So I'm sitting in this little cafe in San Marcos, Texas one afternoon reading the want ads in the local paper when a fairly young guy approaches me and asks if he can sit.
Then he proceeds to tell me that he and his brother own this restaurant in town and if I need a part time job he’ll hire me as a waitress.
Now I’d never worked in a restaurant in my life, but I was in college and needed money so I took the job.
There is never any excuse for not tipping in this country.
And I learned a lot about the restaurant business.
I learned that it’s physically hard work, that drunks sometimes tip well, but sometimes don’t tip at all, that parents who haven’t educated their little children on basic etiquette should be barred from eating out (unless it’s McDonald's, sorry McDonald's workers) and that, while the money was good, I never wanted to waitress again. Oh, and I stopped eating chicken fried steak for years when I discovered what the cooks were really deep-frying.
I spent two years working weekend and late night shifts.
And then I never really thought about it again until I started eating out all the time and writing about restaurants.
I bring this up because the other day I had one of the best lunches imaginable at Frank’s Americana Revival.
Yes, it’s tomato time at Frank’s again and part of the appeal of the meal was the fresh, luscious red fruit (vegetable? fruit? vegetable?) that adorned the salad of mixed greens tossed with cold fingerling potatoes and green beans dressed ever so lightly and that also went into the sauce atop the grilled fish.
Oh, and the bottle of Riff Pinot Grigio was a delightfully fresh way to wash down the springtime goodness on the plate.
But what really kicked the meal up to one of those this-is-such-a-great-meal-why-don’t-we-come-here-all-the-time meals, was the staff. Professional, friendly but not overly friendly, and just plain happy to wait on us. I would venture that our waiter, Fernando, has maybe waited on me three or four times, yet he recognized us right away, took us to our favorite booth and said he would do whatever we needed to make the meal great. And he did.
There are some places where the wait staff is abusive, in a funny way, like Avalon Dinner. (“Honey, are you ready to order yet? ‘Cause I ain’t got all day.) And then there are places, no I think just the one, like Tony’s where the wait staff is impeccably old world and make you feel like visiting royalty. And then there are places where the service borders on bored sloppiness. And there’s just no excuse for that.
So, here are my tips for waiters and waitresses. From a former waitress and constant diner:
1) Stop wasting water
OK, OK. I know the policy is set by the owner and wait staff is told to bring glasses of water to table right away, but if you’ve waited on me before you know I don’t want water . . . please remember that. Or ask me if I want plain or sparkling.
I do sometimes order a Topo Chico if I’m really thirsty. But I don’t want that glass of tap water. We are in a drought, so please, if you know me, don’t waste water on me.
2) By all means tell me the specials
Even if I’m a regular customer and you know exactly what I came in here for, you also know what will tempt me, like that Frank’s fish special. But don’t just rattle them off as if you’re reciting school lessons. Make the dishes sound enticing and if you’ve tried them (and all restaurants should have servers taste the specials) then tell me what you liked and why.
3) Do not upsell me
Again, this is something that management may encourage but it can be annoying to diners when they want one thing but staff tries to sell them on something more expensive. I once ordered a bottle of wine from the wine list at Sorrel Urban Bistro and the waiter came back to tell me they were out of that particular bottle and suggested another, similar wine that was more expensive.
But he immediately said he would discount the bottle to the price of the one I ordered. Oh, yeah, you just got a fan.
4) Don’t hover but be eagle eyed
It really ruins the moment if you are deep in conversion with a tablemate and the staff interrupts. It’s cool when a waiter comes up and quietly pours more wine in your glass and quickly exits stage left. Not so cool when you are in the midst of a funny story and he interrupts you to ask if everything is OK.
Yes, everything is OK, or a least it was until you interrupted me in mid-sentence.
5) And finally, don’t rush me
Diners, if you have to make a movie start time or curtain call, say so when you first speak to your wait staff. Otherwise tell them you are in no hurry. I know waiters need to turn tables to make more money, but you will get a better tip if you don’t rush the check.
And I just may want coffee or desert, even though you’ve waited on me before and I've never ordered it. Today, I may just feel like a taste of that apple crumple with vanilla ice cream that Fernando offered at Frank’s. It was good, thank you.
Oh, and a few more tips for customers to ensure a great dining experience: Treat the staff with warmth and respect. If there is something special you need or if something is wrong, please communicate it in a civilized way. And there is never any excuse for not tipping in this country.
I always tip 20 percent and I have never had service bad enough to not tip. If it’s really that awful, speak up during the meal. Restaurants and staff don’t want you to leave angry and they don’t want you to make a scene either. Even if you’ve never been a server try to put yourself in their place, it’s not an easy job. And let’s face it; it’s just one meal in your lifetime, so smile, tip and let it go.
You may have just made someone’s day.