Last night, for the first time in years, I had a waitressing nightmare. Some folks have the recurring nightmare that they have to take their SATs in unfamiliar surroundings, clad only in their BVDs. Everyone I know who works or has worked in the restaurant industry has had a dream like this:
I couldn’t find the dining room, the table numbers were totally unclear, I wasn’t wearing shoes (!?), and I finally arrived in my section to find impatient guests at every single table. Not one busser or maitre d’ was anywhere in sight. As I attempted to take an order at a table of ten guests (who continually changed seats), it dawned on me that I didn’t know the menu. I woke up just as one of the guests handed me a piece of raw salmon and asked me to keep it in our fridge.
Despite the occasional waitressing nightmare, I’ve had a pretty good time working in the service industry. My colleagues and customers over the years have been some of the funniest, most creative, well-traveled and interesting people I’ve ever met. Since I’ve spent a lot of time as both server and diner, I thought I’d offer a few suggestions to help you, as a diner, get the most from your dining experience:
1. Please be polite. A simple “hello,” some eye contact, and frequent usage of the words “Please,” “Thank you,” and “I would like” (as opposed to “Bring me” or “Get me”) will make your dining experience more pleasant not only for the person serving you, but for you as well. Really. I’ve been seated at the window table and sipped complimentary champagne simply because I made a sincere effort to be nice.
2. The person serving you is just that: a person. He’s fighting his own silent, uphill battles, just like you are. Please don’t assume that your server hasn’t been to college, and please, please, please don’t ever ask, “So, what do you do in your real life?” Yes, it’s true that many service professionals also act, sculpt, make music, or train for triathlons. But I promise you: at 10:30 on a Saturday night, in a loud, crowded dining room, feet aching and bringing you dinner, your server is very much living his or her “real life.”
3. For heaven’s sake, tip. In New York City, as in most places around the country, your server is earning far less than minimum wage. Tips are how servers earn their money. Is this fair? Is this ethical? Well, that’s a discussion for another forum. But the tip you leave your server is dispersed among bussers, bartenders and food runners; a lot of people are responsible for your dining experience, and it’s only right to compensate them for their labor. Assuming your server has been pleasant, polite and competent, a diner should expect to tip 18-20% (pre-tax).
4. Your child is welcome in the restaurant. But it’s maddening–and, often, downright dangerous–to let your child run free. Think about it: hot, heavy plates balanced precariously on a forearm, sharp knives, scalding coffee on a tray…the waitstaff has enough challenges without dodging your toddler. And if the only thing your child will eat is pasta with butter and parmesan cheese, perhaps your child’s not old enough yet to go to a restaurant. (Some restaurants are, of course, more family-oriented than others. Here, I’m speaking more about fine-dining establishments.)
5. You might have a more relaxed, enjoyable experience if you steer clear of Fridays and Saturdays, collectively known as “Amateur Night.” I’ve always loved Thursdays and Sundays for eating out. Weekends tend to be over-crowded and fast-paced. Why not, when possible, opt for a night when both you and your server can take things a little easier? You’ll get more attention and care because your server will be less harried.
This post has gotten longer than I ever intended, so to close, let me just say this: never underestimate the power of “Please” and “Thank you.” Happy dining! It’s a pleasure to serve you.