Waiter’s Choice

Sometimes, after a long day of work on the road, I’ll get to a restaurant, review its lengthy menu, and just not feel like making tough decisions about what to order. In such circumstances, it’s nice to have a waiter who will make knowledgeable recommendations about the options, without mouthing platitudes about whatever happens to be the daily special.

So it was last night at Fork Restaurant in Boise, Idaho, an excellent bistro that advertises itself as being “loyal to local.” Our waiter was experienced and glad to offer candid suggestions after asking a few basic questions like whether I wanted red or white wine or meat, fish, or vegetable. I accepted his recommendations across the board and ended up with a very fine Syrah from the northwest and succulent, melt in your mouth beef short ribs — which you can’t really see in the photo above because they are covered in crunchy Idaho “potato hay.”

His recommendations were so good that when we were considering dessert we decided to blindly rely on his choice. He came through like a champ, bringing us a ridiculously moist butter cake topped with local ice cream and a coulis made from an assortment of berries. It was a sensational end to a very fine meal.

Being a waiter is not easy, especially if you want to do it right. Our experience at the Fork Restaurant last night showed how a really good waiter can complement a really fine meal.

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Waiterspeak

I was a waiter once, back in the day.  I feel a certain kinship with waiters, and always give them the benefit of the doubt.

But when I’m by myself in a restaurant, please . . . just leave me alone to read my book and eat my dinner in peace.

Sure, it might just be the milk of human kindness– or it might be a desire for a tip.  But every time I eat alone these days, the wait staff annoyingly gloms on to me, asking what I’m reading and making irritating chitchat when I ‘m just trying to read and eat my dinner.  It makes the dinner intensely irksome.  I don’t want to hear what waiter  X has to say — I just want to read my book.

Here’s a tip for the wait staff.  Sometimes, at least, the solitary diner with a book isn’t lonely and craving your company.  They just want to read.  Leave us alone, already!

The Ponytail Puller

Politicians are a weird and often unfathomable breed.  The weirdness isn’t just limited to American politicians, either.  Take John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Key is under fire because he repeatedly tugged on the ponytail of a waitress at a cafe he frequents in Auckland — even after she told Key’s security people, and later Key himself, that she didn’t like it.  When she finally went public with Key’s conduct, and he started to be criticized for it, he apologized, said his ponytail pulls were meant to be “light-hearted” and not intended to make the waitress uncomfortable, explained that the cafe was a place where had a “warm and friendly” relationship with the staff that involved “fun and games” and “practical jokes,” and gave the waitress two bottles of wine.

Anybody who’s ever been bullied recognizes this scenario.  The bully invades your personal space and does something physical that they think is funny, their sycophants dutifully laugh at the antics of their leader, and the bully keeps rubbing your head or punching your arm every time they see you even though you ask them to stop.  If they get caught in the act by a teacher, they insist it’s all simply joking between friends — one of whom just happens to be bigger and more powerful than the other, who always seems to be the butt of the “jokes.”

Key’s conduct doesn’t just reflect a bullying attitude, though — it also reveals the power relationships to which politicians the world over become accustomed.  Most of us would never dream of physically touching a waiter or waitress, much less doing something as painful, intrusive, and asinine as pulling a ponytail and continuing to do so even after being asked to quit it.  Key did it because, surrounded by security people and wearing the mantle of national leadership, he could.  It’s the same attitude of power and entitlement that makes American politicians unconcerned by the fact that their motorcades and security cordons inconvenience normal folks and makes them mad when an average person has the temerity to question what they’re doing, their motives, or where they are getting campaign contributions from.

In Key’s case the hair-yanking probably gave him a little thrill and direct sense of power, besides.  Anyone care to guess how many of the “practical jokes” at the cafe were pulled by Key on the unfortunate members of the staff and how many were directed at him?

How To Treat The Surly Waitress?

Recently we were out for breakfast at one of those diner-type places with an extensive, descriptive menu and lots of choices.  We’d been there before, scrutinized the menu, consumed the food, and enjoyed the experience.

