Are you being served?

Is this a sensitive waiter?

A nice, sensitive waiter!

We all know there are things that irritate us about waiting staff. It’s a particularly subjective and personal matter but, in a recent unscientific survey carried out by yours truly, there appears to be some common complaints.

Over all, it doesn’t seem to matter how competent the waiter is, whether he can carry six plates at once, pour wine with one hand while the other’s tucked neatly behind the back, or memorise your order without writing it down. What seems to matter is that he or she thinks you’re special and recognises that, once you’ve arrived, you’re a new person in the restaurant and will receive the service you expect and are paying for.

Real smiles and eye contact are easy wins but frequent omissions. Of course it helps to know what’s on the menu, understand a bit about it and know what’s run out but making the customer feel they’re never ignored or forgotten seems to be the most important thing.

Do you like the waiter to pour your wine or would you prefer to do it yourself? Are you in a hurry or do you wish to linger? It’s his or her job to find out and it takes a particular skill.

So what about the waiter asking you whether everything’s all right during the meal? It’s a difficult one for staff that are not used to eating out. They know that they can get into trouble if they appear to be ignoring their guests. So, in the same way it’s useful to exaggeratedly move your head to look in the mirror when taking your driving test, they think that a regular “How’s the food?” will make the customer feel special and wanted.

But it takes some talent, usually helped by a little life experience which, due to the young age of many waiting staff, may be difficult to find.

I picked up the term “anecdotus interruptus” used in a critic’s recent review of a London restaurant; the term where it seems the guests, on a particularly quiet night, could rarely finish a story without a member of staff asking them how the meal was. And it was driving them mad.

It’s a lovely phrase and is rather apt for certain critical moments. Imagine the scene. He’s spent most of his overdraft on bringing the gorgeous girl out to this restaurant. So far, he’s pretended to understand the wine list and menu and tried to appear interested in her conversation for over two hours when actually, he hasn’t heard a word she’s been saying and couldn’t have concentrated on it if he’d tried. He’s only got one objective and he’s got a plan.

“Listen”, he says, “that was a lovely meal and I’ve adored your company. Why don’t we skip coffee here and I could make you some special fair-trade, fresh-ground, decaffeinated stuff back at my place”.

She smiles. It’s as if there’s no one in the world but the two of them. Her eyes lighting up she leans forward and, reaching across the table, opens her mouth to speak. “How was the food and would you like some coffee”, blurts a voice from outside the magic. “We’ve got cappuccino, espresso, regular filtered or you could have tea because we’ve got Earl Gray, Lapsong Soushong or PG Tips”.

Obviously, sadly, the moment’s gone. She looks back at the waitress, her eyes having died a little. “I’ll have a cappuccino please. And he’ll have . . . . Where’s he gone? What’s he doing on the floor? Why’s he biting the carpet?”

It’s not easy being a sensitive waiter. The best are usually those that are used to eating out – and have maybe even tried a little supper seduction themselves. Because it really helps them in their job if they’ve had their carefully-planned objectives ruined as well.

Previously published in The Northern Echo as Bill’s Bites

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