For each of us, there’s a fine line between seamless tableside competency and over-solicitous restaurant service. The same holds true for delicate gastrique drizzles, garnish more plentiful than the main course and the boring-yet-endless discussion about what constitutes acceptable small-plate portioning.
In day-to-day life, these things are First-World problems, but in dining experience minutia (not to be confused with trivia) they matter.
To the most formal extreme, my friend Mark has been a front-of-the-house career server for more than 45 years. The last 34 have been as a team captain at a swanky spot in Manhattan. On an average evening, he’s the ringleader of four other people all harmoniously tending to one of five tables in his section.
The place is so old-school fancy that only within the last decade did it eliminate the “lady’s” or “guest” menu, which did not display prices next to item descriptions, recalling a time when no one split a check and the mere mention of money was considered a tacky social no-no. At 67, Mark conjures images of the Rat Pack.
“When I first got promoted to captain, we gave the primary menu (the one with the astronomical figures) to the person who booked the table,” Mark recalled. “It put the burden of ordering on them, but those days are long gone. Aside from polite eye contact, I only had to build a meaningful rapport with one guest. Now, it’s everyone in the party. There’s more people to potentially offend.”
Mark went on (as he tends to do) about the pros and cons of team service. At well over six figures a year in salary and gratuity, he is indeed at the top of the food chain.
“I’m very fortunate to have a team I have cultivated, with the most junior person being with us for almost 20 years,” he said. “Gratuity is (proportionately) distributed by position and seniority. Other restaurants call it pooling tips, but I don’t know how it would be fair any other way, especially at a place like ours.”
I couldn’t speak with any of his coworkers, and wonder if they all share his sentiment.
In Mark’s case, the concept of team service assigns a value akin to status for each position vital to the operation. Steeped in an era gone by, other team members barely exchange words with diners and are not responsible for setting the pace or for problem solving. So rigid is their system that the last person fired from the restaurant committed the crime of “auctioning off the food,” which is slang for standing at a table asking who ordered the vichyssoise.
Here in food-famed Portland, even our finest restaurants are an alternate universe from Mark’s rigid model. My friend Sarah, who has hosted and served at every overbooked place in town, put it this way: “Good servers and bartenders meet people where they are. Our jobs are to make guests feel comfortable. We have to be chameleons, but still stay true to our own style that makes people remember and want to request us.”
Mark most likely disagrees, thinking diner-appropriateness means fitting into his way of serving, and not the other way around.
As for me, I’m not on the fence because, aside from the very basics of politeness, accuracy and attentiveness, what makes up good service (along with a compelling atmosphere and perceived value) is as simple and as complicated as what constitutes small-plate portioning.
It just isn’t as boring.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.