What Makes A Great Waiter Great?

Photo Credit: Megan Bayley

A week or so ago, I had dinner with an old friend and her family at a very, very tony restaurant here in San Francisco. The layout of the space was beautiful– everything was styled to the teeth: the flowers, the décor, the enormous boards of cheese which sat near the bar, offering a come on to the men in the general vicinity that was nearly as pungent and gooey as those from the perfume-soaked women who jockeyed for prime barstools. Even the service staff looked as if it had been culled from the pages of a Brooks Brothers catalogue– they were clean cut, attractive, and wearing dark, conservative suits.

Everything looked perfect.

When we sat down at our table, we discovered a delightful surprise– the large, hard bound menus revealed a personal message: “Happy Birthday Jill” on the inside. She was touched. I think. Anyway, she was pleased.

We were excited about the menu’s offerings. There in small black print were things I’d never had, but had always wanted to try, but lacked either the energy or knowhow to actually hunt down and cook for myself. Things like rampion and fiddlehead ferns.

The sommelier was spot on, too. I told him what part of the world we felt like drinking from, what we were willing to spend, and what sort of basic qualities we wanted. He returned promptly with exactly what I was looking for.

The meal itself was delightful. The flavors and textures and plating were gorgeous, if a little on the meagre side, but that was to be expected in such a place. We were having a grand old time. Unfortunately, there was one element that completely fell flat on its face, as far as I was concerned:

The service.

The waiter was polite. Almost too much so. He was deferential to the point of seeming afraid to approach the table as we talked. When we asked his opinion on specific dishes, he didn’t seem to have any, yet when someone at the table asked what his favorite items were, he told us something to the effect that everything was delicious.

And when asking us if we had made our decisions, he made the fatal (with me) error of saying something akin to “Have we decided on our dinner?”

Funny, I never thought to ask if he was hungry. I thought of asking another waiter if he could pull up an extra chair so that we could make it dinner for five.

What on earth was he so afraid of? Three lovely Texas woman? Me? Is that what made him shy away from the table some much that he couldn’t manage to fill our wine glasses when they were going on empty? Was he simply less interested in us because we were more than likely not spending as much money as his other tables?

Sitting there in my plush banquette, I wondered to myself this question:

What the hell does it take to get a great waiter in this town? I have had so few. The only answer I could come up with is this:

Luck. Pure, unholy luck.

It doesn’t seem to matter much what type of venue you are patronizing. High end restaurants are no guarantee of great service, though one’s expectations are higher when there. Boulevard? I’ve had both great service and totally lack-luster service. Masa’s? I was lucky enough to have someone I knew take care of me. We were the only people in the place that seemed to be having a good time. The French Laundry? Don’t get me started. One of the best servers I have ever encountered in this city was at a little breakfast place in the Haight. I wanted to kiss her and give her all of my money. At least I had enough courage to do the latter.

Of course, I am a professional waiter by trade, so I tend to notice everything happening around me when dining out. It’s an occupational hazard. I do not, however, think my standards are sky high. Nor do I think they are universal. My ideas of great service might differ from yours. Here are my particular needs and idiosyncrasies:

My ideal server…

• Is confident in his knowledge of the food and wine he serves.

• Has opinions.

• Is not afraid to either approach my table nor make menu suggestions.

• Is friendly and warm, but not over-sharing.

• Does not say “How are we this evening?” or “Have we decided yet?” He uses the plural “you.”

• Does not tell me her name when she walks up to the table for the first time. If she is wonderful and engaging, I will ask for her name as well as give her my own.

• Does not try to sell me something right off the bat. Rather, he says “Hello.”

• Lets me know if she feels I am ordering too much food.

• Asks me if the temperature of my wine is good and if I would prefer my white wine on the table or on ice.

• Keeps my wine glass filled, but does not over-pour.

• Is as kind to the table next to me as she is to me.

• Does not look disheartened when I order a bottle of wine that costs less than $100.

• Claims an undramatic responsibility for any mishaps. Mistakes happen. They don’t bother me.

• Acts as if he cares about what he’s doing.

• Makes me feel welcome.

• Makes me feel as if I am being taken care of.

Frankly, it’s that last bullet point that I want the most. When I dine out, I just want to be taken care of. Not coddled. Not ass-kissed. Just taken care of.

I mean, this is the hospitality industry I’m talking about, isn’t it?

What do you expect from your servers? I’d really like to know. Of course, if you are one of those people who feels that a server should be seen and not heard, you may feel free to refrain from comment.

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20 Responses to What Makes A Great Waiter Great?

  1. Nicky D. says:

    Waiters ought to be seen and not heard only if they are under the age of fifteen.

    Now, I myself have had some great waiters and . . . oh wait, that’s not what you meant at all, is it? It’s tacky of me to even bring it up, don’t you think? Or don’t you?

    On a sartorial note, the idea of servers in dark suits, or suits of any shade, repels me instantly. Impractical and pretentious. The only thing tackier than making sexual innuendoes in blog comments is being overdressed for work. If I wanted to be served by someone in a suit I’d hire a lawyer and call him Flo.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Oh Nicky…

      Your tackiness is part of your charm, you know. And you had this particular waiter when you chided me for rudeness in a message dated a few years back.
      And on the sartorial side of business here, I would hate to wear a suit while waiting at tables. Too restrictive. And just think of the cleaning bills. No. Thank. You.

