At the French Laundry in Yountville and Per Se in New York, noted dance choreographers have actually taught servers how to glide more elegantly through those gilded dining rooms. At landmark Commander’s Palace and other Brennan family-owned establishments in New Orleans, a server will surreptitiously push the salt and pepper shakers together at a table as a sly signal to other waitstaff that the drink order has been taken.
There are times like that when restaurants go the extra mile to make service flawless, when every need is not only met, but anticipated and exceeded. But then there are the other times when diners are left waiting and wanting, when water glasses remain empty, when there’s no fork to be had for the salad just set down on the table, and the waiter has done a disappearing act without dropping off the tab at the end of the evening. At times like these, what’s a diner to do?
In this day and age of food trucks galore and high-end chefs ditching white-tablecloth restaurants to open more casual ones instead, service is decidedly less formal at many venues now. Yet expectations still remain high, restaurateurs say, and service still pushes people’s buttons like nothing else.
“To a lot of diners, I think good service is a lack of something bad happening,’’ says Bob Klein, proprietor of the 25-year-old Oliveto in Oakland. “If someone’s bad is food slow to arrive, indifference or rudeness; and if none of that happens, if dinner moves along well, then most people think that’s reasonably
But other diners have a much higher bar. “Are people more demanding about service these days? Absolutely,’’ says Ari Derfel,
co-owner of the 2-year-old Gather in Berkeley. “People want value now. They don’t want to pay fine-dining prices because they don’t have that income. But they bring that expectation with them that they should have more service at lower prices. It’s a contradiction.’’
So, what’s the best way for diners to make sure their needs are met? Speak up, readily but civilly. The worst thing a diner can do, restaurant owners say, is hold his tongue at the restaurant, only to fume about the experience later to friends or on sites such as Yelp when it’s too late for the situation to be rectified.
“There’s service etiquette, but there’s dining etiquette, too,’’ says James Syhabout, chef-proprietor of Commis in Oakland, which shared top honors for best service among restaurants in the East Bay with Chez Panisse in the 2012 San Francisco Bay Area Zagat Guide. “It’s a relationship between servers and diners. It’s a two-way street. There has to be communication to make it work, just like in a marriage between a husband and wife.’’
Of course, there is no fool-proof, how-to manual on marriage; nor is there one on dining out. But chefs and owners say there are specific steps that diners can take to make the experience the best possible for all parties involved.
It starts with the reservation. Any food allergies or aversions should be stated when calling for a reservation. At Commis, which has one set menu each night, making special accommodations on the fly are not always easy, Syhabout says. That’s why hosts are trained to pose that question when taking down the reservation and when confirming it, not just when guests are seated at the table.
If you need to dine and dash to catch a movie or theater performance, alert your server when you sit down. At Gather, which is surrounded by theaters, servers are trained to move those orders more quickly through the system. “We try to steer people to appropriate dishes on the menu if they need to be out in 25 minutes,’’ Derfel says. “If they want to order the vegan charcuterie, we let them know that’s not a quick dish. If they want the whole fish, we’ll tell them it might not come out quickly enough for them.’’
Don’t be afraid to ask for sauce on the side or for meat to be cooked well done, if that’s what you want. A good restaurant will accommodate those requests. If the food arrives and it’s overcooked, undercooked or over-salted, let the restaurant know immediately.
“It’s one thing if you don’t like it, even if it’s served and prepared as it should be. Restaurants shouldn’t have to comp that, but they probably will,’’ Derfel says. “But I don’t get it when someone eats three-quarters of the dish, then doesn’t say anything until it’s too late. It’s one thing if you go to grandma’s and she makes something you don’t like. You suck it up and eat it anyway. But if you’re at a restaurant paying for it, you should speak up and tell them if you don’t like it.’’
When that happens, most restaurants will offer to replace the offending dish with something else or take it off the tab. If the kitchen gets backed up and diners have to wait a long time for their order, restaurants often will pour a free glass of wine or throw in dessert gratis. If diners with a reservation arrive only to find their table occupied by another party that hasn’t vacated it yet, a general manager likely will offer to buy them wine or cocktails at the bar while they wait. And if for some reason it was an off night for the restaurant, in which nothing went right? The restaurant often will offer a gift certificate to entice the guest to return again for a hopefully better experience, restaurateurs say.
If your waiter is nowhere to be found, the worst-case scenario would be for you to have to get up from your chair to find someone to help you. Instead, you should be able to catch the attention of a busser or another server by just turning your head and catching their eye or raising a hand to flag them down.
Forget the old-school practice of palming a greenback to the maître d’ to snag a table. “The last time something like that happened was years ago,’’ Klein says. “A really obnoxious guy with a date handed me $50 for a table. I got them seats at the bar. But he would have gotten them anyway without the $50, which I ended up putting into the tip pool.’’
Pretending you’re friends with the owner to get a table isn’t the smartest ploy, either. “It never works if you’re truly not a friend of mine,’’ Derfel says. “Plus, even if you’re a true friend, I still can’t get you a table that night if there isn’t one.’’
In the retail world, the customer is always right. But in the dining room?
“They’re not always right,’’ Klein says. “But it’s not our job to be right, either. It’s our job to make them happy.’’