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Smart Mouth

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The Waiting Is the Hardest Part: Without a good wait staff--knowledgeable, attentive and with impeccable timing--a restaurant can easily end up empty, like this.

Are You Being Served? Part I

By Christina Waters

In this monthly column we candidly explore the highs, the lows and the age-old drama of dining. This month: restaurant service.

IN ORVIETO, ITALY, this autumn while watching a waiter dance his way through the aisles of a restaurant, I discovered some secrets of great table waiting. Jauntily dressed in a tuxedo, he took obvious delight in making our meal perfect. Unmistakable joy infused his every gesture, from pouring wine to approving the dessert choices. His every move, his almost telepathic sense of timing and his unfailing courtesy all made him a paradigm of his profession, throwing into bold contrast the specific varieties of failure afflicting many of his colleagues. In his dazzling success, his passionate engagement with his work, the lapses of many other serving encounters were underscored.

Why do waitresses, like some dentists, wait until your mouth is full to swoop by and suddenly ask whether "everything's all right"? Nobody feels especially happy about having to smile and nod and respond, all while sitting across from someone he or she hopes to charm and impress, with a mouth full of gooey pasta or dripping with a froth of crème brûlée. Making a patron feel awkward undermines future tips.

The best waitpersons are sensitive to the expectations of the diners. If a couple is finishing up a kiss or deeply involved in an animated discussion, it is not a good time to belly up to the table and demand that they order. Try to gauge the mood, the rhythm of the dinner-in-progress. Your patrons will thank you when it's tip time.

"Still working on that?" many a well-meaning waiter has asked about a half-full plate. Working on that. Let's consider the phrase for a moment. The not-so-hidden implication is that dining is drudgery. Finishing the meal at hand is a chore to be undergone, a cross to bear. As if we were all Tennessee Ernie Ford (I'll take a big chance here and assume that at least two of you out there are old enough to remember who the hell Tennessee Ernie Ford was), loading 16 tons of fettucine carbonara and simply another day older and deeper in you-know-what.

"Still working on that?" The phrase suggests that the chef has presented me with such an uphill challenge that I could expect an Olympic medal just for cleaning my plate--the culinary equivalent of crossing that finish line. Surely there's something less confrontational or casually familiar or just plain crude that waiters could use to gauge the progress of the dining experience. "How's it goin'?" is much too personal, more in keeping with something like a fraternity pie-eating contest. Or an oil change.

"You gonna stick with water?" one waiter asked my companion, who had failed to order a glass of wine.

"Alllllllrighty," chirped another server when told that we were ready to order.

"Here you go" was the comment accompanying the presentation of our expensive main courses.

"How are we doing over here?"

What about something as straightforward, yet polite, as "May I remove your plate?" in which there is a request for information--are you finished or not--but not the presumption of familiarity or a suggestion that the meal has been an ordeal on a par with root canal surgery.

Why not "I hope you enjoy this," when bringing a dish. Or "I hope you like it."

Complete sentences never hurt.

In Europe, waitering is a career--an honorable craft for which one trains. There are no student waiters, no actors moonlighting by waiting tables until they land that big part. Young waiters are actually apprentices, learning the ropes, the techniques, from veterans. They are allowed to play small roles, bringing wine glasses, carrying fresh fish to the kitchen, bringing parmesan to grate. They never say, "Are you still working on that?" but ask with lilting, quizzical style, "Finito?"

Hand gestures are graceful, walks are purposeful, banter is poised. They are all Ginger Rogers preparing to meet Fred Astaire. If waiting tables were a destination career in this country, more servers would be likely to have respect for their jobs, not to mention a respectable paycheck.

TED BURKE, longtime owner of Capitola's landmark Shadowbrook Restaurant, admits that successful table waiting is an art. "To keep an eye on each table yet not seem to be hovering--that takes skill," he notes.

"Good service is informed service," adds Burke, who himself started on the road to restaurant ownership as a part-time waiter. "We spend a lot of money on training and education."

Just what is jicama? What wines are available by the glass? Burke believes that a good waiter should be able to answer questions. "Our waiters are trained that the meal unfolds not at their pace but at the pace the guest wants--and that means that good waiters have to be quick in sizing up situations, like whether it's a long romantic dinner for two or a quick business-meeting meal."

In the end, and I agree with Burke here, the best waiters disappear during the main course--but show up, as if by magic, when you drop a napkin or want to order dessert.

A quick word about waiter stature: A tall waiter is not a pretty thing. They are forced to bow obsequiously toward the patron when taking orders. Or worse, they refuse to lower their heads, which has the effect of making them appear to be imperious, detached, above the action taking place at table level.

In a perfect world, the waiters are short, with legs under 3 feet long, allowing them that crucial low center of gravity. Ideally, their heads are exactly at the same level as the seated patrons'. Short waiters allow a certain conspiratorial mood to evolve between themselves and the diners. We all see eye to eye about having a good meal.

The small waiter can easily glide among the tables, unobtrusively removing dishes and placing new ones with ease.

Part of the charm of it all is that for a short guy to be a waiter is to be the tallest man in the room.

Even the finest food can be ruined if it's brought too quickly--I've had entrees arrive within moments of the appetizers--or raise unanswered questions if there's a long wait. Never abandon your diners--many waiters feel that once they've brought the entree, they can drop you and move on to the next potential tip. Training is crucial, but good waiters also have an inborn ability to suffer fools, react quickly and keep smiling. Dignity, sincerity, style and exactly the right degree of detachment--these are the hallmarks of the best. To all of you out there who do it so well, I raise my hat. And to dining patrons, a reminder. If you've enjoyed good service, repay it with nothing less than a 20 percent tip.

Next month we explore irritating service habits--arguing, taunting, needlessly baroque recitations of the daily specials--and talk with waiters and waitresses about their least likable patrons.

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From the February 3-10, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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