Posted 15 December 2003 - 11:26 PM
Posted 05 March 2004 - 12:35 PM
West Restaurant [/quote]
On rare occasions, I’ve received what seemed at the time to an ideal example of restaurant service. These have led me to form some strict and I’m sure unrealistic attitudes on the subject. Nonetheless, here’s what I think about service.
A waiter is, while he or she is serving you, a servant. Sounds awful, but it’s really tautological, a matter of definition. That’s one of the problems, as we shall see. In any event, unless you the customer is hopelessly gregarious, or the waiter is a beautiful woman with a bare midriff, you would probably prefer being served by an invisible and graceful waiter (at least after your order has been taken). This means that your waiter should never interrupt a conversation, either by making an announcement while you are intently engaged in brilliant conversation or by delivering the food or cutlery in a way that comes between two adjacent diners actively talking with each other; by the same token, the waiter should always remove dirty dishes low, close to the table, below eye level. There are lots of other acts of grace and invisibility that every good waiter should know. To practice them, he or she will need to ignore the official rules regarding on which side of a customer he or she should deliver food and from which side to remove it.
Americans do not like to think of themselves as servants. Most waiters here would rather be doing something else, and many are eager to demonstrate that they’re at least your equal. Too many waiters spend too much of their time trying to sell you alcohol; one way is to top off your glass at every opportunity. As I learned in waiter’s school (a chapter in The Man Who Ate Everything), wine should be poured when only one or two sips remain in the glass. That way the customer can taste a glass of red wine as it changes and aerates; can be refreshed by a cold, pure splash of white wine, unpolluted by the left-over quarter-glass of warm liquid; and can enjoy all the new bubbles whenever the champagne is poured. Waiters who compromise the quality of the food or drink, especially when they’re simultaneously trying to pick your pocket by wasting wine, should be fired.
The British (and especially their young), reacting against an oppressive class system, usually make awful waiters, which is sad for us customers, given that the British long ago invented an eternally ideal servant, the gentleman’s gentlemen, the all-knowing valet. Middle- and working-class British kids recoil from the idea that they may fall back into the servant class. Thus, most waiters in London, male and female, seem to have Roumanian accents.
The best restaurant service I’ve encountered has been in France and on Taiwan, though not very often in either place. French waiters in good restaurants see their job as a profession; they are happy to be waiters, especially because they’re all saving up to buy a bar or café when they’re 50. The most knowledgable, invisible, and graceful waiters can sometimes be found in some French haute cuisine restaurants. They seem to have nothing on their minds but the customers’ comfort and ease, plus a pinch of irony and wit. (Taillevent is or was famous for this.) This is a sign of great, egoless talent; it is perfect service and the waiter is a perfect servant. I also have a soft spot for the gruff older waiters found in bistros, seafood restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona, and even still on the lower east side of Manhattan: completely knowledgeable about the limited menu, which never changes; nearly always within earshot; and ready to honor your eccentric requests without needing to check with the kitchen.
Have you ever wondered whether rich or aristocratic Chinese are served in the rough, noisy manner of the typical American Chinese restaurant that’s decorated with formica tables, flourescent lights, and grimy ceiling tiles, and where the waiters pile up dishes on their arms and seem unaware of (or maybe even proud of) the deafening clatter they make? Are you kidding? Of course they aren’t served that way. I’ve encountered two alternatives. One is the phony French service you find at costly Cantonese and Continental restaurants in fancy hotels in Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc. This is one of my least preferred forms of service. The other is my favorite way of eating Chinese food, which I first stumbled upon in Taiwan at a very good but not pretentious Cantonese restaurant. We were a party of eight and given a round table in a small, square room of our own; in the middle of it was the ubiquitous lazy Susan on which all our courses were initially placed. Sometimes a waiter would dish out a first portion, and sometimes we would do this ourselves. Whenever the food on any of the platters began to look ragged—or whenever there were too many platters on the lazy Susan, which usually happened at the same time—several platters were taken away, and a few minutes later the food reappeared, consolidated onto one platter, slightly reheated, and made attractive with a little greenery. Behind us, around the table, were three waiters whose job it was to change our chopsticks and our individual plates whenever these became messy or dirty—but only when we weren’t looking. Nothing could have been more useful or more gracious. It was like magic. And they never felt the need to tell us their names.