Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pop Quiz Revisited

Okay, so I wasn't exactly fair when I wrote out my dining out quiz.  There was just one answer for the first fifteen questions:  none of the above, an option I didn't give you.  

I was just checking to see if you were paying attention.

The questions and answers I provided, though, don't come without explanation.  All the answers were based on actual experiences, as you might have inferred.  So let me break it down for you, a few questions at a time.

1.  You walk into a restaurant, wanting to sit at a table.  Right away, you should:
a.  breeze right past the host stand, the host, and the sign that says, "Please wait to be seated."
b.  reply with a brusque "Two!" when the host greets you with a warm "Welcome!"
c.  not say anything at all-- just hold up the number of fingers to indicate how many people are in your party.

I'm always a little stunned to see customers walk straight into the restaurant and attempt to seat themselves.  While there are plenty of restaurants in the world that do have customers choose their own tables, the base assumption should be that someone will seat you-- particularly when there is a sign and a table, podium, or stand that is placed right inside the door.  It's best to assume that someone will seat you and to ask if you aren't sure.  And saying "hello" back to someone who greets you is just basic socialization stuff, as is using your words and not your fingers and grunts.  Right boys and girls? 

You caught me at a condescending moment. 

2.  Upon being greeted by your server, it is customary to:
a. stare blankly at her and not respond.
b. continue to look down at your menu and not respond.
c. glance over at the server, turn away, and then start a conversation with your dining companion-- in other words, not respond.

You remember that condescending thing I said a minute ago about basic socialization?  Well, you'd be astounded by the number of people who do not return a greeting from a server.  It's the most basic human interaction in our culture, yet the inability of a diner to acknowledge a server's presence is rampant.  

Rampant, I tell ya.

3.  When your server asks if you'd like to start with a glass of tap water, you should:
a. stare blankly at her and not respond.
b. continue to look down at your menu and not respond.
c. glance over at the server, turn away, and then start a conversation with your dining companion-- in other words, not respond.
Where I work, our standard question after greeting a table (whether or not they are responsive), is, "Would you like me to bring you tap water?"  We servers joke about how this is the world's hardest question to answer because of the frequency with which people stare back at us, gape-mouthed and unable to speak;  they drop their heads down to their menus to avert our eyes, we are left to assume that we've asked too much of our customers. 

Sometimes, a dialogue ensues between diners wherein they have an extremely detailed, drawn out discussion over whether or not they want tap water.  It's as if the decision to accept tap water is the most important decision they've ever been faced with.  

And we haven't even factored in bottled water yet.

More answers to come.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pop Quiz

It's time to sharpen your number twos and test your knowledge of the restaurant experience-- from your side of the apron!  There's no time limit and it's open-book;  feel free to consult your notes and neighbors (or favorite server).  An answer key will follow in upcoming posts.

Good luck!

The Diner's IQ Test

1.  You walk into a restaurant, wanting to sit at a table.  Right away, you should:
a.  breeze right past the host stand, the host, and the sign that says, "Please wait to be seated."
b.  reply with a brusque "Two!" when the host greets you with a warm "Welcome!"
c.  not say anything at all-- just hold up the number of fingers to indicate how many people are in your party.

2.  Upon being greeted by your server, it is customary to:
a. stare blankly at her and not respond.

b. continue to look down at your menu and not respond.
c. glance over at the server, turn away, and then start a conversation with your dining companion-- in other words, not respond.

3.  When your server asks if you'd like to start with a glass of tap water, you should:
a. stare blankly at her and not respond.
b. continue to look down at your menu and not respond.
c. glance over at the server, turn away, and then start a conversation with your dining companion-- in other words, not respond.

4.  You madly flag down your server and emphatically say, "We are ready to order!"  The next thing you should do is:
a.  pick up the menu at that moment and begin to peruse it.
b.  say to your dining companion "I guess we should look at the menu.  Are you going to get a starter?  I can't decide between the chicken and the pasta."
c.  ask your server "What should I order?"

5.  When you ask your server for recommendations on the menu, you should respond to her answers by:
a.  making a face and saying "I hate brussels sprouts/ celery/ pineapple/ hot food/ cold food/ food that requires a spoon/ whatever it is you're going to suggest."
b.  making  a face and saying "I don't eat meat."
c.  making  a face and saying "I'm allergic to dairy."
d.  making  a face and saying "That sounds fattening."
e.  making  a face and saying "Ew!  Who eats octopus?  That's disgusting!"
f.  making  a face and saying "I don't eat carbs."
g.  making  a face and saying "I had fish at lunch."

