Running Scared: Observations of a Former Republican
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"Losing my faith in humanity ... one neocon at a time."

Friday, January 28, 2005

On fine dining, waiters, and the war of the words

posted by Jazz at 1/28/2005 01:57:00 PM


I was just over reading the latest entry at waiter rant, and it got me to thinking. The post is titled "Therapeutic jujitsu" and it is, as always, some top notch writing, depicting a mental battle of wills between two veterans of the psychoanalyst's couch - one a waiter and the other his customer.
Nodding his head solemnly [the customer] says. “What a shame you are working on such a slow night. You can’t really be making much money. That’s got to be tough for you.” There's a faux therapeutic quality to his speech.

In a flash I have this guy’s number. Having spent years in analysis he’s adopted the “I see all and know all” mannerisms of his shrink because he desperately lacks a personality of his own. Therapy junkies are bad customers. They therapize every situation and try and use what they learn on the couch to manipulate the people around them. Pointing out our age difference and remarking on the night’s economics is his way of establishing dominance.

Surprise asshole – I was in analysis too. Luckily my therapist wasn’t the “suck Woody Allen dry” variety that infests Manhattan. Marty was one of the good guys and he taught me all the tricks.

The night is what it is sir,” I reply keeping my face neutral. I give him no room to maneuver.
This exchange, and all of the other wonderful, witty repartee that accompanies it are what set me to thinking of my own far more defensive strategy in restaurants. I consider myself a success in the "waiter wars", with victory being defined as consistently having pleasant dining experiences for myself and my wife the majority of the times that we venture out to eat.

My dining experiences in the roughly nine years since I moved to my current location were a bit of a mixed bag until I learned the lay of the land, gustatorially speaking. My house isn't in a city - it's in a village. And it's a village that lives up to the name "village" in both the classical and modern senses of the word. The population and acreage are small, while lacking the panache to call it a "bedroom community." We are a suburb of a city which is, to be fair, really flattered to be called a "city" at all. It's also fairly small, but it's the closest thing to a true city we have, so we cherish it all the same. Economic conditions around here have been in the dumps for years, (surprisingly just about four of them) so it's a tough row to hoe for people running expensive businesses like high end restaurants.

There are no true, "high end" exceptional restaurants in our village. There was one attempt for a while - a place haughtily called "Le Chateau" which was priced like a four star, but had a lot of simply dreadfully prepared, French only cuisine, a dirty look on the inside and all of the ambiance of a truck stop men's room. It lasted a little over a year.

The other places to dine in our village are a collection of eateries which range from taverns with bar food and sandwich shops up to rather modest "sit down" restaurants with medium range prices, large portions of acceptable quality food, decent service, and a fair bang for your buck on a night out with the wife.

In the city nearby is where I found the only true, high end restaurant worthy of the name. They only have the one, to the best of my knowledge (and we've tried all we could find) because one is simply all this area can afford. It's called "Number 5" and it is head and shoulders above all the others in the area. They have, in my opinion, the best chef in the area, and the service is always (and I do mean always) impeccable. Waiters and waitresses fight for positions there, and there's always a waiting list of applicants from which the owner can pick.

You'll need to have the cash in your wallet for a seriously high end experience if you go. Our last dinner there (on my wife's birthday earlier this month) included appetizers, entree, wine and cocktails (no dessert) and the tab was just shy of $120 before tip. (More on that below.) I know that's not much in a place like New York City, but in a smaller area, it's a lot.

From the outside the joint doesn't look like much - it's a red brick building that looks like a fire station. That's because it used to be the Number 5 Fire Station in the city. The inside is done up to pure elegance, while still keeping a lot of design, decor, and accoutrements of the original fire station. The menu keeps changing and is out of this world.

But praising this particular establishment is not what I'm writing about. I'm dwelling on the delicate little dance that goes on between patrons and the wait staff, the chef, etc. I consider myself "victorious" in these little battles because I simply don't fight them. I have, in years past, been accused by some people of being too "aloof" to the waitress. The fact is, I'm not aloof at all. It's all about the business of what each of us are doing. The waitress will generally open up with some polite comment about either the weather or some piece of local good news. I almost always respond with a very short comment, such as "Yes, we've certainly had a lot of snow" or "I read about that. That sounds really great!" And then I'll go back to scanning the menu and waiting for her to being the Reading Of The Specials.

It's not because I think I'm better than her. It's not that I don't want to talk to her. I'm sure she's a lovely, insightful person who could hold my interest for hours. But SHE'S WORKING. She is doing her job... which certainly entails doing a certain amount of chatting to add to the atmosphere and the enjoyment of the experience by the diner, but she still has a job to do, not to mention several other tables to keep under control. Yes, I could launch into a story about how bad the winter of 96' was, and how my snowblower broke down from the heavy snow, and isn't it just a crime how much they charge for repairs down at Tony's fix-it shop. But while the waitress will remain polite, and almost certainly fill in any gaps in the conversation with polite nods, "ahs" and exclamations of agreement, I still get a decided feeling that, behind those pleasant, sparkling eyes, she's thinking, "Man. I wish this guy would shut the fuck up and order some damned food."

And so, I keep my comments short, listen attentively to the specials, and place my order. I'm there to talk to my wife, anyway. If I have any comments to make to the wait staff, I make them with my tip and my repeat patronage. (Or lack thereof.) You see, I get fantastic service at bars and restaurants. That's because I only visit a few and I'm a great tipper. I place an extremely high value on good service, and I know what I'm looking for in both a waiter and a bartender. (And believe me, the qualities I look for in those two professions are very different from each other.) It's really not all that hard to set up a kitchen and staff that can produce food that is, at a minimum, "acceptably yummy." Anyone with ten minutes of training can fix up a simple mixed drink, pour a glass of wine, or draw a draft beer with the right amount of head. The service is what makes the difference. When I don't get it, I will tip sub-par for me... possibly as low as 3%. And I won't come back.

When I do get it, I tip extravagantly and I make sure that I know the person's name, and I come back again. The dinner experience I mentioned above resulted in my leaving $160 bucks for a less than $120 tab. I know that's not Donald Trump level, but I think it's a very fair tip for good quality service, and they remember me. At the few bars we visit, the bartenders know us and have often come running out to hustle up an extra pair of seats where we like to sit if it's crowded. That's because I always spend time chatting up the bartender if he's not busy, and will often leave a twenty dollar tip on a 30 dollar bar tab. They don't forget that.

My point in this long winded diatribe is this... there is a certain "fear" that comes with engaging in battle with the wait staff. Deep in your lizard hind brain, you know that, if you give him too much crap, the waiter is back there spitting in your food. It may not be true... but you still know it. (I would like the chance to ask the author of Waiter Rant some day if he has actually ever spit in anyone's food or witnessed another waiter doing it. Then again... maybe I don't want to know that.) I think that I "win" by not doing battle. I try to be a good customer when I find a place I like, and for the ones I don't, I simply don't go back.

There... I think I'm done now. We are taking my best friend out for his birthday later. He has MS so it may be a painfully short "celebration" but we're going to try. So if I'm not blogging much tonight, please forgive me. Happy Friday, everyone.