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Eat & Drink » Wine

Serving Up Attitude

Thoughts on restaurant service, reading the customer and learning to excel.



It’s always with a certain amount of trepidation that I tackle the topic of table service in restaurants. And that’s because I know that I’m on the verge of alienating a large number of people—specifically, the hardworking servers who read this column. Still, a string of really bad service faux pas at a couple of restaurants recently—in tandem with surprisingly excellent service elsewhere—has driven me to express my thoughts about restaurant service. My hope is that these observations will be useful—perhaps even acted upon—by restaurant servers and the managers who train them.

I don’t know if this ever happens to you, but once in a while, I simply get off on the wrong foot with a server. This happened to me recently at Biaggi’s in The Gateway, a situation I mentioned in last week’s column. First things first: I don’t like to be rushed in restaurants. So when a server asks me within seconds of placing menus on the table if I’d be interested in ordering an appetizer or wine, my immediate response is to send him or her away. I try to be gentle about this, and usually say, “Please give us a minute or two.” Simple enough, right?

Well, not in this case. Because as I began to peruse the wine list my server, who’d been hovering at the table since we arrived, began to make a wine recommendation. I was already feeling rushed and so I said, “Actually, I’d like to select a wine after I’ve decided on what we’re going to eat,” cutting him off in mid-sentence. This caused our server—and I’m not kidding or exaggerating—to purse his lips, roll his eyes and disappear with a measure of haughtiness I’ve never encountered in a restaurant before. Obviously, the server had an agenda, and I’d kiboshed it. And unless you’re a hooker, rolling your eyes at customers is rarely a good idea.

After he stalked off, our server certainly stopped rushing us. He gave us a long time to decide what we were going to eat and drink, the latter of which turned out to be a bottle of Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo Big House Red. The wine was opened and sloshed into our glasses. Perhaps since it was a screw-top wine, our server didn’t feel it necessary for me to taste the wine first before he filled our glasses. The customer-server relationship was clearly deteriorating.

At this point, my dining companion said something interesting about our server: “I think he’s from New York.” Now I have to admit, I had no idea whatsoever how she’d reached that conclusion. He didn’t have an accent or horns. “All servers from New York are like that,” she said. “They think they know more than the customer.”

Well, I hoped to make a new start. So in a dual attempt to get information and begin bridge mending, I asked our server where he was from. It turns out he wasn’t originally from New York, but he’d worked in New York restaurants. In fact, he’d worked in one of my favorite French restaurants there. My companion was correct: Since this guy had toiled in a trendy New York restaurant, he obviously assumed that his Utah customers were rubes who needed schooling by a big-city pro.

And that brings me to the single major cause of almost all inferior restaurant service: The inability of servers to “read” their table. I know a fair amount about food and wine, but not everyone does. So that means that my requirements at a restaurant might differ slightly from someone else’s. Thus, it would behoove servers to learn to read their customers before they launch into their canned presentations. Too often, restaurant service is robotic; the same rehearsed speeches get delivered to customers A, B and C as customers X, Y and Z.

I believe this one-size-fits-all approach to customer service results from a combination of laziness and bad training. Restaurant managers need to drill into servers’ skulls that customers differ in variety and needs. Servers need to look at and listen to their customers, and quickly determine whether they need a lot of attention or just a little.

I’ve run into this exact problem three times in the past month. On the other hand, I’ve had exceptional service recently at Metropolitan, Takashi, Grand America’s Garden Café, Log Haven, Fleming’s and Chenez. What these different restaurants all had in common were servers able to go with the flow and gauge their service to what was required, not some predetermined notion of what the customers were going to get, like it or not.

Aside from good training, my other recommendation to servers and especially to restaurateurs and managers, is to “get out.” What I mean by that is restaurateurs should send their servers (not to mention chefs and managers) to eat in top-notch restaurants—places where restaurant service is seen as a serious, honorable profession. It’s my belief that only by experiencing truly exceptional restaurant service can a server begin to have a mental model of what great service really is. If an artist had never seen a cloud, how would she know how to paint one?

Similarly, if a server himself has never been the subject of incomparable restaurant service, how can he be expected to have a model or an ideal to emulate? How can he or she ever become better than average and excel at service? A field trip to one of Salt Lake City or Park City’s superlative restaurants would be worthwhile. Some enterprising restauranteurs even ship their staffs to dine in top-of-the line eateries in Las Vegas and San Francisco capture remarkable dining experiences.

That’s all I ask of servers in restaurants: Find ways to experience great service yourself, and learn to read your customers. Oh, and please don’t roll your eyes at me.