My wife and I had been seated the other day for just a couple of minutes at a favorite casual restaurant – Short & Main in Gloucester – discussing what sort of food we were in the mood for when our conversation was interrupted. “Just going to pour you some water,” the host announced, with forced cheeriness, as she poured us some water – something I imagined that both Rosalie and I might have been able to deduce if only we had been given the chance.
This is one of my many restaurant pet peeves – Unnecessary Chatter – a tick that is epidemic among servers who are overanxious to please. I don’t mention this because I want to lash out at the folks at Short & Main – after Bambolina in Salem, they make the finest artisanal, wood oven pizza I’ve had around Boston, and we love that they offer oysters for $1 each during their first hour each evening (also during the last, but we’ve been asleep for hours by then).
But Short & Main is a good place to start because it is a restaurant that, with four owners, nearly always has a caring, motivated person on the premises watching over things. While they make sure their food is impeccably prepared with a high level of consistency, they, like so many other places that serve elegant food in a casual environment, don’t seek, know how, or think it’s important to reach a similar level of quality in the “front of the house,” as people in the business call the dining room.
The restaurant business is hard, with servers and hosts at the front lines of dealing with customers in circumstances – usually beyond their control – in which it can be really difficult for them to deliver the service they’d like. These ideas are intended as hints, offered with all due respect for everyone’s hard work and devotion, that if adopted could make the dining experience nicer for everyone.
These common behaviors and statements are among some of my biggest restaurant pet peeves:
Peeve: “Can I get that out of the way for you?”
When did a plate become such an enemy to dining that having one sitting quietly in front of you is a violation of protocol so offensive that it must be whisked away with all the zeal of a germ on the wrong side of the plastic seal protecting some Howard Hughes style obsessive compulsive billionaire? Couldn’t a simple, dignified offer of a courtesy – “May I clear?” be substituted for this bestowing of badness on that poor plate that just moments before had been trusted to convey the chef’s monumental culinary achievement to the table? And now, suddenly, it’s ‘in the way?’
Remedy: Instead of using a friendly euphemism, why not just ask: “May I clear that for you?”
Peeve: “Are you still working on that?”
Just as with “Can I get that out of the way for you,” this overly casual language injects a negative connotation into the pleasure of eating out. A terrible thing to say, but as ubiquitous as shaky tables. Remedy: Again, “May I clear?” works great.
Peeve: “Hi, my name is Sheila and I’ll be taking care of you.”
There would be nothing wrong with this greeting if it hadn’t been so universally embraced and if Sheila’s name didn’t already appear on her nametag. There’s a certain tackiness that comes along with forced casualness, recited lines and the inevitable singsong delivery that accompanies overused phrases, so it would be best to put this sequence of words into the commercial dishwasher and bring it to 180 degrees so the board of health can declare it dead.
Remedy: Oddly, the more expensive the restaurant, the less likely it is that the server will offer his or her name, suggesting that friendly isn’t necessarily better. Try going without, especially if nametags are already in use.
Peeve: “Hi guys, have we made a decision on something to drink?” Here’s a message to you young ‘guys,’ male and female who fill most of the server jobs in the world – older folks aren’t accustomed to ‘guy’ being a word without gender or being addressed so casually by young people. And the use of “we,” as if the server isn’t the server might work at a sports bar or a cafe, but not in the rest of the world.
Remedy: A simple “It’s great to see you this evening, could I interest you in something from the bar?” would be a far nicer way to start than pretending we’re mates.
Peeve: “I’ll take that for you whenever you’re ready!” This sentence is standard when the check is being dropped, a last chance before the tip for the server to be nice. The regular use of cliché, though, reduces your chance as a server to impart your uniqueness to the customer, and we already know that when we decide to offer payment and vacate the table is up to us.
Remedy: Just say, “Thank you, I hope we’ll see you again soon.” Peeve: “Hi, two?”
Rather than welcoming you into their space with a “Good evening, how nice to see you!” restaurant hosts generally convert the chance to make you feel known and appreciated into a strictly transactional experience – meeting their need to gather information in place of your need to be treated with courtesy. Then, as fast as you can respond, they’re racing to your table to drop the menus, then passing you on their way back to the host desk before you’ve gotten halfway to the table.
Remedy: Try greeting diners coming into your restaurant as if they’re friends coming to your home for dinner, not a problem to be disposed of.