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Hitchens on rude waiters

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Wondered if anyone else caught Christopher Hitchens' rant in today's Slate about intrusive waiters (Wine Drinkers of the World Unite). More interesting were the responses from the industry. How does everyone here feel about it, both from a server's perspective and a diner's? People here have railed about the rudeness of both waiters and customers, so it would be interesting to hear your reactions to this particular bugaboo.

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Here's the article.

The difference between a good waiter and a bad waiter is toeing the fine line between being too intrusive and being almost absent. In the case of the waiter that Hitchens was speaking about......bad bad bad! Taking it upon himself to pour wine into everyone's glass without being asked.....I can't imagine the reason except for what Hitchens suggested, and that would be for the establishment to empty the bottle so they can perhaps sell you another one.

Or.....it very well could have been a not-so-subtle hint for the group to get on with it, so they could turn the table over....especially if it was a busy night.

Regardless......not good waiter behavior to be sure.

As a diner, I would prefer my waiter/waitress to be more on the "too intrusive" side than on the "absent" side. It always seems to me that if I do need to request something, like a glass of water or an extra napkin, or some ketchup, etc, the waitstaff is never around. If I don't need a thing then the waitstaff is in my face every five minutes. Murphy's Law of Dining I guess.

Then of course, it's like they wait til your mouth is full before they ask how everything is, and all you can do is say, "mblphmf" which they take to mean, "Everything's great!" :laugh:

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I can envision an article written by the same person at an alternate dining experience admonishing the "rude" waiter for NOT keeping the glasses filled.

Perhaps off on the timing (a good waiter should never interrupt a flowing conversation) to be sure, but I always thought that keeping wine glasses filled was part of maintaining tables. Would the writer of the article be so upset if it was bottled water? Are guests supposed to fill their own water/wine?

I was always taught to pour wine for the guests, even beyond the initial round of pours. Certainly you don't have to hit everyone at the table all the time, but if one guest's glass is empty, you should re-fill it and the add more to anyone else who may be running low.

I don't see what the big deal is...one thing I've learned waiting tables is that sometimes you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. Whatever.

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Whenever a waitperson has picked up the bottle on the table to refill, they have always asked if I wanted more before pouring. I've never had one just take it upon themselves to do that without asking.

I think comparing refilling a wine glass to water glasses or coffee cups is sort of like apples to oranges. It's not like the customer is paying extra for the coffee and water top-offs. Once the wine bottle is empty, they don't get more til they buy another one. Alcohol, of course impairs judgement which I believe is another good reason that waitstaff shouldn't be so eager to empty the bottle.

I think it's far better for one to pour their own wine out of the bottle, than to see someone's glass filled who didn't care for another glass in the first place.

Edited to add:

and you're right, as a waitperson, sometimes you are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

I've been a server. You could stand on your head and sing the hokey pokey while you were pouring the wine and it wouldn't make some people happy. That's why although I complain about BOH plenty, you could never pay me to be FOH ever again! I deeply appreciate my comrades on the front lines. :smile::smile:


Edited by chefpeon (log)

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Pouring more wine can be tricky. Personally, I think it's best to ask if someone wants more wine from the bottle. Not everyone at a table will always drink equally. There are some diners that may only want a single glass of wine. After the initial pour, they don't want more. If a waiter sees this empty glass and tops them off, what do you do? The person may not drink the wine. Do they give it to someone else by pouring from that glass to anohter? Do they simply let it sit there, going to waste (maybe while another diner at the table wishes it was in his glass??). Or do they go ahead and drink it, even if they don't want to.

ASking seems best. But I have seen the cases where they don't ask and begin to pour. But it certainly can be one of those "no win" siutations.


Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"
jmeeker@eGullet.org

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For you to assume that the server is only trying to line his/her pockets is silly. No matter how much wine a server pours into a glass, it is a finite amount. There is the same amount of wine whether it is in the glasses or in the bottle. Pouring all the wine from the bottle into glasses doesn't guarantee that they will buy another one. It's still the same amount of wine.

Sometimes it's a matter of function...towards the end of the meal, the server is expected to clear all un needed items from the table. So if there is a sip or two of wine left in the bottle, a good server might go ahead and pour it so that the bottle and the caddy (if present) can be cleared.

