Two of the editors of Chow.com, Roxanne Webber and Lessley Anderson, have gone on a three-city eating tour. They started in San Francisco, came down to LA (we tried to get them to Bootlegger's and Break of Dawn but they couldn't work it in) and are now in New York.
One of the things they remarked upon was how service is much worse in L.A. than in San Francisco, and they're right: we have lost the art of restaurant service. Oh, sure, there are exceptions, as there are to any rule, but walk into any restaurant in SoCal and you're likely to come upon at least one of these sins:
1. The customer gulag.
It's uncanny how hard it can be around here to attract a server's attention when you need it. Even when seated in prime real estate, long periods of time with no server in sight happen on a regular basis. It's not that I want someone hovering over my table waiting for that last forkful to head down my capacious gullet, but I'd like to be able to get help at the table without having to call out loudly or, God forbid, head for the kitchen to find someone.
This is compounded, incidentally, by non-servers who aren't empowered to help tables. In other cities, asking a question of a runner or a busser will, at the very least, get your server back to your table. Some places ask bussers to deal with simple customer requests, which is a nice touch. (They have their own jobs to do, which is why I don't think every restaurant should do it.)
It's one thing not to want to be perceived as hovering or cloying, but it goes too far and seems aloof and uncaring.
2. Untrained waitstaff.
Time was, waitstaff were all trained and doing this as a career. That happens rather less here in sunny SoCal--particularly L.A.--than elsewhere. Frankly, the old aphorism that waiters in L.A. are all aspiring actors with bills to pay is true. Where turnover is high, training tends to be faster and less complete.
Auctioning off the food; not delivering necessary implements, sauces or accompaniments; mis-taken orders; poor course timing (a fault shared by the kitchen): these are all things that don't happen nearly as often when the waitstaff are trained professionals.
Hint to the n00bs: follow-through is everything. If you have trouble remembering, or if your brain only works on the priority-interrupt system, write it down; forgetting someone's iced tea or what have you will only result in lower tips than you might otherwise have gotten.
It's only human nature to want to go talk to people you know, even when they come into the restaurant where you work. This is really a sin of omission, not a sin of commission; the waitstaff don't mean to ignore their other tables, but they get started talking, tempus fugit, and suddenly they have an angry four-top in the corner who have been trying to attract attention to get, say, a fork and now have cold food.
Let me provide a bit of blame for the customers, too: expecting your server to stop in the middle of taking another table's order or running food out is unrealistic.
4. Don't know the food.
This one borders on the dangerous; people ask waitstaff questions about the food for a reason, and a very common reason is allergies. Someone who is allergic to seafood needs to know if fish sauce is used in the preparation; someone suffering from celiac disease will have an awful night upon finding out the chicken is dredged in flour before being cooked.
Apart from the health issues, sometimes people want to know what goes into a dish, or whether a dish goes well with the starter they're thinking about. Waitstaff ought to be taught the components and basic preparation of a dish. Is it fried? Is it sautéed? Ideally, the front of house would have tasted each dish at a meeting before service.
It's worse when the server tries to fake the knowledge. Really, the amatriciana has olives in it? There's beef broth in the sauce Mornay? It's pathetically easy to tell, and if the server doesn't know, he or she should go ask.
5. Don't know the wine (but pretend they do).
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Even more waitstaff fake it on the wine than on the food, and it's patently obvious. I don't know enough about wine to be a sommelier, but I can sure tell when my waiter has no clue. Is he really recommending the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio? If he'd actually tasted it, he'd know it tastes like Squirt gone flat. (Why is it on the list anyway?). I've been waited on by people who talked a good talk about bouquets and lingering finishes, only to trip up by talking about "Moh-ay" and Chandon. (It's "Moh-ett".)
Worse yet, few restaurants with wine lists actually have anyone available in the front of house who do know anything about it, so asking for someone who knows may not bear fruit. In that case, the awful, sniveling "Ohhh... I don't really knoooow..." would be much, much better than just picking a mid-to-upper cost wine at random. I can do that myself, thanks.