In an earlier post I had mentioned getting “tractor beamed” in by guests who want or need what is truly more than their fair share of attention. Most of my staff know that if I am at a table, talking with a guest, and I am standing with my hands behind my back, gently waving my serviette behind me, I am desperately looking for an escape route. This is restaurant semaphore for “ship in distress, needs rescue”. Don’t you have some crippling computer issue, or a guest that is slowly choking to death? Someone? Anyone? Buehler? Anyone?
Reading tables is a skill that successful, professional servers are quick to develop. Having the knack to know how much or how little interaction is desired by our guests can be the key not only to a memorable experience for them, but for a smooth service for us; and an important part of it is knowing what to say and what not to say. Now, most experienced servers know what kinds of conversations to initiate/participate in with guests, and which ones will lead to trouble. Don’t ask “How are you?” or “How have you been?” , especially to older guests, unless you have 10 to 15 minutes to spare and a solid grounding in geriatric medicine.
Last night we had a couple in, repeat guests, that have dined with us several times with larger groups and on their own. Most times when they come in on their own, for the birthday or anniversary celebration, they bring Tippy, this purse-dog sized Yorkie that travels with them most everywhere. With a larger group reservation, they thankfully leave the little boot-magnet home, probably with some kind of professional dog-sitter who charges enough to make watching this constantly yapping little animal worth their while.
So they come in, and are progressing nicely with their four course dinner. Our dining room is probably three quarters full, but with many VIP tables that require differing amounts of massaging from me, the servers and the Sommeliers. I am trying to spread myself around the room in an equitable fashion. Not that I am such a shining star that everyone needs to talk to me, just that if the “The Suit” visits several tables, he needs to visit them all. (I was severely chastised by a guest once for talking to every table in the restaurant besides theirs; I didn’t want to interrupt the intense conversation they seemed to be having every time I went by, and they felt slighted. Live and learn time.)
So I am making the rounds, answering the phone, seating guests, running food and keeping an eye on the pass to make sure that all the food gets run in a timely fashion, while working my way over to Mr. and Mrs. Best In Show. No Tippy tonight. Just as I hear the words “So who’s watching Tippy tonight?” come out of my mouth, I hear the voice of Giovanni, my old boss from Piatti, inside my head, saying “Pahtrick, you rooh-key!” “Oh, didn’t we tell you about Tippy?”… and so I got the medical history of this dog for the last 3 years. Cancer, chemo (yes, chemo for a dog), remission, hope, hopes dashed; and finally, 5 or 6 minutes later, the dog is dead. I had been waving my “Manager in Distress” flag madly, but the Coast Guard was slow in coming this time. I finally pry myself away and walk quickly towards the kitchen to give them the impression I have something, anything, very important to do.
On our Honeymoon, my wife and I had the ultimate in non-table-reading waiters. My father-in-law had made a reservation for us at a place in Carmel for dinner. When I was living in Carmel many years earlier this place, that was old and tired even then, was known mostly as a mediocre tourist trap whose only saving grace was the superior wine list compiled over the years by the owner (my father-in-law’s buddy). Well, the owner was off as we got married on a Tuesday (we were both still in “the business” then, as were most of our friends, so if we had done the traditional Saturday wedding, we would have invited a lot of empty chairs). We were planning on a nice drive to the Monterey Peninsula after our early afternoon ceremony and reception in Sonoma. The reception went long (everyone was enjoying themselves so much we didn’t want to cut them off) and we were the last to leave, as we had to pay the bill.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that six women in tennis outfits coming in for lunch at 1:30 in the afternoon are going to want a different experience than four guys in business suits glancing at their watches every 15 minutes. This is Table Reading 101. Only a minimal amount of perception is needed here. We had done the two and a half hour drive to Monterey, checked into the hotel, boinked, showered, and then went off to the restaurant. After the wonderful but stessfull nervous anticipation of the nuptials, quite a bit of drinking at the reception, the drive etc., I was a limp dishrag. I just wanted to eat a decent meal and be left alone to enjoy the company of my blushing bride. I was certain that our situation was as plain as Cyrano’s nose. But, no. We got “that guy”.
Everyone who has ever had a good restaurant experience ruined by non-perceptive waiter who thinks his or her fascinating personality is the real reason you are sitting at the table, has a story about “that guy”. I often remind my staff that one of our main goals in taking care of our guests is to strive to not be “that guy”.
This game-show-host of an idiot was doing the same routine with everyone in his station. He had made the assumption that everyone who came in was a tourist with minimal food and wine knowledge, so he felt he had to shine down upon them like a celestial beam with his tired jokes, puns and banter. “These are Golden Beets. The vegetables of the 90’s are here!” “Oh, you’re going to share that appetizer? Way to go, team, team, team!” Hey! Bob Eubanks, leave us alone! When I did finally check out his wine knowledge by asking him about a Chateauneuf Du Pape listed in the voluminous wine book, he showed his true colors. His wine knowledge was about as deep as a Danielle Steele novel. I finally found the manager in the hallway near the restroom and slipped him $50 to keep this guy away from us for the rest of the night. Tractor Beam disengaged. Warp speed to dessert and the check.