6.  A server approaches your table with searing hot plates burning blisters into her fingertips, and you have your iPad/sunglasses/magazine/forearms resting in front of you where those plates should go.  This provides the perfect opportunity to:
a.  stare blankly at the server and not respond when she says, "Excuse me.  May I set this down?"
b.  say "Right here!" and point at the space in front of you as to suggest that is where the plate should go, except that what you're really suggesting is that you want your pizza on top of your Kindle because you haven't made any effort to move it.
c.  lean further across the table, thereby completely blocking the server's access to the space in front of you, as you continue to tell the person sitting across from you whatever story is so captivating that you can't move yourself out of the way for two seconds, which is twice as long as it actually takes to put down that plate.

7.  Your server is approaching your table of six with both hands and arms filled to capacity with plates.  Before she can even unload the first two dishes on the table, you say:
a.  "Where's my side of spinach?"
b.  (gesturing to someone across the table)  "He ordered the pasta."
c.  "Can I get some salt/ ketchup/ hot sauce/ more water/ a Coke?"

8.  The best thing to do as a server is attempting to refill your water glass is:
a.  grip your glass tightly with both hands and clutch it to your chest.
b.  immediately lift the glass to your lips but take your time drinking one sip.
c.  push the glass toward the server as she is pouring thereby creating a moving target.
d.  cover the glass with your hands not in a gesture of declining more water but as a gesture that you don't understand that your server can't pour water through your hands.

9.  If allergic or averse to certain foods, it is advisable to:
a.  absolutely not tell the server that eating nuts could kill you until the dessert with the pistachios sprinkled on top shows up at your table. 
b.  not predict that in a Mexican restaurant you might encounter cilantro or that in an Italian restaurant you might see parmesan cheese on your dish, and then not let the waiter know that you hate cilantro and parmesan cheese. 
c.  not bother to ask what "pancetta" is, even though it's written in the description of the pasta dish you just ordered, and, being that you're vegetarian, express that the server "should have told" you there was meat in the dish even though the server had no idea you are a vegetarian.

10.  When you are finished, always:
a.  stack your dishes.
b.  put your napkin on top of the pile of plates.
c. hand your plates to the server, then hand her your utensils, so that she has to grab the blade of your knife or the tines of that fork you've been eating with.
d.  move the plates and utensils around on the table as she's trying to pick them up.

11.  If you find hat you have left your table in disarray, you should:
a.  use your hand to brush off the table so that now the floor is all covered with bread crumbs, stray pieces of pasta, and the chunk of tomato that fell off your plate.
b.  use that napkin that you've been wiping your filthy, germ-ridden mouth with to brush off the table so that now the floor is all covered with bread crumbs, stray pieces of pasta, and the chunk of tomato that fell off your plate.
c.  lean with your forearms on the table when the server comes by with a table crumber  to wipe your table, and when she says "Pardon me" as she tries to maneuver around the upper half of your body, don't budge.

12.  If you are dining with a young child, of, say, highchair age, it is best to:
a.  most definitely not acknowledge or apologize for the fact that you've left behind a 2-foot radius of food detritus around the highchair.
b. use the dining room as a playground, allowing your child to run up and down the aisles while the servers, juggling plates of food and balancing trays of drinks, dodge your toddler.
c.  absolutely, under no circumstances, take your howling, screeching baby out of the earshot of every other diner (and staff person) in the restaurant.

13.  You should always:
a.  ask for another fork, plate, or napkin and then not use it.
b.  ask for more water when your glass is still full but ask in that way that makes it sound like your server has been neglecting you.
c.  ask for a refill of coffee or another glass of wine by pointing at your cup or glass, preferably with a grunt for emphasis.

14. If you are in a rush to make it to a movie, the best time to tell the server is when:
a.  you have exactly 45 seconds to ask for the check, pay, and leave.
b.  while you are impatiently waiting for your second course, which your server timed to come out after your first course because you ordered two courses, not one.
c.  after you've ordered the thing on the menu that takes the longest to make, not that you would know how long it would take, though you did know that you needed to be somewhere.

15.  When the check comes:
a.  hide the credit card or cash under the check or in the check presenter so that the server cannot tell if your payment is ready, and then become increasingly impatient when no one comes to take your payment.
b.  take both copies of the credit card receipt with you, so that if you've left a tip on the credit card, the server has no idea what it is and cannot enter that amount into the computer system, thereby losing the tip altogether.
c.  try to pay with an American Express card but then find out that the restaurant doesn't take American Express, and then get angry at the server, and then leave her no tip because you think the restaurant should take American Express, and utterly fail to realize that the server doesn't make those decisions and would take your stupid American Express card if she could.

