Appreciate Your Waiter

In the past week or so, Juliette and I have been out to nice restaurants twice: last week we went to the Farm House Cafe for my birthday, and last night it was Morton's for our anniversary. Since Jason still isn't up to the task of sitting quietly for long periods, we don't get much chance to go to fancy restaurants much these days, and so these outings were a fun change of pace.

The two restaurants we went to are very different in both atmosphere and food, but what they have in common are both high quality and excellent service. And it's really the latter that impresses us most. Good food is a must, of course, for us to put a restaurant in the top tier, but in a city like San Diego there are plenty of people who can cook. Good service, though, is what really keeps us coming back.

One thing I've never understood is how disdainful people can be of waiters. I've had a fair number of different jobs over the years--I'm an engineer now, of course, but in the past I've been a film festival projectionist, worked the register at my mom's store, tutored underprivileged high school kids, and worked in visitor presentations at the Montery Bay Aquarium. I've also been a busser, a bartender, and a waiter. And let me tell you, waiting tables was by far the hardest job I've ever had.

Yes, yes, I know: different jobs are difficult in different ways, and there are a lot of people out there who would find waiting tables to be much easier than what I do now. Certainly, my difficulties as a waiter have a lot to do with my own personal limitations.

Still, I can't even remember how many times I've overheard people saying something snotty along the lines of "How hard can your job possibly be?" I'd be willing to bet that nearly all of those people would be terrible waiters.

It's not just the physical aspects: the lifting, the balancing, the squeezing through a crowded dining room, dodging bussers and other waiters as they fly by, the aching feet and wrists. Though, those are certainly things I'm glad not to have to deal with anymore. And it's not just the mental gymnastics of having to keep multiple tables and their orders straight, each one having come in at a different time, each being at a different stage of their meal and having different particular requests. Though, again, that's also more than I can handle. (As I was telling Juliette last night, I can't really deal with more than three tables at a time.)

The real difficulty lies in the fact that each customer has a different expectation of how the meal should go, and what the waiter should do and when. You simply can't treat every table the same way. Some people will get angry if you don't check back every five minutes, others want to be left alone. Some people want you to be chummy, others want you to be formal. And first impressions make a huge difference, so you need to have all of it figured out before you even start talking, which gives you maybe thirty seconds to try to pick up any signs as you walk up to the table.

A good waiter is a master of reading the subtle psychological cues each customer provides. He will juggle ten tables, each with their own demands and special requests, all the while making everyone feel like he's there just for them. It's an incredibly difficult skill to master, and to me, seeing someone pull off perfect service is every bit as impressive as watching a master musician or actor give a great performance.

Of course, not every waiter is a master of his profession. Most aren't. But they all have a challenging job, and nearly all work hard to do it well. So try to cut them a little slack.

Mind you, I'm not saying you should ignore bad service. Not at all. As former waiters, both Juliette and I are quite forgiving of honest mistakes, but the same experience that gave us empathy for waiters who try left us with no patience at all for lazy waiters or those that don't care. I've stiffed waiters for bad service before and not felt the least bit bad about it. And I say this as a person who routinely tips over 20% on the total after tax.

No, I'm just saying, maybe take a look around and see what's going on. If you've been waiting a few extra minutes for your check to show up or for your plate to be cleared, take a look and see how crowded the room is. If it's wall-to-wall in there, very likely your waiter is slammed and simply can't get from table to table fast enough. Yes, in situations like that the management probably should have brought in extra staff to help out, but your waiter likely has no input at all into the scheduling process, so don't take it out on him that there's more to do than people to do it. Just try to have a little patience and remember that your waiter is a human being with feelings, and who has a very difficult job.

And for crying out loud, people: tip. As I mentioned before, I usually tip at 20% to 25% after tax, and I've been known to give tips as high as 50% when the service is truly outstanding. (Though, admittedly, I usually can't afford to tip that high at really expensive places.) I recognize, though, that most people don't or can't tip as much as I do. You don't have to be a big tipper to be a good customer, and I don't think any waiter should expect big tips. The standard is 15% of the pre-tax total. If you can't afford that much, you should probably be eating in cheaper places, or not eating out at all.

In my book if your waiter was trying, didn't make any unforgiveable mistakes, and you didn't tip when you could have, well, you're a cheapskate. And I don't want to eat at a restaurant with you.



Right on. There is an art to serving, and those that do it well I love to tip. But, as you say, I don't want to give it to those that are just phoning it in. I've waited as well, and I'm a tough customer, but appreciative.



janet:'ve told me before that waiting tables was not your strong suit...but I just realized that we really should have hired you as a trainer because you have really summed up so articulately the skill set and tasks involved in being a successful waiter. And with your permission, I'm going to use your notes for training...of our customers and our staff