Tales from the Restaurant

Tales from the Restaurant
Where you'll find all the restaurant dirt you'll ever need.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

An Italian Christmas Eve

Think of the Italians. What things immediately come to mind about these refined, culturally historic people?


Here are some things you may not have thought of:

-Fine dining
-Responsible pet ownership
-Hand washing

Confused? Let me give you an explanation.

I will likely always remember the first blizzard of 2010. In the week following Christmas, over two feet of snow fell, blocking the roads and doorways of the establishments I most frequent (my house and my job). Regardless, I still had to come in and work. More importantly, I’ll always remember the family of Italians who came in and ruined that ordinarily fabulous occasion.

After a relatively uninspired and uneventful shift, I was about ready to go home. Myself and two other people were the only ones left in the restaurant, and it was a mere 30 minutes until the doors were locked. It was almost closing time.

I remember coming back from the dish room clean-handed when I saw four people standing awkwardly at the entrance. There was an older, balder man (who looked confused), a younger man about my age (who looked confused), and two women about my age (who looked confused, and also alarmed). One of the women was carrying a small dog. The dog was wearing a sweater.

Also come to think of it, the dog didn’t look very happy.

A coworker of mine escorted them to a table, but he was weighed down by a few too many requests from both the kitchen and his final tables. So I approached the four and proceeded to ask them what beverages I could bring to the table to help warm them up.

I was confronted with the type of silence normally reserved for mourning the dead.

As a server, you can ascertain one of two things when you are greeted with deathly silence. Your guests are either deaf or foreign.

I decided to come back in five minutes. I also decided to keep it conversationally simple, mostly out of fear of strike two in “Deaf-or-Foreign Baseball.”

“Yes?” I said.

“4 lobster. And Perou!” (I later learned that this was some kind of European word for sparkling water).

Our interaction quickly became a pointing war, the menu being the main casualty. They each ordered lobsters, and from what I quickly gathered, had no idea how to order side dishes. Try as I might, I couldn’t convey the simplistic notion that with each lobster, two side dishes were included. So I picked for them--like it or not, they all got heaping piles of mashed potatoes. Welcome to America.

As the dog sat peacefully under the table, I wondered if he and I shared the same predicament. We both were well-behaved individuals, standing by as our masters spouted complete gibberish. We each contemplated our fate, and as I glanced at the dog’s big, round eyes, I found common ground--we both wished these idiots would just go home.

After dropping hot towels and physically demonstrating what their purpose was (digital hygiene), I gave the Italians their bill. Since English wasn’t a common denominator, there was no possible way that I could tell them that leaving $170 dollars on a $169 check was not in any way acceptable. There was no way that I could make them understand that I had had the power to kick them out for having a non-service animal inside the restaurant. There was no method of explaining the industry standard, and there was no hope for me to forcibly make them comprehend in this lifetime that entering a restaurant on Christmas Eve right before it closed and ordering a labor-intensive meal was an inconvenience deserving at very least the smallest gratuity for their kind host.

So I forgave them, and did what any normal person would do.

I immortalized them.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A lack of compassion during the holiday season

It was a waiter's worst nightmare; The quintessential shift where everything went wrong. It wasn't a dream this time.

My shift started with an influx of tables. A fifteen-top here, a six-top there, a seven here, and a two-top in the last table open.

Normally, it’s not a big issue to have a full section. When each of the people you’re taking care of have specific needs and requests that change the amount of time you can devote to the others, it rapidly becomes a big problem.

My table of seven told me they wanted to catch a show in town in an hour and a half. That wasn’t a major ordeal, because I hear that all the time. I took a beverage order. The older women at the table told me they enjoy Maker’s Mark bourbon. Being a bourbon guy myself, I joked rather ironically that “we were going to get along great!”

Little did I know.

Cue the first real problem.

With a full section and a whole list of other things I need to prioritize, it isn’t easy to divide a large party into three or four separate checks. It makes it even more difficult when each person wants to pay for specific things.

During my attempt at sorting out this mess, I had asked a manager to present a bottle of wine to another table that had sent the first bottle back. The reason for that?