16.  Servers notice and truly appreciate when customers say "please" and "thank you."
a.  true
b.  false

Congratulations!  You've made it to the end!  Stay tuned for the answers in upcoming posts.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Friday Night Phone Call

The kitchen at the restaurant where I work is small and can only do orders take-out pizza if the cooks aren't already overtaxed by orders from diners sitting in the restaurant. So when people call to see if they can get pizza to go, we have to double check with the kitchen to see if they can take the order. We try not to say no, but for the good of the diners, sometimes we must.

This is all to set up the following phone call. Mind you, I can set it up, but I cannot explain it.

I happened to answer the phone during a busy spell. The man calling wanted one pizza to go, so I told him I'd check with the kitchen.

I came back with the verdict.

I'm sorry. I'm afraid the kitchen can't accommodate any to-go orders right now. But thank you for calling, I said.

But I'll come pick it up, he responded.

Well, no. The kitchen can't do any pick up orders right now, I repeated.

Can I get a pizza to go? he persisted.

I began to wonder what I was saying wrong.

No. We try not to say "no" to take-out orders, but right now we are quite busy and can only make pizza for people sitting in the restaurant and dining. There are no pizzas to go right now. None.

I used my most amiably authoritative voice.

And then he delivered the punchline:

Well, then can I get two pizzas?

It was the punchline, but he wasn't joking around.


You'll be most impressed by the fact that I did not hang up on the caller nor call him a moron. Though both were tempting.

Remind me not to answer the phone anymore.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


In my job, I do a lot of explaining about the food and beverage we serve. I'm used to talking about nebbiolo and how it can often exhibit notes of tobacco and violets. I describe amaro-- what it is and the spectrum it runs from floral and citrusy to foresty and menthol. I distinguish mild provolone dolce from its sharper and more pungent cousin, provolone piccante. I talk about flavors and textures, nuance and subtlety. I use flowery words like "bright" and "robust" and "velvety" and "aromatic" and "briny" and "lush."

A lot of the time, "delicious" does the trick.

I'm so used to giving more detailed descriptions about less familiar items that once in a while, I get completely thrown by the simplest of questions.

For example, the other night, a woman waiting for a table wanted to order a drink.

Do you have like a sparkling water, or a club soda? she asked.

I have both, I said.

Well, what does club soda taste like? she asked. It's been a while.

Was that a trick question? I wondered.

Now, I know not all water tastes the same. I rarely drink bottled water, but when I do, I make sure it isn't Evian because it tastes like swimming pool water to me-- bleachy and kind of slimy in texture. And it is common knowledge that not all tap waters are created equal.

There are plenty of foods that I totally take for granted that are incorporated into my palate but that I don't expect other people to necessarily be familiar with. I totally understand when people ask what lovage tastes like. Or dandelion greens. Or hell, even parmesan cheese.

But club soda? Who doesn't know what club soda tastes like? And can't you just sort of take a stab at what it might taste like? Is trying to imagine its taste that far beyond one's ability to conjure? And she alluded to having had club soda at some point in her past, so it's not like she'd never even had club soda before. Did she think I was talking about something else altogether?

Is it strange that I thought that question was strange?

It's very refreshing, I started. It has big, lively bubbles.

Big, lively bubbles? I think I might have rolled my eyes at myself for coming up with that.

I wasn't sure what else to say. But my answer was enough for her to order one. And it was lucky for me that she didn't ask me to elaborate because I really don't know that I could have.

But next time I get asked that question, at least I'll be ready.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Career Girl

A new server recently started training at the restaurant. 

After work the other night, we were chatting as we got dressed to go home.  I knew very little of her, except where she last worked.  And in the course of working a shift with her, I learned that she is sharp and has a take-charge attitude that can come in handy working in a busy, high-volume restaurant like the one I work in.

She mentioned something in the way-past tense about an old boyfriend, and I asked her if she's seeing anyone now.  No, she said.  I'm focusing on my career, she added with a bit of a grin. 

I knew she was talking more about not having a boyfriend and less about the career part.  But I asked anyway.

What's your career?  Waiting tables?  

She practically snorted her response.  This?  Yeah.  Like this would be my career!  

The disdain was unmistakable, punctuated by the rolling of her eyes.

It turns out that by "career" she meant that she is an actor, which, in this town, never comes as a surprise to me.

What does continue to throw me off guard, though, is the way so many servers seem to despise their jobs.  I mean, yes, we're in a position of service. Yes, we are sometimes treated like the lowly help.  Yes, we are constantly touching half-eaten plates of food and forks that have been in peoples' mouths.  Yes, we have an inconsistent income.  Yes, we witness customers being mannerless, socially inept, and downright rude at times. Yes, we deal with a lot of resentment from our underpaid, overworked kitchen counterparts.  No, we don't generally have company retirement plans, health care, sick days, vacation days, or profit-sharing opportunities.

