Friday, August 1, 2008

You Can Take the Waiter Out of the Restaurant...

...but you might as well have left her there.

I just got back from a visit to my home state of California, to the little hamlet on the east side of the San Francisco Bay known as Oakland. It's the home of the Athletics, Fairyland, and Jack London Square. And it's got a lot of good food going on.

In the six and a half days I was there, I made it a point to eat out in a lot of restaurants, hitting some of my old favorites and trying some new places as well. In theory, it seems like a lovely idea to have a week to sit in restaurants and be waited on instead of being the one to do all the waiting, to have someone refill my water glass, reset my knife and fork for each course, bring me stuff just because I asked for it. I won't need to clear away stacks of plates on my arm, take orders, or scurry to the kitchen to get hot food out with all due expediency.

But sometimes it doesn't really work out that way.

I find it exceedingly difficult to sit and mind my own business when I'm eating in a restaurant (those of you who know me will not be surprised about that minding-my-own-business part). I used to be fairly insistent on sitting facing the dining room to get a good view everything, but out of necessity, I've had to start sitting with my back to the action, or else i'll have trouble paying attention to dinner. And to whomever is dining with me.

I have a tendency to eavesdrop as the servers greet the tables next to me, run through the specials, and describe a dish; I'm not just looking for ways to be critical, but I'm actually curious to hear other servers' verbage, maybe learn something new. I'll note at what point they appear to start getting really busy, what the division of labor is, how they interact with each other. I'll wonder what it's like to work there.

I'll think
Hey, why are you standing there chatting with your co-workers when this table over here needs more water? I'll hear a table give the server a hard time and resist the urge to lean over and say Nobody cares if you already ate chicken for lunch today! Would you just order already!

After years and years, I think I have finally shaken the habit of popping up out of my chair when I hear a bell ring in a restaurant; it's generally the signal that hot food needs to be taken to a table, and in pretty much any restaurant, it's the number one priority. So I've been conditioned to make a dash for the kitchen when I hear that bell. I've finally gotten to the point where I just sort of flinch when I hear the bell but I don't actually try to stand up.

Pavlov and that dog have got nothing on me.

Once, when I was in a restaurant in Boston that I had never been to and, in fact, not even eaten at that night, I was walking out past a row of tables and saw a check presenter with a credit card sitting on top of it, the universal sign for "I'd like to pay the bill now, please!" Reflexively, I reached for it, went so far as to put my hand on it for a millisecond before pulling it away as if I'd been given a strong electric shock.

And this is not the first time this has happened. Maybe some sort of electro-something therapy is just what I need.

I have, on more than one occasion, wished other diners a pleasant evening on their way out the door. I've offered up my napkin when I've seen a spill, pointed people in the direction of the restrooms, even offered answers when the server's not nearby and someone wants to know what that white stuff is on their plate. It's the cauliflower gratin! I'll chirp, having analyzed the menu moments before.

Once my friend James and I were having dinner next to a man who ordered coffee with his dessert. It came in a French press pot, but he didn't know how to use it, so when he poured the coffee, a bunch of coffee grounds ended up in his cup. He looked disappointed and confused, and I debated with James for a good long while if I should show him how to use the pot. Would I insult him if I showed him? Or would he be grateful not to be getting coffee grounds in his teeth?

In the end, I leaned over and asked him Can I show you something? and probably not quick enough to say no, he said with some hesitation Yes, and so I plunged that press down and said in the least condescending way I could muster That keeps the grounds from coming out. And of course I was smiling in a waiterly way.

Thanks, he said reluctantly, wondering if he shouldn't be encouraging my behavior.

Did I embarrass him? Possibly. Was he really glad to drink chunk-free coffee? I'm sure of it.

Anyway, I managed to keep myself mostly in check at all of the thirteen restaurants I was served in this past week. There was one case of disorganized, not very good service where watching the staff was a bit agonizing, but otherwise I have to say that I pretty much just sat back and got waited on. And loved every minute of it. And didn't pop out of my seat once.


James said...

Welcome back! New York City diners have missed you. By the way, that skill of whisking people's credit cards off their tables as you walk by could turn into a lucrative sideline for you.

Cupcake said...

Hi Vanessa,

You sounds like a person who has serving in her bones. How funny.

Of course, I want to know if there were any restaurants out here in Oakland that you were particularly enamored of. I always end up going to the same old places. Boring, boring, boring!

:) shea

Anonymous said...

Hi Vanessa,

Sorry I wasn't in here while you were in the area.

As usual, your entries here leave Cliff and I with grins.


Anonymous said...

Vcubed - loving the way you toss your familiar slang and tone around in your writing. dead give away (at least to me) that your formative years were in the Bay. Keep on truckin !

- tonyB