Now, I agree that 2008 wasn’t humanity’s proudest year.

Normally, most average joes aren’t sophisticated enough to be able to find unpalatable differences between two neighboring vintages of the same wine. The difference between an actual wine expert and a complete pile of dicks is that the expert won’t send back two different bottles of wine when he sees that his server is swamped with requests on a packed Saturday night in a restaurant.

He ended up sending back the second bottle as well. The reason?

The reasons that is an unacceptable answer are as follows;
-On a busy Saturday, requests inevitably take longer.
- In this particular case, the gentleman wasn’t even finished eating his appetizer course. His wine had arrived right on the cusp of transition between his appetizer and his dinner.
- Sending back wine twice is the trademark of a complete twat waffle. Especially when the only reason is because it’s arrived 3-5 minutes later than you ordered it.

In the meantime, my two-top table had multiple allergies. I, by the regulations imposed on me by the company itself and punishable by firing, could not take or send in the table’s order without discussing the allergies with the management and the chefs. The guests themselves (A middle aged married couple) were overwhelmingly patient with me and the time I needed to make that whole process happen, but I was interrupted twice by women from the original table (the elderly folks with multiple checks and a massive time constraint) so that I could be rudely reminded that they were not only in a hurry, but needed to settle their towering pile of checks that second.

This jumped to the top of my priority list -- I immediately started accepting the multiplicity of payment forms that only ONE of the ladies wanted me to process. I felt like I was accepting a feudal dowry.

One of the other old ladies in the party had found my manager and proceeded to tell him that “everything had gone wrong.”

When he asked what specifically had gone wrong, the grouchy old crone just shook her head and exclaimed, “EVERYTHING. Just--everything.” Which, to me, meant ‘in all reality, not that much.’

If I had to inconvenience a server by having multiple checks, I would give him or her the peace of mind he deserves by having an even split, and processing one form of payment each. These disheveled old women were outrageously particular in what they wanted to pay for, and used a combination of cash, credit cards, gift cards, and paper gift certificates. I absolutely couldn’t deal with it, so I handed them all to the nearest manager. You correctly guessed that any tip I had any chance of getting was forced through the cracks underneath the weight of all of those convoluted forms of payment.

All of a sudden, the six top with the wine snob wanted to leave. Another waiter had gone by while I was settling payments and swiped the man’s credit card. Apparently, I had forgotten to remove ONE of the bottles of wine from his check.

He angrily spouted to me about how he didn’t end up getting that bottle of wine, and about how he wanted his credit card transaction voided and then have his card swiped for the correct amount. The cherry on top of this sundae of polite requests?

When things started slowing down, I was able to catch up. I was so gracious to have customers who were treating me not only cordially, but with undue compassion that I became way too friendly. My service became exceptional--waiting nearby with beverage refills, offering warming hand towels after every course, inquiring fully about all of the little details of everyone I was serving, et cetera. I made more money in the last leg of that evening than I made in any normal busy Saturday, and I blame it completely on the contrast of the evening’s events.

When Christmas approaches, you would expect that people would be more lenient, show patience, mercy, and all kinds of positive emotions as they prepare themselves for the very holidays founded on the principles of the finest human graces. People eat with family members they haven’t seen in a while, they have time off of work, and they give gifts and take care of each other. Alternatively, do people tend to have shorter fuses when that holiday sanctity is even modestly threatened, even with a less-than-perfect dinner?

I’d like to know what you think.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Paying the Bill; A Duel of Honor

There are very few situations in the daily fray of serving tables that put you uncomfortably on the spot through no fault of your own. People usually don't go off on you if you've done nothing wrong, but very occasionally they do. Sometimes, all it takes for you to be put on the spot is something simple like dropping the check.

From here, there are a couple ways it can go down.

You don't even have a chance to let go of the check before the tug of war begins.

This situation is a bit awkward because people will try to steal the check from you before you put it on the table. If multiple people go for it at once, you could be in the middle of a violent scuffle. When one person tries to put his or her card in the book and give it to you, it's usually a combination of them smacking you with it and fending off the grabbing hands trying to supplant the card in the book with their own.