But what job is without its drawbacks?   Waiting tables is, overall, a great gig.  The other night, Dave and Ellie, a couple of great regulars, were sitting at the bar.  Dave asked me a version of a question I get asked often:  So, are you hoping to own a restaurant one day?

The answer is so easy.


Despite all the things that make waiting tables a questionable career choice for some, I have some compelling arguments in favor of it:
  • I never take my work home with me.  I show up, work hard, go home.  Done until the next shift.
  • My work is physical.  I cannot imagine having to sit at a desk all day.  I like expending energy.
  • I work around food.  Good food.
  • My job is social but the interactions are fleeting.  I get a clean slate every time someone new sits down.
  • I (usually) get paid well for what I do (I quickly admit that is not the case for every server or bartender).
  • My job is fast-paced and challenges me every day.
  • I learn a lot about food and wine, and sometimes the whole restaurant seems like it's one, big psycho-social experiment, which is its own kind of education.
  • I have a flexible schedule.  This means not only that I can take time off when I need it, but I can also pick up extra work when I need it.
The corollary to Dave's question that I often get asked is What is it that you really do?  And when I reply, You're lookin' at it!, the person asking the question usually doesn't see that answer coming.  

Surely I wait tables to kill time until I become a published writer, get a degree, or land my big acting break, right?  Because who would want to do this kind of work forever?  I mean aside from the big-haired ladies in the pink, polyester uniforms who snap their gum and call you "hon"?

I would.

Don't get me wrong;  if someone were to throw me a book deal (ahem), I wouldn't shy away from it.  But serving good food and drink?  It makes for a career worth focusing on.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Poetic License

The announcement came as soon as I got to work yesterday.

Today is haiku day! Jonathan, one of the cooks, said. We're writing haikus about each other.

Haikus do not make for a typical Tuesday at the pizza mines. But I was game.

Julia had already gotten the poetic ball rolling with an ode to Jonathan and his pizza-making prowess:

heart shaped pizza pie
white cloud of flour and smoke

you control the flame

Service was off to a slow enough start that between mixing drinks and opening bottles of wine, I had time to jot down a few lines on the back of an old menu. My first attempt was for Julia, who had recently undergone Lasik eye surgery:

Look into my eyes.

Hindsight is twenty twenty,

and now so are you.

I eked out a few for Danny, Chris, and Jonathan, using the floor staff as my messengers, shuttling scraps of paper from the bar to the kitchen. Those haikus were just as bad as the one for Julia, so I won't make you suffer through any more than necessary.

Soon, the servers were delivering poems to me from the kitchen.

Julia's came first:

coppa, pancetta,

the slicer softly whispers

sopressata, please

On a c-fold, Jonathan wrote one about my baking compulsion:

She bakes all the time

for us. We love it so much.

Butter. Flour. Love.

Chris's haiku was part nod to/order for one of the kitchen's preferred mid-shift refreshments:

Mix, muddle & shake
Do you use maraschinos?

Four cherry Cokes please

It was followed a few moments later by this one:

No, seriously.
Thirst quenching is required

Four cherry Cokes please

Alright, alright. I can take a hint.

So I muddled some cherries with some cherry syrup and added some Coke and sent those drinks off to the kitchen with a final haiku.

I don't remember

what I wrote, but I know I
did write "Bottoms up!"

Stay tuned for Sonnet Sundays.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Get a Room. Please.

Dear Bar 8 and 9,

If you ever manage to extract your tongues out of each other's ears, maybe you can then explain to me your ease at publicly sharing your moments of emotional and physical intimacy. I mean, you're in a
restaurant, for Pete's sake. And I, your humble bartender, am trapped behind the bar, where I can do my best to avert my eyes, but really can only get so far away from you and your nuzzling, groping, and goofy gazes.

Love, or lust, or hormonal surges-- whatever they are, they're all a part of being human. And they can be kinda nice. I get that. And more power to ya! But holy schmo. Wouldn't you rather play out your mating ritual at home? Or at least in a car parked in an alley-- where no one has to watch you?

Think of how much more you'd be able to accomplish if you were actually able to, say, take your clothes off and not just feel each other up, à la junior high school. (I will thank you for actually being able to draw that line.) Given how free and open you are in public, what with all that tongue wrestling, I can only imagine how much more fun you could have in the privacy of your own home.

Well, I
can imagine, but I really don't want to. I've seen plenty already.

I'm sorry that I didn't check in to ask you how your pizza was and that I didn't keep your water glasses filled; sometimes the best service is leaving people alone, especially if when it means not interrupting their foreplay.
And if there's one thing I'm committed to doing as your bartender it's not interrupting your foreplay.

But I hope the rest of your night went as well as it seemed to be going-- our pizza makes for good carbo-loading!


Your Bartender/Most Unwilling Voyeur