Some weeks ago, there was a two-part list of service sins published (here and here) by Bruce Buschel in a blog for the New York Times. To call the list picky doesn't do it justice; don't play brass music? Seriously?
The post inspired a lot of snarky comments from servers and diners alike, and it seems like Mr. Buschel, who is opening a restaurant (presumably with these guidelines in place), is in for a sudden, painful jolt of reality.
Most diners aren't so persnickety; most of us don't think of servers as servants, we're not inspectors for the Guide Michelin about to assess whether the Cheesecake Factory is still deserving of that third star, and we just want to have a nice meal. That said, here are five common "sins" of service that are easily fixed, resulting in happy diners and servers with better tips.
1. Failure to Supply the Tools For the Job
Of course you aren't psychic, waitstaff of the world. We don't, honestly, expect you to be. When someone orders a steak, though, they need a steak knife; when someone orders iced tea, bring a long enough spoon that they're not dipping their fingers in the drink with a dessert spoon; when someone orders fries, it's a good bet they're going to want ketchup, at least in this country.
It's so frustrating to have a hot, appetizing steak dying on the plate because the server didn't bring a steak knife and has to be tracked down. Your hands might be full, but make bringing the rest of the service your highest priority so that your diners can start eating.
2. Food Auctions
Everyone's had it happen. The meals come, the server (or the runner) calls out the dishes and waits for a diner to raise his or her hand. "Chicken piccata! Chicken piccata?" Nothing disrupts the meal (and impacts your tip) like graceless shouting from the service tray.
It's so easy to avoid, too. Pick one obvious spot on the table that is seat 1, and number the seats in order clockwise. Take the orders in whatever order you like, but put them on the ticket in numerical order. If you've got a runner delivering the food, they can find that spot and deliver the meal without sounding like an auctioneer. It's called the pivot system, and it's been printed on order pads since Teddy Roosevelt charged up a hill in Cuba.
If the diners switch seats after the orders are taken, that's the diners' problem, incidentally.
3. All-At-Once Syndrome
In all but the fanciest restaurants, chances are there will be up to three courses per diner--starter, main and dessert. Put the orders in so that the starters show up before the mains, please. Having everything show up at once in an American or European restaurant presents a dilemma to the people who then have two courses to eat at once.
Of course, not everyone orders all three courses, which means you'll have diners with no food in front of them. If you have one diner on a four-top with a starter, you can certainly say something like, "I'll bring your appetizer out soon," which will alert the other diners that this is a three-course dinner (which, perhaps not coincidentally, might cause others to order a salad or some other high-margin starter and pad your bill).
4. The Great Disappearing Server
While you can't be everywhere, check in on your tables. You don't have to ask if everything is all right, but walk through every few minutes and watch for beckoning, heads held high, people not eating when they've got food in front of them. The worst thing as a diner is to have to flag down an unfamiliar server, busser or runner and ask them for more water, a little mustard, a napkin to mop up the wine that drunk Uncle Mike knocked over.
The idea of forcing your diners to search for you in your absence should stay where it belongs, in parodies of French café service--but don't hover, either, though; it makes people nervous. Find the right amount of visibility and watch your tips grow.
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5. Menu Ignorance
Not everybody knows everything about all the dishes on a menu (it is amazing the questions diners will ask!) but you should at least know what the specials are, what they're served with and how much they cost.
Also, please find out when the kitchen runs out of things and let the table know. It's annoying to see a great-sounding special on the board and find out on ordering that it's sold out, but it's even more annoying to have to pick out a new dish after ten minutes when the kitchen rejects your ticket, and it has to be embarrassing for you ("Sorry, the kitchen says...").
Fix these five things, which are extremely common, and you will find that your diners are happier and your tips are probably larger. You'll still have your fair share of diners with chips on their shoulders and C-clamps on their wallets, but you got into this business for the love of restaurant service, right? Right?