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Floor Show

Diners and restaurateurs should expect more from their wait staff

by B.A. Nilsson on April 6, 2011

I can draw few generalizations about Capital Region dining with any comfort, but there are two characteristics that haven’t much changed over the quarter-century I’ve been following the topic. One is that a majority of area diners seek the safety of familiar meals and not-very-adventurous preparations; the other is that service generally is mediocre.

This came home to me during a recent dinner in Manhattan, at an East Side steakhouse that’s been doing what it does for many years and has it down to a science. Our server was a genial fellow who spent enough time at each stop at our table to take care of us, but engaged in no idle chat. He knew the menu; he knew how to sell it. And he knew how to serve it, although in this he was helped by others on the floor. Anyone who put down a plate knew who had ordered it. When all in my party had finished a course, the dishes were cleared. It was clockwork; it inspired from the outset the confidence that we would be well taken care of.

I spoke to the hostess as we donned coats on our way out, asking how the restaurant kept the service standards so high. “We have career waiters,” she said. “And there’s a lot of competition.”

My years on the floor were spent among career waiters who viewed my off-hours practice of writing unpublishable fiction as one of those hobbies waiters tend to have. Another fellow painted portraits of vintage aircraft. Another one collected books. But the excitement and camaraderie of working on the floor—not to mention the terrific money—made any other professional pursuit pall. (Not to mention that this was before mandatory tax estimations were required, and to the IRS we were paupers.)

Most of my server time was spent in two fine-dining restaurants, where tips were pooled and cooperation among the floor staff was mandatory. And I learned early on that a cooperative system trumps the every-server-for-him-or-herself approach by a long shot. This was thanks to a waiter named Mark, who welcomed me onto the floor of a small Westchester County eatery called the Horse and Hound Inn, and found in me an ally for his plan to offer the best service possible.

The restaurant was in an 18th-century building that often had been an inn during that time. Six tables were in one of the two dining rooms; seven in the other. The chef-owner had established a rustic look that presented entrées on pewter and garbed the servers in leather aprons. Mark insisted that we ditch the aprons for tuxedos. What we wanted, he explained, was a captain-waiter system.

From a customer’s perspective, this began with the maître d’, who greeted you and helped hang your coats, then showed you to your table and took a drink order. We brought in a high-school friend of mine who was doing freelance advertising work and was eager to improve his interpersonal skills. He was sharp and articulate and quickly figured out how to accommodate the guests. I think of him fondly every time I see an eye-candy hostess lounging disdainfully by the door, buffing her nails.

Once the drinks were served—this would be by waiter or captain or maître d’, depending upon who was where when the cocktails were ready—the captain greeted the customers and explained the menu. I learned never to lead with a question like, “Can I explain anything to you?” Good sales technique means never giving a customer the opportunity to say “no.” Instead, I’d lead with the likes of, “The chef has a wild boar roast tonight that he’s serving with a Cumberland sauce. But don’t rule out the chicken. He’s preparing it hunter style with tomatoes and peppers.”

I took the order on a dupe pad, writing it in a system that would remind me who ordered what. A copy of it was handed to the waiter, who ordered it in the kitchen. As a captain, I left my dining room only when absolutely necessary. As a maître d’ I later worked with pointed out, there’s always someone in your dining room who wants something. Your job is to be available to satisfy that.

The waiter fetched and served the appetizers, always from a tray, never off the arm. The busboy or waiter cleared the table, but only after everyone had finished the particular course. Entrées were served by the captain or maître d’ alongside the waiter. We all knew how to decipher the dupes. And we were still deep in the era of serving from left to right, always placing ladies’ plates first.

However rigid the protocol might seem, it was understood that anyone on the floor would fulfill any function at any time. We had a captain in each dining room. We had a maître d’ covering the door and circulating from room to room. The waiters were the only ones who ordered and picked up in the kitchen, keeping it from becoming too much of a madhouse in there.

We made our share of mistakes. For some reason known only to the restaurant gods, there always seems to be one table that suffers the brunt of a Saturday night’s problems. We bought their wine, comped their entrées, did whatever it took to revivify their evening. We didn’t need to check with the boss; everyone on the floor had comping power.

As we grew comfortable with Mark’s system, the change was reflected in both an increase in business and a dramatic rise in our tips. Even on slower nights, with as few as two servers on the floor, we worked that system, and I’ve yet to make more money than I did then.

There always were curveballs. One night, we had a long-lingering deuce in the house, two of our most frequent customers, who bought costly wine and tipped well. Both were drunk and growing belligerent. I didn’t hear the start of the fight, but eased to their table as a fresh wave of acrimony peaked.

“Let’s ask him!” cried the man. “Do you hear what’s on the radio?”

We listened. His wife put a hand to her bosom and sighed, angrily, “It’s Mi chiamano Mimì.’”

“Goddammit, it is not!” her husband stormed. “It’s ‘In the Still of the Night’!”

“You’re wrong!” she shouted. And they went back and forth for a bit before turning again to me. “Which is it?”

If I sided with one of them, I risked incurring the wrath of the other, possibly losing their business. I did the only thing a waiter should do. I made up some shit.

“It’s ‘In the Still of the Night,’” I said, “but Cole Porter acknowledged that he was inspired by the Puccini aria when he wrote it.” And I added, knowing that any lie gains credibility with an adjacent truth, “He had to be careful with the melody, knowing that Puccini’s publisher sued Al Jolson over ‘Avalon.’ ”

As for the Capital Region, we see millions sunk into the building and decor, into celebrity chefs and costly kitchens, and then they turn a bunch of slack-jawed tyros loose on the customers, and get away with it, I fear, because too many customers accept it as the Way Things Are. I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way, and I’m not making this shit up.