This time, though, we had a waitress whom I’ll call Madge — because she looked like a Madge.  You know the type:  probably in her 50s, raspy cigarette voice, dyed hair, has worked at the place for years, hates her job but can’t change her life, will do what is necessary to keep that paycheck but radiates a surly, “don’t cross me” attitude.  No friendly banter.  Just place your order promptly and let me serve the food and move on.

Normally this kind of server wouldn’t bother me.  I much prefer the brisk, no-nonsense old pro, for example, to the fake-friendly chatterbox who won’t shut up, the incompetent who botches your order, or the lurker who repeatedly intrudes on your conversation.

In this case, though, one member of our party wasn’t brought an English muffin on the side, and when we asked about it the waitress reacted with barely controlled hostility.  She curtly responded that it wasn’t part of the order, because the egg dish already was served on an English muffin.  We knew that wasn’t true because we’d been there before, ordered the same kind of dish, and gotten an English muffin on the side.  “Are you sure?”  “Could you bring one now?” we asked.  “I think I know the menu, honey,” she replied dismissively.  “It’s not part of the order.”  You’d think she would simply bring an English muffin as part of good customer relations, but that simply wasn’t part of Madge’s worldview.

Who wants to have a semi-angry encounter with a waitress over breakfast?  The incident was off-putting — but then Madge unforgivably compounded things.  During a stop to fill up our coffee cups, she made some brusque remark about knowing the orders after working there for years and then barked out a laugh.  Why bring up the unpleasant incident again?  Her asinine comment just made us stew about it even more.

Finally the meal ended, and we had to make the tip decision.  Normally I’m a generous tipper; I remember being a waiter and how tough the job is.  Sure, Madge was an unhappy jerk, but I don’t think I would completely stiff a server unless they served me food with glass in it.  I rationalized that Madge wasn’t going to change, and leaving her no tip, or only a penny, was just going to make her treat the next group of customers even worse.  Madge had brought our food and kept our coffee and water glasses filled, even if she was an ass with a vulcanized soul.  So, I left her a tip, but one that was below normal.

As we walked out, one member of our party scanned the menu again, confirmed that an English muffin was part of the order, and went back in to confront Madge.  That probably had more of an impact on her day than leaving no tip, but the whole incident still bothers me, and I wonder:  for the good of humanity, should I have left no tip?

Dealing With The Overly Intrusive Waiter

Yesterday I went to lunch with a group of friends.  Shortly after we sat down we all realized, with a groan, that we had been cursed with an overly intrusive waiter.

It wasn’t difficult to reach that conclusion.  He would hang around our table, clearly eavesdropping on our conversation, and then offer his extended and thoroughly unwelcome comments about whatever we were discussing — be it music, or weddings, or whether the restaurant in question would be a good place for a first date.  After the third or fourth such incident, I felt like checking under the table or looking behind nearby chairs to confirm that the waiter wasn’t lurking nearby, ready to spring up and offer another lame joke or awkward self-reference.

I’m sure he thought his trenchant observations and amusing anecdotes culled from the rich tapestry of his life were adding immeasurably to the enjoyment of our meal.  We, on the other hand, came to dread his presence and windy comments like the people of the Middle Ages came to dread the bubonic plague.

I suppose there’s a well-mannered way to tell the overly intrusive waiter that he’s ruining the meal, but I don’t know how.  So we all sat, listening politely as he talked, and talked, and talked, and hoped that our lack of affirmation or follow-up questions would send an obvious message that we weren’t interested in what he had to say.  Unfortunately, the waiter utterly lacked the sensitivity to pick up on those signals.  And every second we had to listen to the blatherings of this complete stranger cost us a second of each other’s company.

I used to be a waiter and still admire those in the food-service industry, but there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed.  Waiters should be friendly, sure . . . but mostly they should be responsive and ready to serve.  Tell us the daily specials, keep the drink glasses filled, take our orders, and bring us our food and, eventually, the check — but otherwise please leave us alone!