Mon 6 Aug 2007
The waiter comes to the table to ask if we want coffee. The usual discussion ensues: What types of coffee does the restaurant offer, are all the choices available in regular and decaf and so on. The waiter takes the orders and then asks, “Will you be needing cream and sugar with that?”
What happened to the days when an order for coffee meant that the waiter automatically brought to the table a little tray that held the cream and sugar and the other accessories with which we decorate or alter our coffee? The service would take different forms. In a diner, you would be brought a little metal pitcher for cream or milk and a little metal canister, usually holding sugar or sugar-substitute packets. In a fine restaurant, a silver tray might hold a silver bowl of sugar cubes, while the milk or cream pitcher would also be silver and have a lid. These luxuries fascinated me when I was a child, especially the sugar cubes wrapped in paper, because when you unwrapped them, the paper kept its tiny neat folds and you could play games with it. Not that my family went out to eat in restaurants frequently, or ever.
Anyway, before I get all teary-eyed with nostalgia and fantasies about lost childhoods, let me say that the seemingly polite question that we hear so often now in restaurants, “Do you need cream and sugar with that?” is merely another way in which restaurants abdicate their responsibilities toward good service and erect a wall of faux-etiquette between waiters and customers.
And then the check comes. Now obviously the vast majority of checks in restaurants are paid by credit card; that’s the way of the world and the expense account. But occasionally I’ll pay with cash, slipping those greenbacks between the covers of the fake leather booklet. What happens nowadays is that the waiter picks up the book, turns slightly and then says, “Will you need change back from this?”
Well, honey, it’s not a negotiation. That question, disguised as polite concern and a way to save you, the customer, time, is such a naked plea for a tip that the waiter might as well get down on his or her knees and say, “Please, please, please!” It’s really a form of intimidation. Why take time to figure out a proper tip, is the theme: I’ll just keep the rest of the money.
No, waiters, take the booklet the way you’re supposed to, keep yer mouth shut, except to smile pleasantly, and bring back the change. Then the diner can figure out the tip and leave the appropriate amount.
Yes, I know, waiters have a hard life, and I’m not being ironic about this — all you have to do is listen to their horrific tales to understand — and, I hasten to add, the points I gripe about in this post are not the fault of the waiters; these are management decisions to deliberately diminish the quality of service.
But the tone of a restaurant, the pace of the meal, the cordial yet detached relationship between waiter and patron, the unspoken yet always fulfilling round of little details that comfort and assuage: These all need to be maintained in order for diners to have a successful experience in a restaurant, whether chomping on a grilled cheese sandwich at Mom ‘n’ Pop’s Road House or slicing into foie gras at La Maison de Upper Crust.
Service with a smile, dude!
Image of the happy waiter is from ckm2005.ucsd.edu.
The topic of lost cafe rituals is very popular among coffee bloggers around the world. What used to be automatic doesn’t apply in some coffee shops anymore. A coffee blogger who ranted about his terrible car rental experience got more turned off as his day went along because of what he called was poor cafe service. The anonymous blogger is admittedly a coffee enthusiast which explains his extreme sensitivity over the topic of proper cafe values. There was no particular reason as to what exactly turned him off but it had something to do with lost good old cafe a.b.c’s