At Your Service
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - October 15, 2008 - Mark R. Vogel - Epicure1@optonline.net - Mark’s Archive
Other than the quality of the food, what’s the next important feature when assessing a restaurant? I’ll bet most of you are thinking either the prices or the service. Let’s explore those two dimensions for a moment. Imagine a restaurant with superb food, attentive and respectful service, but whose prices are a little high. Now imagine a place with superb food, average prices, and dreadful service. Which eatery do you think you’d be more likely to return to? I suspect most people would be willing to pay a little bit more to have quality all around. The restaurant that has great food and great service, even if a little pricey, makes you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. Whereas poor service, particularly if the server has even a whiff of an attitude, is seldom worth the money.
The point is, service plays a crucial role in our dining experience. Even though it may not be quite as vital as the food, it’s still important enough to be a deal-breaker when deciding whether to patronize a restaurant again. Few people will tolerate bad service, or worse yet, disrespectful service, even in the face of superior food.
Our appraisal of the service we receive begins with the level of service we expect from a restaurant. The quality of service we expect varies with the extent of sophistication of the eatery in question. We don’t anticipate the same degree of service from a fast-food joint that we do from a high class restaurant. Much like the quality level of the food anticipated, we adjust our standards accordingly.
Moreover, service expectations are also a function of the characteristics of the patron in question. One’s psychological makeup, idiosyncrasies, previous food-related experiences, and possibly most important, one’s level of culinary sophistication all influence judgments of a restaurant’s service. A perfect example of this is provided by the show “Frasier,” with Kelsey Grammer. Frasier is a gourmand, a bit of a snob, and no stranger to upscale restaurants where protracted tasting menus and relaxed dining is the norm. For him, and the restaurants he frequents, a meal is an experience, not a pit stop. His antithesis is his father Martin, a blue-collar, simplistic, down-to-earth, man’s man. In one episode Martin convinces Frasier, and his equally elitist brother Niles to go to dinner at a grassroots, no-frills steakhouse. Frasier is a few bites into his salad when the waitress arrives with their steaks. Frasier, feeling rushed, comments that they just started on the salads. Martin enthusiastically responds with “Great service!”
Despite the sophistication of the eatery, or the personality of the individual, a certain modicum of service is still in order. One day at Yankee stadium I ordered a hot dog from one of the numerous vendors plying their trade outside the entrance. I bit into an obviously stale and hard bun and informed the seller immediately. He sneered and curtly replied: “That’s not my problem.” For me, such service is unacceptable, even at the most pedestrian establishment.
With these ideas in mind, let’s discuss what differentiates exemplary from poor service. A good waiter or waitress must first be personable, warm, engaging, and make you feel welcome. Nothing is worse than having to rely on someone to meet your needs who does so in an aloof or off-putting manner. They should be congenial and bonhomous without being overly friendly or obsequious. I give tremendous credit to servers who can maintain their affability through an entire meal period of stressful work and difficult customers.
Next, a proficient server should be knowledgeable about the food. In some ways this is more of the management’s responsibility than the individual servers’. In restaurants with circumspect chefs and managers, there is often a pre-meal meeting with all of the servers to review the menu, the ingredients, the specials, etc. This empowers the servers to field queries about the menu without interrupting the flow to “go check.” A well-informed server can also guide guests through their particular preferences toward a suitable choice, which is a win-win situation for everybody.
A good server is prompt and attentive without being intrusive or overbearing. A vital aspect to this comportment is being able to foresee the guest’s needs. A patron shouldn’t have to ask for a cracker for his lobster, a steak knife for his rib-eye, or lemon for his shrimp cocktail. A diligent server and/or busboy, observes when water glasses are running low, napkins need to be replenished, and empty plates are beckoning. It’s annoying to be immersed in your dinner and have to pause and search for a waiter because you can’t wipe your mouth, wash down the next bite, or dip your crab legs in the expended drawn butter. Conversely, you don’t need someone hovering over your shoulder being officious, such as when plates are cleared too expediently and the diner is made to feel rushed.
A superior server wants his customers to be happy. It’s truly in everyone’s best interest that you leave satisfied. A server who will pleasantly make simple substitutions, offer minor amenities, or in general go the extra mile is indispensable. Given that their income is so dependent on tips, you’d think that this would be a natural inclination. Sadly, too many of us can recall experiences where the wait staff just didn’t seem to give a proverbial damn.
Finally, and probably one of the greatest challenges a server faces, is melding all of these elements so that the service flows smoothly and consistently. Obviously the more tables a server is responsible for, the more daunting this task becomes. This is especially true nowadays as many eateries grapple with economic pressures by maintaining a minimal staff. Nevertheless, good service is a synchronicity; a myriad of skills, knowledge, flexibility, conscientiousness, and attunement to an array of guests, including the inevitable curmudgeons.
As for tipping servers the traditional standard is 15% for average service and 20% for going above and beyond the call of duty. Of course that hurls us right back into the gray zone. The type of restaurant, one’s preconceived notions of what adequate service is and endless individual quirks all coalesce to form one’s judgment. Moreover, there has been a detectable trend in the field to elevate the standard minimum from 15%. For example, many restaurants add an automatic 18% gratuity to large groups or parties. Whatever your definitions may be, good service should be rewarded. Servers work very hard for their money and are an integral part of one of life’s greatest pleasures.
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