I'm not talking about pouring huge glasses of wine here either. I wouldn't fill anyone's glass up with more than, say 3-4 oz. And usually people will tell you they don't want anymore wine as you move around the table to pour, by either saying so or just placing their hand over the glass.

Of course asking is preferred, but what about in the instance above where a server might not want to interrupt conversation? Should he/she ask each member of the party if they want more?

It drives me absolutely bonkers sometimes. I have no idea who that Hitchen's guy is, but he sounds like an over-reacting a-hole. He called the practice barbaric? Really...?

I always use to pick up little bits of trash from my tables as often as possible (you know, sugar packets, straw wrappers, old bev. naps, etc). I once had a lady admonish me for trying to remove her empty sweet n low wrappers from the table. I mean, she pretty much laid into me. And everything before that had been fine. Who knows why? I never got an explanation, but it seemed odd. How am I, as a server, to know that this lady wanted trash on her table? Maybe she collected them or something. Go figure.

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It's interesting Hitchens didn't mention whether or not the room was full, suggesting that perhaps the server was trying to hustle them along. I think, though, his primary beef had to do with being interrupted at a critical point in his storytelling. And that goes to one of the most popular irritants about servers in general. Why do they have to ask you how your meal is precisely at the moment you've stuffed your mouth with said meal? And why do they have to barge into the middle of your conversation to ask if you want more wine or dessert or whatever. Can they not just approach the table and stand there quietly for a few seconds? Obviously the diners will notice you there and, when they've finished what they were saying, will glance at you to see what you want. To me, so much of this is common sense. The behavior is no different from a stranger walking into a party, approaching a group of people in animated discussion, and interrupting what everyone's saying simply to announce your presence. It's rude and so very easily avoided.

And if someone doesn't want his glass filled, he/she can simply say, no more for me, thanks, rather than let it sit in the glass going to waste.

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For you to assume that the server is only trying to line his/her pockets is silly. No matter how much wine a server pours into a glass, it is a finite amount. There is the same amount of wine whether it is in the glasses or in the bottle. Pouring all the wine from the bottle into glasses doesn't guarantee that they will buy another one. It's still the same amount of wine.

I've had waiters who were clearly trying to foist another bottle of wine on the table by grossly overpouring the glasses and then asking -- with look of almost cherubic innocence, if we might care for another (since this one is empty). Not a common practice, and one that rarely effects me since my friends and I generally drink faster than the waiters can pour.

Hitchens was once a respected journalist in a classically British sort of fashion -- hard drinking, heavy smoking writer with an affinity for dangerous places and an ability to file meaningful reports while hungover. Now he's become a bit of a crank who's enthralled with his own celebrity. Still a legend, but his best days seem to have passed. Met him at a small gathering, once: just this side of pompous, but pulls it off with aplomb.

Pity his deadline hit the day after the waiter screwed up his wine service -- Hitch (as we call him) might have written something useful instead.


I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Thank you for posting this. I've been looking for Amis' out of print "On Drink" for a while, and I'm very happy to see the Amazon blurb for "Everyday Drinking; the Distilled Kingsley Amis" here (it's a compilation of "On Drink," "Everyday Drinking" and "How's Your Glass"). Sweet! :biggrin:

As to the question of whether the waiter should pour the wine without asking if the patron wants a refill, I say no, of course not. If the waiter is there to either move the customers on out or at least to get them to order another bottle to justify their keeping the table, waiting for a lull in the conversation and then asking the host, if it's obvious who is host, or each individual diner, if necessary, would accomplish the same thing.

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You can get away with calling him Hitch, certainly, but never call him Chris. He tore a strip off Larry King on live TV for doing that once. "It's CHRISTOPHER!" Whatever. He definitely comes across as cranky, pompous, condescending, etc. etc. but, worse, an Iraq war champion. He's softened a bit now and in fact wrote quite a touching piece about a young guy who enlisted after reading his pro-war stories and then died in action. (I think that appeared in the Times, or was it Vanity Fair, can't recall.) He seemed genuinely remorseful that this kid had believed in his stance, went off to war because of it, and then perished, leaving behind a young wife (and child, I think).

Anyhoo, lately I think he's gone back to being cranky (and pro war?).

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I do agree that the writer clearly made himself out to be a horse's ass, no question.