After getting the wind knocked out of you by a checkbook, you also get displeased grimaces and slow, patronizing head shakes from the others at the table who wanted to pay.

It could also go down like this;

If you get approached, someone (usually a foreigner) will discreetly hand you a card so that nobody else gets a chance to pay.

The problem is that when you go back to announce that someone else has already paid, you get the death stare from everyone else at the table.

The check drop can also be a bit perilous because of the pending hazard of samurai-like dueling between the restaurant patrons.

When people start fighting over a check amongst themselves, I find that it's best to back away slowly and without saying a word. They'll sort it out eventually, and hopefully you won't have to witness an actual decapitation before you go to process the payment.

The best part is, I do this when I go out to eat too. I have no idea why.

One of the things that stands to reason when people fight over the check is that they are typically generous. Since they have no reservations about paying for the dinner that their families and friends just had, they probably won't mind giving you a generous tip for all your hard work.

That's a myth--I've had people fight tooth and nail over paying the bill, but then left me maybe 5%-10% maybe about a third of the time. It simply doesn't make any sense.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Rules of Booze

In the service business, there are guidelines. Not only are there rules you have to follow within the restaurant organization, but there are often laws which dictate how you are to do your job that are regulated by some level of government. Exactly how you have to navigate these rules varies when you’re confronted with restaurant guests who are not only ignorant, but irate becomes tricky.

First exhibit; An unruly old bag.

The woman of about sixty approached the bar from one of the tables in the restaurant, and in what was later determined to be her most polite tone of voice, demanded four glasses of champagne for her table. The problem? Everyone at her table had just received beverages, and they hadn’t been touched. The state law where this restaurant is located strictly prohibits having more than one alcoholic beverage at a time on the table.

Her response?

Of course she hasn’t heard of that law. So by no means is she obligated to follow it.

The woman kept crooning over and over to the bartender about how someone at the table recently got engaged, and that it was absolutely ridiculous that she couldn’t have the champagne. The reason she left the table and went up to the bar was because her server told her the same thing the bartender had just finished telling her. Instead of embracing this new knowledge (that was reaffirmed by two separate people nonetheless), she continued being irate.

If you've "never heard of a law," it doesn't make you exempt from obeying it. Just because you're celebrating, it doesn't give you a free pass to demand that a server risk his or her job to placate you. If an officer stops you in your car for running a stop sign, it wouldn't quite pan out in the field to say that you've "never heard of any law" that says you have to stop at a stop sign. You'd get a ticket.

The bartender walked away and proceeded to take care of his other patrons, because those were the ones who were paying him, and as an added bonus, not ridiculing him.

She shouted for him again.

So the bartender did what any level-headed server would do. He approached her again and greeted her as if they had never spoken.

Eventually, after complaining loudly and apparently ruining someone's engagement party, she returned to her table. The cranky bitch was approached by a manager, which is the next step in the issue-resolving process. Instead of four glasses, the manager suggested that he could bring over a bottle when they were finished with their current beverages (running the total number of people reaffirming the existence of this law to 3).

Her response?

....my God.

"Just give us the fucking champagne."

The fact that this woman sunk so low as to not only demand her needs be met, but to order someone to violate a state law, and then swear at someone who was trying to help her makes her in a class of her own. The type of evil bitch this person is deserves to be locked away in the deepest pit of special Hell to be tormented for all eternity. On a celebratory occasion like an engagement, you ruin everything when you get carried away forgetting that you are not the center of the celebration.

The rules and guidelines of the restaurant business as well as of the state and country leave you few options for dealing with scum like this. You simply have to placate them as they continue to scream, cry, and throw fits like infants until they get their way. Any retributive action on your part, such as telling her to "shut her pie hole," flipping over her table, or using violence to teach her a lesson would get you arrested, or more likely, even fired.

There must be something we can do. For those reading this? Don't be that lady.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Dreams of a Waiter

I woke up in a cold sweat last week, and I immediately panicked and began wondering what had led up to that moment. I was running late for work, and I had decided that throughout the routine of throwing on pants, half-hazardly applying deodorant, and pretending to brush my teeth thoroughly that the whole reason that I was in this bind was because I had had difficulty sleeping the night before.

