What You Can

What You Can

As regular readers of this space will know, I work in a restaurant. I generally find this to be a nice enough thing to do. Undeniably it’ss still work, but serving tables and tending bar beats most other jobs I’ve held. Given that I’ve spent a lot of time in restaurants and bars, along with the fact that most of us eat in restaurants regularly, I’d like to take a moment to discuss this undertaking.

I realize the ins-and-outs of dining is a fairly broad topic, but I’ll do my best to focus upon the relationship between the server, the food and you-the-diner. What I’d like to do is to clarify what you can reasonably expect from your server when you’re at a restaurant, while in a following post I’ll focus on what you cannot. Based upon my experiences, it seems many people have some rather fuzzy notions around this intersection, and perhaps a little clarity will alleviate diners’-disappointments and servers’-sufferings.

So let’s start with the things I think are fair to expect from your server, while acknowledging that expectations will shift depending upon the type of restaurant you’re eating at. That is, you can bank on different service levels from the sommelier at a 3-star Michelin establishment in Manhattan than you’ll get from Dwayne at the White Castle outside Michigan City.

(In a purely editorial aside—and with no disrespect to Dwayne and his kind—you really shouldn’t be eating at the White Castle.)

When it comes to the menu I think it’s completely reasonable that your server be able to tell you exactly what’s in a certain dish, or be willing to go find out (Yes, the romesco has nuts). She should be able to tell you the quantity of the item (It’s a 6-oz ribeye) as well as how it’s going to be presented on the plate (The perch sits atop the grilled spring onions and the fumet is ladled over the entire dish). She should be able to tell you where the item is from (We source all our greens from Red Circle Farm) and any related quality issues (The radishes are certified organic). Additionally, she should also be able to recommend and pair beverages with your food items (This Muscadet will go great with the raw oysters1).

Beyond her maintaing an acceptably nice attitude (a vague term, but recognizable nevertheless), I think any of the above-mentioned items are fair, reasonable and appropriate things to expect when dining. Any server worth her salt should know such things, or be willing to find out the answers.2

In an ideal world, your server’s capacity to fulfill these expectations—summed up in the simple question: Did she help me have a richer dining experience?—would be the basis for tipping. That said, I realize we live in a far-from-ideal world (Rush Limbaugh still has a listening audience), and as such most people will tip based upon social expectations rather than service provided. In Michigan, where I’m from, the norm seems to float somewhere just below 15% (unless you’re my grandmother, who insists upon a lead-heavy 10%); here in Seattle anything less-than 20% will cause a social-media tempest.

In the next post I’ll come at this from the opposite perspective, and try to clarify what you cannot expect from your server when dining.

  1. Diners—please, please stop ordering big juicy red wines with raw seafood. I don’t care if this is what you “always” drink or the “only” wine you like; be a mensch and try something new, which in the case of raw seafood would be anything other than a big juicy red wine. If for some absurd reason the restaurant cannot provide another beverage suitable to your tastes—a white wine, a rose, a beer, some bubbles—then simply stick to tap water. For those of you who will insist that you simply must order the big juicy red wine, out of respect for the undeniable sentience and animal-life of the raw seafood, to say nothing about the human-labor involved in bringing it to your table, allow me to suggest the following: order that big California Cab but skip the raw seafood, and instead kindly ask for a wad of paper napkins, soak them in your water glass until tender, and chew on these while sipping your wine—they’ll taste more or less the same (like a big juicy red wine), you’ll save yourself twenty-bucks and add some much needed fiber to your diet. []
  2. On your server’s attitudes, let’s pause and remember that this is her work, which by definition is work, so while it’s fair to expect kindness it’s ridiculous to demand sunshine smiles streaming from her ass. []

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