Waiting on tables is all about serving the customer, not a management brief, writes Fay Maschler
The brief encounter that is the relationship between a waiter and a customer in a restaurant is fraught with the same difficulties that attended Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the railway station tea room of the film of that name. It is bittersweet; so short, so full of promise, yet riven with the possibility of misunderstandings and betrayals.
The solution to this perilous affair between customers and staff is not the robotic approach, often delivered with an American accent or the approximation of one, when a waiter introduces himself with a, "Hi! My name is Sandy and I'm your server for this evening. How can I help you?" Such a speech, invariably delivered through gritted teeth with forced enthusiasm because it has been required by the management, brings on a sinking of the heart in the customer almost as profound as the one that follows an offer to explain the restaurant's concept.
No restaurant's concept should stray far from providing admirable produce, competently cooked at a rational price.
Be assured, when the front-of-house announces to the table that everyone should order at least four dishes which will be sent out in no particular order, just when they are ready, this is not some tribute to spontaneity or immediacy, it is just a lot easier for the kitchen that way and also ratchets up the bill.
Here is a conversation that took place recently between myself and a manager, soon after I had politely turned down his offer to explain the menu – a perfectly conventional list. I had actually wanted to ask him to explain why everything was so expensive, but thought that unfair.
Manager: "Can I clear away your amuse?"
Me: "Thank you, yes."
Manager: "Did you enjoy your amuse?"
Me: "Thank you, yes."
This is not human conversation. Since when was it a convention that the chef's freebie – which buys the kitchen more time before having to produce the first course – was called ‘the amuse'? Amusing for whom?
The word ‘absolutely' has no function in the exchange beyond finishing it while giving the interlocutor the idea that he has triumphed.
At the same meal, a German waitress, who had knowledgeable interest in wine, conversed warmly and naturally and turned out to be a source of good advice.
As long as waiting on tables is perceived not as a profession, as it is in other European countries, and remains inadequately recompensed, it is going to attract people who are just filling time, learning English (at the customer's expense), waiting (literally)
for something better to come along. It's no picnic waiting on tables – although when I did it I used to enjoy seeing how accommodating I could force myself to be – but satisfaction is more likely to be achieved by being sensitive to what is required.
Interrupting a business discussion, a seduction, a joke, a row with an ill-timed enquiry as to everyone's enjoyment is not good service. Clearing away plates that have hardly been touched without asking why also demonstrates complete indifference to customers' pleasure. Explaining at length the composition of dishes – which are detailed on the menu and probably have already been described in the activity of ordering – while putting them on the table must be an intense irritation to everyone, except maybe those couples who eat out together in hostile silence. Pouring water and wine in a race to see how many bottles can be finished may increase the size of the fixed service charge but will decrease the customer's satisfaction. In short, waiting on tables should be done with empathy, not affectation, histrionics or greed.
Sincerity can prevail. The other day when I was eating in a restaurant owned by a friend, I remarked to him that our waiter's attitude seemed rather peremptory and lacking in obvious charm.
"It is, isn't it?" he replied, "but the customers seem to really like him." The chap in question was evidently making connections, not announcements.