What Makes A Great Waiter Great?

Megan Bayley
Photo Credit: Megan Bayley

A week or so ago, I had dinner with an old friend and her family at a very, very tony restaurant here in San Francisco. The layout of the space was beautiful-- everything was styled to the teeth: the flowers, the décor, the enormous boards of cheese which sat near the bar, offering a come on to the men in the general vicinity that was nearly as pungent and gooey as those from the perfume-soaked women who jockeyed for prime barstools. Even the service staff looked as if it had been culled from the pages of a Brooks Brothers catalogue-- they were clean cut, attractive, and wearing dark, conservative suits.

Everything looked perfect.

When we sat down at our table, we discovered a delightful surprise-- the large, hard bound menus revealed a personal message: "Happy Birthday Jill" on the inside. She was touched. I think. Anyway, she was pleased.

We were excited about the menu's offerings. There in small black print were things I'd never had, but had always wanted to try, but lacked either the energy or knowhow to actually hunt down and cook for myself. Things like rampion and fiddlehead ferns.

The sommelier was spot on, too. I told him what part of the world we felt like drinking from, what we were willing to spend, and what sort of basic qualities we wanted. He returned promptly with exactly what I was looking for.

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The meal itself was delightful. The flavors and textures and plating were gorgeous, if a little on the meagre side, but that was to be expected in such a place. We were having a grand old time. Unfortunately, there was one element that completely fell flat on its face, as far as I was concerned:

The service.

The waiter was polite. Almost too much so. He was deferential to the point of seeming afraid to approach the table as we talked. When we asked his opinion on specific dishes, he didn't seem to have any, yet when someone at the table asked what his favorite items were, he told us something to the effect that everything was delicious.

And when asking us if we had made our decisions, he made the fatal (with me) error of saying something akin to "Have we decided on our dinner?"

Funny, I never thought to ask if he was hungry. I thought of asking another waiter if he could pull up an extra chair so that we could make it dinner for five.

What on earth was he so afraid of? Three lovely Texas woman? Me? Is that what made him shy away from the table so much that he couldn't manage to fill our wine glasses when they were going on empty? Was he simply less interested in us because we were more than likely not spending as much money as his other tables?

Sitting there in my plush banquette, I wondered to myself this question:

What the hell does it take to get a great waiter in this town? I have had so few. The only answer I could come up with is this:

Luck. Pure, unholy luck.

It doesn't seem to matter much what type of venue you are patronizing. High end restaurants are no guarantee of great service, though one's expectations are higher when there. Boulevard? I've had both great service and totally lack-luster service. Masa's? I was lucky enough to have someone I knew take care of me. We were the only people in the place that seemed to be having a good time. The French Laundry? Don't get me started. One of the best servers I have ever encountered in this city was at a little breakfast place in the Haight. I wanted to kiss her and give her all of my money. At least I had enough courage to do the latter.

Of course, I am a professional waiter by trade, so I tend to notice everything happening around me when dining out. It's an occupational hazard. I do not, however, think my standards are sky high. Nor do I think they are universal. My ideas of great service might differ from yours. Here are my particular needs and idiosyncrasies:

My ideal server...

• Is confident in his knowledge of the food and wine he serves.

• Has opinions.

• Is not afraid to either approach my table nor make menu suggestions.

• Is friendly and warm, but not over-sharing.

• Does not say "How are we this evening?" or "Have we decided yet?" He uses the plural "you."

• Does not tell me her name when she walks up to the table for the first time. If she is wonderful and engaging, I will ask for her name as well as give her my own.

• Does not try to sell me something right off the bat. Rather, he says "Hello."

• Lets me know if she feels I am ordering too much food.

• Asks me if the temperature of my wine is good and if I would prefer my white wine on the table or on ice.

• Keeps my wine glass filled, but does not over-pour.

• Is as kind to the table next to me as she is to me.

• Does not look disheartened when I order a bottle of wine that costs less than $100.

• Claims an undramatic responsibility for any mishaps. Mistakes happen. They don't bother me.

• Acts as if he cares about what he's doing.

• Makes me feel welcome.

• Makes me feel as if I am being taken care of.

Frankly, it's that last bullet point that I want the most. When I dine out, I just want to be taken care of. Not coddled. Not ass-kissed. Just taken care of.

I mean, this is the hospitality industry I'm talking about, isn't it?

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What do you expect from your servers? I'd really like to know. Of course, if you are one of those people who feels that a server should be seen and not heard, you may feel free to refrain from comment.

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