  2. Nicky D. says:

    I would hat for you to wear a suit too.
    Are you drunk?

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Well, I’m glad there’s somebody out there to catch my mistakes. Corrected.

      And no, I am quite sober. I have set my timer to go off at precisely 5:00 pm to remind me to take my medicine gin.

  3. Megan says:

    I was a terrible, terrible, terrible waitress. So when I have bad service I know it. I wasn’t rude, it was the multi-tasking part that got me. So much to refill, and Americans in particular love to drink beverages with their meals, which isn’t healthy anyways, so I figured I was doing them some good…? Yeah, I didn’t last long!

    I just want a server who actually enjoys people and making them happy, rather than some narcissistic hipster who would rather be working at American Apparel. When I have good service, I know it too, and make sure to leave extra tip.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Megan– Funny, I have had so many people confess to me how bad they were at waiting tables. I am just grateful that they gave it a shot and therefore know how difficult a job it is. One has to be on top of so many things at the same time. And on top of being on top of things, one has to do one’s utmost to ensure that everyone in one’s section is having a good time. It’s mentally, physically and often emotionally exhausting.

      And one wonders why so many servers drink.

  4. Susan says:

    I want a waiter I can trust. Someone who I know will not give me the food that has been coughed on or oops dropped. But I guess that says more about me than about what I want in a waiter.

  5. giddy says:

    You hit on all the things I care about. Another plus is remembering what frequent customers like. Recently a waiter at our favorite Mexican dive impressed us by remembering that Steve often likes to order a side of grilled onions, and offered it when Steve didn’t mention it. This same waiter also jumped right in to a role as “Spanish teacher” when he realized Ella was learning Spanish. He is always very encouraging to her while also being challenging. He once asked her to order for the whole family, in Spanish, when her confidence level was still not very high. I imagine this is the kind of thing that one really can’t expect from a server (and in fact, that some of the other servers at the same restaurant probably roll their eyes over)–but we still like it.

    Oh, and one more thing that may not be applicable at higher-end restaurants: If you have to make 2 trips to the kitchen to bring all the food because it’s a larger party, and there are young children at the table, for the love of God, bring the kids’ food before bringing the adults’ food. It is astounding how few servers do this. This is not a huge thing, since usually there’s not a huge delay, but I still think it’s nice to get the kids settled and happy, give the adults a head start on cutting up the food if needed, etc., rather than making the kids wait even longer.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      HI Giddy!

      Okay, I have to say your waiter at the Mexican restaurant is just the sort of fellow I would love to have take care of me.

      And when waiting on children, I always make sure they get their food first. In fact, I usually discuss with the parents if they prefer to have their kids’ food sent out ahead of time or rather have them eat at the same time as the adults. I even bring small children “special” water glasses, which are simple rocks glasses that hold less liquid and are nearly impossible to knock over. Everyone wins with those.

  6. ron says:

    this one makes me crazy!!!!!!!!!!!! when the waiter starts to tell you the specials, and says, “tonight i have a ________” or ” tonight, i’m offering a __________” or “tonight my chef is preparing a _________”

    really?? is this YOUR restaurant? ugh. makes my skin crawl.

    the other is having a check dropped when i’m still sitting in dirty dishes. don’t get me started. i will let you know when you are done working for me. don’t leave me a bill expecting a tip when you haven’t finished your job.

    i was a waiter for 9 years and would never have done this to a customer, so i don’t ever want it done to me.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Oh, the check thing. I totally agree. Totally, totally with you. When I sense that my table is totally finished (read: there is nothing left on the table but water glasses/they have that “I’m stuffed”, glazed-over look in their eyes), I ask how they are feeling and ask if there is anything else I can bring them (read: check, taxi, stretcher).

      From a financial standpoint, how could it possibly benefit a server to rush a guest out? Is that sort of ill will the last thing one wants a guest to think about when he or she is signing the bill and deciding what sort of tip to leave? I mean really.

  7. Michael says:

    I wrote the following blog a few weeks ago. Thought it would fit in well here:

    I often find myself unwittingly stepping into the long, dubious shadow cast by uncaring, indifferent waiters who have gone before me. On these occasions, I can sense the guest’s apprehension as I approach their table. Their eyes scan me up and down, often narrowing as I open my mouth to speak. Shell-shocked and battle weary, I can tell that they have a very low opinion of my profession, that they’ve been the victims of horrible service, and that they don’t trust me to open a bottle of wine properly, let alone know the menu well enough to actually recommend one.

    I can feel them profiling me, and it’s really unnerving.

    I understand that they are projecting onto me their experience of waiters who’ve forgotten orders, charged for the wrong items, poured regular instead of decaf, spilled wine on a new jacket, and accepted double tips. Dressed in my black shirt, slacks and apron, I look no different than the thousands upon thousands of other servers who share the same uniform.