I had been having restaurant dreams.

Anyone who waits tables or cooks can tell you all about the dreams they have at least once a week. Here’s how they go;

Ultimately, it's all a typical subconscious montage of you essentially fucking up over and over and over again. Since service has become your way of life, you fear anything happening which would jeopardize your fragile income, and all of those things become the focus of your nightmares.

So when you show up drowsy-eyed to work, the people you're waiting on sometimes show a modicum of concern.

But usually they don't. They tend to expect the same service from a 9AM full-time waiter (who is so committed to his job that he dreams about the basics of failure) as the person who works one day a week and has infinitely more promise as a junior media-slide specialist. Except with the heart of a champion.

So can you tell the difference between the two types? Show up first thing in the AM to a restaurant you love and see what kinds of infrences you can make about your servers' career commitment.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Urgency of "When you get a minute."

After a while in the service business, certain phrases will begin to tick you off. Eventually, repetition of these phrases might even start to make your blood boil. Enough of this, and you might even become a hypocrite and start using these phrases yourself whenever you go out to eat, making you into the very thing you've grown to hate.

Describing it like this, one phrase in particular comes to mind;

"...when you get a minute."

At face value, it's intended to be a considerate and relatively polite way of saying "As soon as possible."

Underneath that, whenever someone actually says it, it means something entirely different.

I understand that it means "immediately" because I have often made the mistake of interpreting a request like that as "when you get a minute." It wasn't taken too well when I came back with an extra spoon after three or four minutes.

When someone asks you for something, that request should actually jump right to the top of your queue of things that need to get done.

The sad thing is, I find myself saying it all the time whenever I go out to eat. By the time it comes tumbling out of my mouth, it's usually too late to explain to my server that I don't mean that I need a straw or whatever it is immediately, but truly at his or her leisure. I know that my server is usually thinking the exact same thing I do when he or she hears 'when you get a minute,' and it explains why I get what I asked for almost immediately.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Good Service on a Popular Occasion? Pfft!!

If you insist on going out to dinner on a Friday or Saturday, you'd do well to understand that patience is your best asset; your venue of choice will be packed, seating will be scarce, your food will take longer to prepare, errors may occur more frequently, and sightings of your server will become increasingly more rare. If you're still completely hell-bent on going out when there is a special event going on, know this--the event or holiday will surely overshadow your personal celebratory requirements during a fancy dinner with your beloved company, and your lack of even a wet-noodle grasp of your situation will catapult you into a catastrophic level of dining suck. Your cache of self-respect may even atrophy to the point that you will wish you had friends who were lemmings.

Or you’ll just be annoyed throughout the entire evening and end up taking it out on your server.

This weekend, there was a special all-purpose sporting event that dragged throngs of people from all over the world to the town where my current restaurant is located. Being a relatively small restaurant, reservations on a weekend will fill the premises up and place walk-in guests at the mercy of a long wait for any table whatsoever (no matter how small) upon which to enjoy dinner.

I find that when the restaurant is empty on a Monday morning, a single person will frequently complain, wondering why he or she can't have a table that would satisfy the needs of King Arthur and all of his knights. Alternatively, during a holiday rush, I could auction off spaces on a table surface the size of the wide end of a toothpick.

Being a chain restaurant, people showed up in the lobby unannounced in quantities that can only be described as machine-gun bushels. For an entire weekend, the host stand of my restaurant looked like Ellis Island.

...so my restaurant's management decided to drastically lower its standards.

In a retributive effort to circumvent the crowding problem, the management thought that it would be best to try and place all of the large party reservations in a big, cold tent outdoors.

The guests reacted accordingly.

Cue the onset of New England weather. A couple of two-foot space heaters suddenly refused to keep sixty-or-so potential diners from achieving contact hypothermia from an outdoor cold front. Since I was assigned the responsibility of waiting on these 'outdoor igloo tourists,' one thing became immediately apparent; I couldn't give away an outdoor table big enough to elect its own congressman.

