Being a great food server, or waiter, is a lot more challenging than one might expect. When I was in culinary school every student was required to work as a server for one week at each of the four restaurants on campus. It was during that time, my only experience working the front of the house, that I gained real perspective for what it's like to be a server and just how difficult and demanding a job it really is. I am to this day grateful for the experience (which I detested) because it gave me insight and respect for servers and what they do, maintaining a smile on their face and an air of civility all the while.
All of that said, my understanding and appreciation for the job does not take away from the fact that I have admittedly high expectations of servers and little patience for those who just don't get it right.
A few nights ago, while dining out, I had an experience that brought me back to thinking about what it means to be a good server because the person waiting on us had badly missed the mark. This server was overly familiar, offered suggestions where none were requested and spent far too much time at a table that was obviously not interested in engaging her. Having the ability to read your customers is skill set number one in table service and on that account she just failed. But that wasn't the worst of it.
This woman spoke as if she knew the menu well and obviously respected the chef, but was enthusiastic about the food to such a degree that it could never have possibly lived up to her praises, and it didn't. Her incessant use of superlatives and repeated references to having "just tasted that in the back" was followed by mediocre food that wasn't as she had described and ultimately, she lost all credibility with us. She didn't fare any better in her wine or dessert suggestions.
After dinner I did a mental comparison between this server and a rude, stand-offish waiter I had while in New York a few weeks ago. While this guy was unfriendly and not in the least bit engaging, he was, to his credit, professional, knew exactly when to be there and when not to and offered menu descriptions (upon our request) that were spot on.
I guess the lesson here is that dining is as subjective as any other activity and what encompasses good service in my book may be just the thing that ruins the experience for someone else. I have had impeccable service at the diviest of dives and terrible service in the classiest of fine dining establishments and both experiences were the result of how well or poorly the server took note of my needs. In a profession where salary is so dependent upon tips it doesn’t make sense to me that a server would be anything other than what the customer wants them to be and a server who can’t gauge that should probably find another calling.