    Well, I’m not your typical waiter, and I’m not ashamed to illustrate why.

    Last Saturday, I served a group of five during the busiest part of the night. One in the group ordered her Halibut ‘naked,’ meaning that she wanted the dish completely poached, no sauce, no seasonings, with a number of other modifiers. When the table realized that I was willing to accommodate special requests, a number of them also made little adjustments to their order. Once it came through the kitchen printer, I heard a groan from the line as they read the ticket.

    I’ve earned a reputation with the kitchen as a server who bends over backwards for the guests. I will come to the line, often feeling like an attorney approaching the bench, just to get them to split a dish or modify an ingredient. Like an attorney, the request originates with my client, the guest, I am merely the messenger. I understand that a busy kitchen can often be derailed by a single modified ticket. But, as a waiter who really listens to his tables, I deal with special requests all the time. It’s a hell of lot easier to be the server who says ‘no.’ But, my intention is to always try and make things happen for the guest. I certainly don’t stand at the table suggesting ways that they can rewrite the menu; it generally is the guest who requests a special modification. As their waiter, I am obligated to act on their behalf. Isn’t that, by definition, the essence of serving?

    Maybe this is inefficient and bad for business. Maybe it inconveniences the line, causes confusion, and makes everyone’s job harder. Tell that to the guest who ordered her Halibut poached instead of fried, a minor technicality as far as she’s concerned. I’m sure she’ll understand. Obviously, it’s not possible to accommodate every special need, but I’ve also worked in restaurants where the chef is absolutely opposed to any sort of modification, and actually becomes angry when a guest asks for something different than what is printed on the menu. How is that good business?

    To make a long story short, the food arrived at the table, each guest finding exactly what they had asked for expertly plated and presented. The woman with her poached, naked Halibut; the man with his entree, no yam puree, sub sliced Fuji apple; the other woman with her side bowl of green lentils, and so on. They all looked at me with genuine gratitude, repeating several times how much they appreciated that we had given them what they had wanted without ever grimacing or showing disdain. Each time I approached the table to refill a glass or do a bit of clearing, one of them would look up to say ‘thank you.’

    As I dropped the check, I stopped for a moment before walking away and decided to do something that many of my peers in this industry would probably find unusual, if not downright crazy. I looked my guests in the eye and said, “I want you all to know that you should not feel shocked to receive great service. This is what I am here to give you. I am obligated, as your server, to ensure that you are happy in every way with your experience here. You deserve it.”

    Their jaws hit the table. I think they’ll be back, and that is good for business.

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Oh, your post totally fits in here, Michael. Thank you for sharing it.

      I’m lucky enough to work in a place that gets the fact that we re in the business of taking care of other people and I am given all the tools necessary to ensure my guests’ dining happiness. It makes my life so much easier.

      And I think you’re right– there are so many diners out there who have experienced so much bad/indifferent service that they are a bit weary of any waiter who comes to their table. It’s just an unfortunate fact of our profession. Fortunately, I find that I can get my tables to relax within about ten seconds. All it really takes is a friendly “hello.” I greet my tables warmly, ask it ice water is fine, and then ask this question: “Would anyone care for a cocktail right away, or would you just like to settle in a moment and catch your breath?” I sell them nothing. I let them know that I am going to take care of them, and that I am going to take care of them when they are ready. It’s so simply, really. I can’t imagine why there are so many servers out there who just don’t get it.

      • Michael says:

        Michael,

        I am the Community Manager of FohBoh.com. Would you be interested in cross-posting your content on our site? We have over 14,000 members, all of whom are directly involved in the foodservice industry.

        Your writing is top-notch, and I’d be thrilled to feature your content. Let me know!

        p.s. If there is a better way to reach you (i.e. email), I’d like to have your contact info.

        Michael Biesemeyer
        Community Manager
        FohBoh.com

    • jodi says:

      lol, as a cook, I’m always amazed at the servers who don’t drop by the line as the Bible-length ticket prints out. Yeah, it’s busy. And hot, and noisy, and maybe my best friend just got grease down his arm or I just got popped in the face when I flipped a protein and some of the fat exploded. Politeness goes a long way. Everyone knows the servers who say please and thank you.

      • michaelprocopio says:

        Amen, sister. We all get busy. I am sometimes guilty of getting so bogged down I forget to make sure the line understands my communication. I get all wrapped up in the needs of the people I am taking care of. But it’s still wrong. I do my best.

        I’m lucky to work with some great, friendly line cooks and chefs/expediters who don’t yell. It’s not as if they’re unapproachable.

  8. Always enjoy your articles, Michael, but particularly enjoyed this one, as I find myself lately working in the hospitality industry. Thanks for the food for thought!

    • michaelprocopio says:

      It’s my pleasure, Erik. As always.

      P.S. Any nocino at Alembic? I have a need.

      • How much Nocino do you need and in what time frame? I have a batch I need to finish and could certainly spare some.

      • michaelprocopio says:

        Thank you, Erik. You’re wonderful. I just meant that I have a need to drink some. I’ve never had it before. I was wondering if and when you would have any on offer at the bar!

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