Hail the cusp of the seasons.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Holidays; A Time of Good Cheer

When the holidays approach, it’s universally understood that they represent a time of peace, harmony, and unity. They are a part of the year when it is important to spend time with your family, and create memories of fun and happiness. You catch up on recent developments, you eat good food and drink good wine, and you share your happiness with those around you.

Except when you work in a restaurant.

Chances are that when you work in a restaurant or similar business, someone of the management clan has approached you to ask that you give up those loving, caring times in order to make an unequivocal sum of money just to provide the services of a skeleton crew in a trivial prison of monotony for the express purpose of further padding a CEO's pockets.

Anyone could tell you that they've had this happen.

If you're a sound person who enjoys spending holidays with your family, it makes you miserable.

Let me explain;
There's an explicit contract that you do anything but sign when you take a job as a restaurant employee which states that you voluntarily concede all of your celebratory holidays. You justify it by telling yourself that you will make a decent amount of money in the long run, because you'll probably have a few kick-ass Saturday shifts to keep you knee-deep in booze and not-being-evicted stew.

When the holidays roll around however, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who isn't a tumbleweed or a chirping cricket who will help you spend time with your family.

You'll be scheduled for sure. You'll be promised an early cut so that you can leave and at least catch a few minutes of family time.

But in all reality, you'll be there the entire holiday, waiting desperately for someone sitting at your table to finish their unconventional celebration at a place far from home so that you can imagine what your own holiday would resemble.

So you get grouchy. By the time you've realized that the restaurant has stolen family time that you'll never get back, you will have contemplated murder by means of shoving an entire deep-fried turkey into an HR-Rep's eye socket.

...and no one will ever remember owing you a favor.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Celebrity Vs. Special Treatment

If you happen to work at a restaurant which has any degree of notoriety, you may at some point have an encounter with a celebrity. In the last year, I've had the chance to meet a few famous people. On a personal level, I'm not too fazed by celebrity. If you're famous and used to special treatment, I'll give you the same kind of service I give to everyone; the best I can.

Provided you don't suck as a waiter, any famous person would be happy with your service. Everything should go smoothly, and usually it does. The only issue is that people tend to get nerved up.

When I took care of a foreign prince and his throng of secret service agents, I didn't mess anything up. I was a great server and brought them everything they asked for. The man was not only nicer than 75% of the people I take care of on a daily basis, but he tipped an extra ten percent on top of the 18% party-assigned gratuity.

I always thought that if you ruled your own country, you'd be stressed out beyond belief dealing with political turmoil, attempts at your life, and getting reelected. Yet this guy was nicer to me than the old crabby-faced bag lady at the other table who has a sour attitude because she keeps leaving some magazine at work.

It truly is quite baffling.

Usually, everyone else around you is nervous FOR you. You don't have to actually mess up in order to make things awkward.

Usually someone else can do it for you.

Maybe someone else notices.

Oddly enough, someone in the kitchen might have screwed up, resulting in the need for managerial attention. One of my fellow waiters took care of a well-known movie star last week, and he was unintentionally served cold soup. The problem with that isn't that he was necessarily a special person who deserves extra care, but should actually be getting hot soup like everyone else. Unless it's gazpacho. Which it wasn't.

Which reminds me--who the hell eats gazpacho?! That shit is horrendous! Cold soup is gross, and it doesn't have to prove that it's the bastard child of minestrone and cocktail sauce. Pass on that garbage.

Anyway, some celebrities tend to get pissed off if they don't get treated somewhat normally. Which might cause your situation to capitulate in complete suckdom.

Or it might be delightfully serendipitous.

You just never know.

Restaurant joke of the week;

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Water: The Kiss of Death

When you're serving someone dinner and beverages, there are certain things that you tend to look for. You ask questions that probe deeply into the patron's psyche (Where are you from? What do you do that brings you here? Are you celebrating something? What do you tend to drink with dinner?).

These questions are perfect for figuring out how to help a restaurant guest have a fantastic experience. However, there are some things that are subtly reaffirmed to you that the people you are taking care of are not only determined to NOT have a good time, but also are not intending to leave you a tip.

