Service with a Smile?

Dining out can and should be a relaxing experience. Beyond the standard drive-ins, the experience of dining out is intended to allow for dinner conversation while the concerns of preparation and service are left to others who, presumably, are trained to properly perform those tasks.

Personally, I feel that this expectation (and one also of both food quality and ambiance) is not unreasonable for a restaurant. It is the combination of these three factors which lead us to frequent any given dining establishment. With that said, I would like to discuss one of my restaurant pet peeves.

Now, in fairness, I acknowledge that each of us is human and that we sometimes have bad days. And, sometimes no matter how hard we try, that bad day with its accompanying bad attitude flows into our work. This, however, does not excuse the display of this to or towards a customer, but may make it somewhat understandable. However, in the area of dining out, poor service is something we are less inclined to forgive because of our expectation of relaxation and conversation.

There are a number of levels on which a service problem can exist. Clearly, the most obvious issue is a lack of attention to your needs as a diner - water glasses go unfilled, the order is wrong, excess time is expended waiting for a check - all of which can lead you to believe that your business is neither welcome nor needed.

On the other extreme, there is the serviceperson who seems to want to join in on your conversation and perhaps pull up a chair at your table. This can be as disconcerting and aggravating as the waitperson who you never see.

It is not always your waiter or waitress’ fault. He or she is merely the person on the frontline - kitchen mistakes for orders properly placed and timed are not his or her fault, although he or she is the person expected to cover for the kitchen’s errors. My complaint does not extend to ineptitude in the kitchen, but is targeted more towards those persons who are forgetting drinks that have been ordered and flinging plates on the table.

Of course, customers can be rude, overbearing, demanding, and demeaning of service personnel. I speak from my years of experience bussing tables and schlepping food. However, there is no excuse for inattentive service or service given with an attitude. Of course, the diner is expected to treat the server appropriately, but the server is also expected to uphold his or her end of the bargain. Server and patron form a symbiotic relationship with each doing their part so that the diner leaves with an enjoyable restaurant experience and the server feels gratified that the effort put forth resulted in appropriate financial remuneration.

I recently had the misfortune of dining with a group of ten or so for a casual meeting at a popular local restaurant. What we encountered was one of those experiences that would lead you to believe, if you did not know better, that the restaurant in question was newly opened, understaffed, and without an interest in serving their clientele.

As we waited literally hours for our simple dinner orders to be prepared and served, we were offered the excuse that the problems were a result of our having a table of ten. On the face of it, that may sound reasonable, but, upon further thought, why is a table of ten any different than the two tables of four and one of two that came, were seated, ate, and left during the time in which we waited for that same waitress to bring our food? Upon that examination, the excuse rings hollow. Now, I understand that timing can sometimes be an issue with a kitchen. However, hot soup is supposed to be served with adequate time for its consumption followed by a cold salad - again, with adequate time for its consumption followed by the entrée and maybe dessert. The timing between the dishes must be long enough for them to be consumed, but not so long that there is an inordinate wait between your soup, salad, and main dish.

Beyond the difficulty of waiting for our food for a period of time which would have been sufficient to grow the salad lettuce and harvest the french fry potatoes was the service assistant who was in charge of transporting the meals from the kitchen to our table. If I had any doubts about whether or not it is possible for someone to serve a dish with disdain, they were squelched that night. In addition to this individual’s lacking enthusiasm was the response of “Oh, I don’t do that” to the request by one of our number for a drink refill. I was left unsure of whether the waitperson was incapable of the task of handling a water pitcher, unwilling to do so, or simply didn’t care. The consensus was that there was a lack of concern which brings me to my point.

The restaurant business is a very difficult business. It is one which survives on reputation and consistency in meeting the expectations that come with that reputation. One poor review is capable of destroying a restaurant and, yet, even with glowing reviews, there is an ongoing need to maintain that standard. It is a difficult task and sometimes a thankless one, but regardless of whether we as the customers give proper thanks to those who wait upon us in restaurants through our gratuities, the level of the service provided should never be diminished. Had I been at this Lakewood eatery for the purposes of reviewing it, while I would have given the food a good review, the service which we experienced would have been such as to force me to recommend to my readers that they not frequent the establishment.

Perhaps it was an “off” night, perhaps it was the crowd of “speed-daters,” but for whatever reason, even though I enjoy the restaurant and go there a number of times a year, I, frankly, was put off enough that any return trip will be significantly delayed. There are too many restaurants offering food in the same vein with service that excels for us to accept less.

I would love to hear from my readers as to their pet peeves, concerns, and issues with restaurants which they have visited and, depending on the response on the Observation Deck, there might be forthcoming columns addressing the issues you have raised.
Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 3, Issue 11, Posted 3:44 PM, 05.21.2007