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"Are You Still Working On That?"

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Replacements--"Waitress In The Sky (live)" (mp3)
The Replacements--"Can't Hardly Wait (live)" (mp3)

Cracker Barrel waitresses have often liked me.  I suppose that was true especially when my children were younger and we tended to be out on the road in summer while my wife worked, me being a teacher and her a lawyer.  And I didn't wear a wedding band.  So I must have appeared as a decent man who was especially attentive to his daughters, managing well enough, but who could use the assistance of a good woman.  Slash waitress.  Because waitresses and waiters, by their very job definition are to take care of us.  So I would get special attention, including hands on my shoulders, that kind of thing.

A few years ago, I was in a Cracker Barrel with one of my children and I ordered one of the new skillet dinners they were featuring.  Now this particular waitress did not have designs on me, but she was especially attentive to our meal.  In fact, when she came back to check on us at one point, she looked at me and said, "You lovin' that skillet!  You cleanin' it up!"

Now, I don't know about you, but I'm not looking for that kind of commentary from a waitress.  Or waiter.  I just want him or her to bring food to our table and whatever else we might need to enjoy that.  Period.  And then to check back soon after the food was delivered to make sure everything is right, and then just occasionally after that so as not to interrupt the meal.

And when I'm finished, I expect to put my utensils on the plate in such a way that lets a waiter or waitress know that I'm am finished, knife and fork side by side and pushed all the way in.  I do not need to be asked "Are you still working on that?" or "Did you get full?" Or "You didn't like that, did you?" or "It looks like somebody was hungry," if the plate is empty.

I'm also not a king; I don't need to be addressed by the royal "We," as in, "Did we save room for a piece of Key Lime Pie or maybe a Molten Chocolate Explosion?"

This is in no way a class issue, either waitress class or restaurant class.  Last week, we were eating at an upscale brew pub where the waitress not only brought leftover mugs and glass that were on sale to the table, but she also asked my wife at one point, "How's that hummus and goat cheese treating you?"  What do you say to that?  "Um, thanks, fine.  I've got it under the table now and it's doing me right?" 

What do you say to those other favorite upscale questions like "Is everything still wonderful?" (which, I guess, shows supreme confidence in the chef) or "Is everything still tasting good?" (which is a little scarier, since it carries with it an implication that there may be some rough patches ahead, or worse, that there's definitely something wrong with the dish, they just want to know if you can detect it)?

I know it's hard work to be a waitperson.  Not everyone is like me.  Some people want to enter into a personal relationship with their waitresses, want a commentator for the play-by-play and a color person for analysis of the meal, want someone refilling their water glass if it drops an inch below lipstick level and want the manager out there to find out if those chicken fingers were fried just right.  Some people want to know the exact time and place that their piece of salmon was "de-rivered" before it was put on an airplane and jetted to Chattanooga at supersonic speed.  I just want to know that the fish doesn't take like fishy, regardless of whether it came from the icy streams of Alaska or a grocery store in Alabama.
I know it's hard to figure out how to strike a balance between the differing demands of every customer.  But the real skill of the job is probably how well you learn people and how you then react to them, not the schtick you develop and try out on everyone.

With that approach, a waitress or waiter might follow these simple guidelines:

1. When taking the orders, answer any questions, but don't recommend anything unless asked.
2. When the food is delivered, simply ask if everyone got what they ordered.
3. When checking back, simply ask if anyone needs anything.
4. If there is any doubt near the end of the meal, ask each diner if he or she is finished.  Nothing more.

Any customer who wants more than those basics, who wants to engage in witty banter or to make his waitress part of the family will surely let the waiter or waitress know.  Attentive service does not have to mean overbearing service or too many visits to the table.  Once my wife and I ate at a restaurant that had just opened.  It was summer, and they had trained their waiters to change the paper napkin under the iced tea whenever the condensation on the outside of the cold glass soaked the napkin.  The poor waiter must have swapped the napkins out some 15 times during our lunch.  And we could not have been more miserable.

I may be wrong, but I think most people like to dictate the terms of their interactions with the people waiting on them.  And that could change at any time, but that is one of the choices  we get to make when we pay for a service.  And a restaurant is a service.  Too many places these days seem to think that their personalities and charm are what draw customers.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Most of us know that we will wait in line and take abuse from some asshole if the food is worth it. And we probably don't tip the great waiter and the crappy waitress all that differently.  We just want to enjoy our meal.

And, please, please, please don't take away the rest of our plates and bring us dessert menus while my elderly father is still eating his entree.  I probably won't come back to a place that does that out of either ignorance or a desire to turn tables.

My thanks to The Captain's Dead for the live 'Mats.

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