (and he's stopped at the table five times to continue pouring out your bottle of wine), he's johnny-on-the-spot, practically clearing your plates out from under your poised forks. It's obvious he's torn between upping the check by encouraging you to order dessert and his desire to clear the table. When he asks "can I get you anything else," he seems especially insincere because it's clear he's hoping you'll say no.

Please know that I'm not intending to indict an entire industry of incredibly hard working servers by pointing out a few types of bad apples. The vast majority of servers working in today's high end restaurants -- Oakley's, Peterson's, St. Elmo's, to name just a very few -- are incredibly friendly professionals who know how to strike just the right balance between making their customers feel comfortable and providing excellent, unobtrusive service. But for every one of those incredible professionals, there are 10 poorly trained, obnoxious, or even rude servers. We know that even the best servers have a bad day or a bad table from time to time, but what restaurateurs and managers need to know is that these guys are your front line! They're the first and last communication your diners have with your establishment and a little attitude can go a long way -- a long way to driving those customers away.

Can good service alone make a mediocre meal better? There is sure to be a spirited debate about whether or not it's possible. But I know we're all in agreement that bad service can make even a great meal terrible.


Michelle said...

Good service can absolutely color my opinion of a meal. I'll give a recent example. Last weekend we had a celebratory dinner at Broad Ripple Steak House. Some of the food was very disappointing while some of it was outstanding. The chef's special steak was incredibly disappointing. Through it all though we had incredible service. That service made up for the disappointing food and the really bad table we were seated at in the almost completely empty restaurant. Instead of making me not want to eat there again any time soon it makes me open to giving it another try. Though I'd never get their ahi tuna appetizer again though.

As I've gotten older and more able to pay for expensive dinners I've gotten far less patient with bad service. Just because I like, for example, to wear jeans or khakis with t-shirts or sweaters, doesn't mean I can't afford a $300 meal and a server would do well to understand that. The ones that do are always very amply rewarded come tip time.

christine (myplateoryours) said...

Good question. A meal is an experience, and good service can definitely improve it even if the food is bad (just as good company can make a fun meal out of lousy food.)

Likewise, if the cooking is perfect, but the service has pissed me off, the nasty taste of the service lingers longer than the food.

I am old school on the service question -- I like it quiet, civil and unobtrusive. No best friends, no frat boys (you got that one nailed!), no sneers or unnecessary opinions offered.

susan gillie said...

In January, my good friend and fellow cook, Barbara Metz, and I spent 4 days in San Francisco. We had lunch at the Slanted Door. As we left the restaurant, we both said "that was a perfect restaurant."
The food was great, but a quick visit to Asia Mart and we could have whipped it up. The layout and architectural detail were impressive, but what made the experience perfect was the service. We didn't have reservations and were lucky to find seats at the bar. The bartenders were well trained and enjoyed their jobs. What made them so special, though, is that they were kind. Many of the diners were tourists and had never had Vietnamese or California cuisine. The bartenders never rolled their eyes or lost their patience with these neophytes.

Not so Indy. I've experienced the types you described. A few weeks ago, I walked into a new restaurant. The "host" looked above my head (difficult because I'm tall) and seated other people. Finally, even he couldn't continue such rudeness. A new hire, someone who didn't know better? Nope, Manager of Operations (for the entire corporation, not just the restaurant). One of the most sucessful caterers in town has a director who meets with the wait staff before big functions and tells them who is important and deserves good service and who is not important and should be ignored. His parting words, "go out there and act like your trying to get laid."
Indy has many good qualities, but there are also a lot of 10-cent millionaires. I think they think this kind of behavior is sophisticated. There's another problem. We don't have great restauranteurs. They "invest" in restaurants instead of "owning" them.

braingirl said...

Susan, we're trying to get in touch with you. Can you shoot me an email? (You should have it in my typepad key at Indyrats.) If not, you can get me at

Anonymous said...

I would highly recommend, for those of you interested, the new book by Danny Meyer called "Setting the table". It is full of great restaurant wisdom. By far, the most inspirational rants by this amazing restaurateur are his approach to service. I, as a restaurateur have now made it required reading (actually "listening", as I bought it for my staff on itunes) for my entire staff.

The major key here is not "giving" exceptional service. Rather, the focus is on "executing" excellent hospitality....there is a difference, and after all, we ARE Hoosiers!