Waiting for Gateau: Stop restaurant servers from turning pricey nights out into tragicomedies


AURORA | Where did it all go so wrong in the restaurant business here in the metro area?

I’ve worked in restaurants, eaten in restaurants, managed restaurants, reviewed restaurants, and lived in the damned things for better than 50 years. The mile-high restaurant scene has never been so good — and so bad.

The good: The bar is so high on food quality and creativity, that eateries dishing out little more than pre-prepped fare right off the back of the Shamrock and Sysco trucks are an endangered species. I’ve had more than my fair share of eye-rollingly astounding meals all over the planet, many of them right here. Front Range food is now that good.

The bad: Restaurant service and management, however, has gotten so bad that I am regularly embarrassed for all of us. It isn’t that there’s a dearth of friendly, apparently intelligent people working in all of these fabulous cafes and restaurants. They just don’t have a freaking clue. Providing a good restaurant experience doesn’t have to be a mystery. It just needs to look like magic:

Servers: Keep the chatter to a minimum when you wait on tables. Don’t come across as stoic, but if I wanted your life story and opinion on everything, I’d date you. In that spirit, do not ever, ever ask a patron if he or she wants more water in their glass. Keep your mouth shut, refill the glass — and NOT to overflowing — and move on. Do not refill a water glass until it is half empty. Topping off water glasses is like a dare. It’s stupid.

Do not ever ask a patron, “are you done?” or “are your finished?” when collecting plates after a course. It’s vulgar. You make a patron fess up in front of their date or other guests that they’re pigs and want to scrape the plate, or that they hated the pricey prawns in the restaurant they chose to entertain at. Eaters: Heads up. When you are finished with a plate, your fork and knife go on the plate, tines down, at a slight angle. Servers: Watch for this. Watch your mouth: Don’t interrupt patrons if they’re in conversation. Stand there for a moment. If they choose to ignore you, go away and come back later, but not tomorrow. And when you get their attention say, “May I take the plate?” That’s it. A suave server doesn’t even have to ask. Simply put your open palm near the plate and look the patron in the eye. They can nod or shake their heads, as if that’s what they do. If there’re just a few bites left on the plate, don’t say anything. If there’s about a third of a serving left, ask if you can wrap it up. Don’t make your customers do the work. Take care of it. If there’s more than one box, mark what’s inside each one. If there’s more than half of a serving there, ask if the patron liked their choice. Don’t ask if it was “alright,” ask if they liked it, and offer to get something else.

Know what in the hell you’re talking about: If a customer asks for a recommendation, and yours is the deep-fried-PBJ-burrito-pizza, get out of the business. Be honest with your customers and your managers. If the frozen-salmon salad sucks, tell the chef. If he shrugs, tell your customers. All you have to say is, “I don’t recommend that.” That’s it. If you don’t know the difference between the taste and texture of fresh and frozen salmon, learn. Chefs are all control-freak teachers who LOVE to show off what they know. When you get a job as a server, run down everything on the menu with the chef or line chief. You’ll get his or her respect and special treats. If a patron asks you a question about the menu, be honest if you don’t know, but go find out. Don’t make crap up, don’t use empty words like, “It’s good,” and don’t shrug and just walk off. Since restaurant tabs now rival the cost of utility bills, customers deserve more than the company line.

Stay standing: If you kneel at my table to talk to me, I will knight you with my menu or chopsticks using full force. I have no idea where this moronic idea came from, but I see it a lot. You look like an idiot, and I feel like I should be in a high chair. Oh, if you ask a question of anyone at my table who just took a bite, I’ll taze you.

Pay attention: If you take away a fork or side plate when clearing courses, bring one back. If your table-buser is caught clearing salads and forgetting to bring back clean forks, stick one in his eye. Few things are as embarrassing and annoying as having the server drop plates for the main course or dessert and having nothing to eat it with. Your food goes cold while trying to send up an SOS, and if you’re with guests, theirs does, too, if they’re polite enough to wait for you. This is important, DO NOT EVER, hold a plate while clearing it in front of a patron and ask them to keep their fork or knife. Never. Ever. Take it away and bring back clean ones. If you need to question the wisdom of this, go work for a bank.

Always offer dessert: Always. Some women don’t like to ask for it front of new dates, and you get them off the hook. In the end, everybody’s happy with dessert.

It’s not over until I say it’s over: Do not drop the check until you have asked if you can do that. I don’t care if you have to study when you get home for tomorrow’s economics final or whether you got the crappy station that never turns tables. I’m paying a lot of money to either park my butt as long as I please or race out the door to get home or out for the rest of my evening. Before you drop the check, just ask, “Can I bring anything else?” When you drop the check, say only, “When you’re ready.” Then go away.

Above all, work like you mean it: If you see someone rubber-necking in another server’s station, take care of it. Save your customers from having to hunt you down in the first place by checking back frequently, especially after you drop a course at the table. Just wander by, looking at the table and patrons. Before you take that plate from the pass-through window, look at it. Would you pay to eat it? I was in a new restaurant just opened by one of the metro dining scene’s popular chefs and we ordered a cheese plate. In the center was a Jenga pile of bread chunks, towering over three tiny, tiny pieces of cheese you’d expect at a hotel restaurant: Brie, Pecorino and Manchego. Costco standards. If it were still 1982, and I was in Wichita, and paying $5, I would have been OK with it. It was $14. My 3-ounce pour of marginal Cote d’ Rhone wine was $10. Thankfully, the short pour wasn’t challenged by the mouse-trap portion of grocery shelf cheeses. It should never have left the pantry window last week. When I mentioned it to the host on my way out, he said that it was actually a nice Manchego. Actually, it wasn’t.

Be discreet and perceptive: Sometimes customers want to be entertained during dinner. At that point, you’re on. Ask about what they like, tell them funny stories about the chef, the weirdest thing you ever ate. But if your customers are involved with themselves, keep it to yourself. Make yourself the best ghost server ever. Good servers anticipate what their customers want and need, and they make it happen. Just like magic.