Archive for Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Pep squad has replaced yesterday’s waitstaff

September 7, 2005


I have never had a job waiting tables because, frankly, it looked too complicated. Fetching stuff for customers is only one slice of the job. The real qualifications are an agile yet foolproof short-term memory and a brain that can function on multiple tracks at once. I suspect that a really good waitperson is cut from the same mental cloth as an accomplished bridge player.

A good waitperson has an impeccable sense of timing and must be almost omniscient, knowing when to stop by the table and inconspicuously offer a drink refill. Such a high level of service means the main course doesn't arrive until the salad has been finished, and the check comes just as the diners are thinking about leaving.

In other words, a really good waitperson recognizes that the appearance of less is often more, that good service should seem effortless when in fact it is extremely difficult to achieve.

At some point during the past 20 years or so, the gracious and efficient waitstaff was replaced by a pep squad. This is most notable at chain restaurants that specialize in something called casual dining. These restaurants populate the busy streets and malls, and serve as destination points for working people on lunch breaks and families and couples grabbing dinner out.

You walk in and are invariably greeted by three or four 20-something men and women, all tanned and wearing the same outfit, who welcome you in unison and then deliberate over a seating chart about where to put you. These people also wear headsets, presumably to talk to one another when they aren't huddled over the seating chart. This high-tech equipment lends the appearance of efficiency, even though it takes a committee to locate a table for two in a large restaurant with many vacant tables.

Once upon a time, people were seated in restaurants in an unobtrusive fashion by a single person, who performed the task without choreography. Some of the most popular restaurants even let customers seat themselves.

There also was a time when waitpersons weren't required to bond with customers. We now learn the waitperson's name and hear a list of enthusiastically recited specials and drink and hors d'oeuvre offers. None of this has anything to do with the level of actual service, and it can be intrusive to the point of interfering with the conversation among diners at the table.

Even worse, a chirping waitperson, determined to convince you that she is the friendliest person you ever met, often sounds overly solicitous. At a steakhouse franchise recently, my husband and I were addressed as "guys" ("Hi, guys," "Here's your food, guys," etc.) from the moment we walked in the door until the time we left. It's almost impossible for a young person to pull this off with older customers without sounding condescending.

Some waitpersons, intent upon bonding, even squat down next to the table so they can do their thing at eye level. These often are the same waitpersons who employ a kind of rhetorical manipulation that forces you to affirm the experience of eating in the restaurant, even if it is mediocre. This usually occurs when the waitperson returns to the table after the food has been served and asks something like "How does everything taste?" - or one I've been hearing more often lately: "Doesn't everything taste really wonderful?"

The questions used to be "Is everything all right?" and "Can I get you anything else?", leaving room for the customer to give an honest answer. Asking about "taste," on the other hand, makes the response more complicated and subjective. A diner is unlikely to analyze the flavor of the food and so is more likely to give a default answer that endorses the meal.

People who make their living in the restaurant business undoubtedly think their practices have evolved into a higher level of service. Obviously, they are training their staffs to perform this way. But more and more, I leave restaurants weary of all the distractions and feeling nostalgic for the understated service of the past.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.