Clue #1-

When everyone at the table wants water, it's a sure bet that they're cheap. If they won't spend two bucks on an iced tea, they probably won't feel the need to tip you an extra couple bucks for amazing service.

Clue #2 -

In general, race and ethnicity factor heavily in the restaurant environment. The sad rule of thumb is that if any guest you're serving has an identifiable ethnicity (or one you aren't sure of), it's a good bet you're not going to get a significant tip.

Knowing this, it's easy to say "If I ever go to another country, I will find out beforehand how I am supposed to tip at restaurants! Toodley Moodley!"

In China, there is no industry standard for tipping; all waiters and waitresses are paid a flat rate. In the United Kingdom, ten percent is expected, and a twelve percent service charge is used for large parties. In France, fifteen percent is factored in no matter how many people or what you order. At one point in Japan, accepting tips was considered dishonorable and tipping disrespectful.

It was always curious to me why often times French visitors would not leave extra money for the server. If the person's English wasn't good enough, I'd use what French I speak to explain the difference. I found it helped in most cases, got me yelled at in broken English in others.

Barring that, why can't foreigners do the same research when they come to visit?

Clue #3 -

If you get a person that can't be happy, give up. I have taken care of people with utter perfection in my execution and then found out that the person had approached a manager without my knowledge to complain about the entire meal. I've had a person tell me once that the lobster they ordered smelled "too much like the ocean."

It's best to not let it get to you.

There are other smaller hints and clues that you're dead on arrival (groups of high school students, people asking for rolls instead of ordering something, etc.), but these are the surest I've found. Post your own in the comments!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Like a Good Neighbor? Like Hell.

In the hospitality business you expect that when you go out, you will be taken care of. If where you are going happens to be affiliated somehow with someone you know, you should expect that you will be taken care of very well.

This is one of the basic fundamentals of any business.

Sometimes, you do a favor for a friend, and that friend instantly forgets who is doing the favor.

Take last week, for example.

A group from a neighboring business needed a reservation on a moment's notice for about fifteen people on a busy evening. Not only were the managers of the shift excruciatingly accommodating, but several bottles of wine and free appetizers were arranged for them before their arrival.

When they were seated and stuffed full of appetizers, they placed their dinner orders with the very author of this blog. He went around, making sure that of the three things they could each possibly order, each of them would get what they asked for.

But they weren't happy. The protagonist's order-taking computer broke down for a second, temporarily losing one order of the fifteen that was taken. The server noticed quickly, but not quick enough. The unspeakable inevitably happened. Because of the digital screw-up;

The one woman customer ultimately had to...

Under any other circumstances, this would not have been a problem. Yet the next-door Hitler-boss decided to get her mile out of the meal;

"Because I waited 5-7 extra minutes for my meal, EVERYONE AT THIS TABLE is getting a FREE DESSERT!! Do you understand?!?"

Oh, I do. Because we tried to do everything we could (bringing you an alternate meal while your friends were dining/delivering your side dishes beforehand/giving you your dinner for free/bringing extra wine at no cost/suspending your incumbent waiter(s)/ sent your post-packaged dinner back to the chef), you suddenly think it's ALRIGHT to come back to the host stand and tell the innocent-looking hostess that his/her restaurant "REALLY dropped the ball this time?!"

NOTHING ON THIS EARTH is worth the price of your reputation. From now on, everyone in the restaurant will see this;

And will get this--

"Choke on it and die!! RAAARGH!!"

The twat waffle actually left her seat, demanded dessert for everyone, and stormed up to complain to the host stand to alleviate a problem that wasn't actually real. The woman wanted all fifteen of her cunt slaves to have free desserts, free entrees, and free humility. That last thing wasn't quite free, but seemed like it was because of the impending sense of dignity rape she let down on her neighbors. So she will be getting a free additional course a week after her meal, whether she knows it or not. Read on;

I feel that in this instance, my anonymity rule might be acceptably broken. Everyone who reads this--please send a warm letter of recognizance to the Le Pli Spa in Cambridge. Thanks!