Could have been that waiter was in a no-win situation with Hitchens as a customer.

Hitchens exaggerated the perceived faux pas by the waiter, but I do think the premise is

right......the waiter shouldn't just refill all glasses without getting a nod or eye contact, a hand

over the glass or a plain yes or no.......

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Obviously pouring without asking is bad form. However, when you are waiting on a larger group of people especially, you sometimes have to politely butt in or people will never even get to order. You know what I'm talking about - that six top where there's this one guy who won't freaking shut up, and everyone wants to order and get some food already while he seems blissfully unaware than hours have passed!

When you have four, five, seven tables going at once, you don't really have time to stand in the corner and listen to peoples' conversations and wait for a good time to go to the table. Obviously some level of finesse is required to be a good server, but at a certain point you just have to assume that while guests want to enjoy each others' company, they have to talk to you at some point in order to get food, which is presumably the reason for being at a restaurant in the first place.

This dude is such a delicate flower. Why didn't he just say something? I once brought someone the wrong dessert, and she waited until she'd eaten almost the whole thing to mention it. WTF? I would have been more than happy to have brought her what she ordered (she actually called it by the wrong name, which was the source of the confusion, but either way, mistakes happen), but when I offered, she refused.

People do this all the time, just silently stew about something at the restaurant and then repeat the story about how they were SO appalled by x, y or z to all their friends. I like gossipping as much as the next person, but I wish that more people would just speak up at the actual restaurant.

I work in restaurants because I love food and wine and love people. I'm really outgoing and love talking to people and honestly enjoy helping people have a good time. I know there are a lot of bad waiters out there, but we're not all jerks, especially at nicer restaurants where there's a bit more competition. If you don't like something, tell me! As long as people aren't hostile, I want to hear feedback about everything. The chef can't go to every table, so she or he relies on the foh staff to relay feedback about the food. I can tell you that nearly every day the chef where I work asks, 'do people like the new crab dish? How about the new mignardise? Do you think they like the chocolate more or less than those sugared walnuts?' We want to know!


Edited by phlox (log)

"An appetite for destruction, but I scrape the plate."

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Obviously pouring without asking is bad form.

I don't think that is "obvious". I have absolutely no problem with a server pouring me more wine. I consider it part of the service they provide me to keep me topped up. I have a feeling I am not alone in that either. I have been fortunate enough to dine at some pretty excellent restaurants in my life, and I would venture to bet that I rarely get asked if I would like some more wine or bottled water. We ordered it, why wouldn't we want to drink it?


"It's better to burn out than to fade away"-Neil Young

"I think I hear a dingo eating your baby"-Bart Simpson

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Obviously pouring without asking is bad form.

I don't think that is "obvious". I have absolutely no problem with a server pouring me more wine. I consider it part of the service they provide me to keep me topped up. I have a feeling I am not alone in that either. I have been fortunate enough to dine at some pretty excellent restaurants in my life, and I would venture to bet that I rarely get asked if I would like some more wine or bottled water. We ordered it, why wouldn't we want to drink it?

If it's something people are paying for, I tend to err on the side of asking. Sometimes it doesn't even need to be verbal, you can just sort of make eye contact with the person before you pour so they have a chance to say no, shake their head, hold their hand out, whatever. I do the same thing with bottled water.

As a server, especially in more expensive places where people have higher expectations, you have to make peace with the fact that it's impossible to please everyone. This is true of all restaurants, but it's especially true of fine dining: most people have an idea about what kind of experience they want, but their ideas can differ wildly. You can get pretty good at reading people, but we don't have ESP! I'm sure many restaurants train and therefore require their servers to top up wine without asking. If I worked in a place like that and it was a choice between keeping my job and pleasing Mr. Hitchens, well...


"An appetite for destruction, but I scrape the plate."

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I have been at the restaurant I'm the GM at (3 star) for the past 12 years and we were *always* trained to pour wine for the customer unless they requested at the beginning of service that that is something they'd like to do for themselves. If it is something they'd like to do for themselves, the server will let me know so I know not to hound them about the wine service for that table.

The proper way I/we were taught by the owners, (after presentation and tasting) is to pour less than a third into the glass....ladies first, clockwise around the table, men second, taster last.

The next pour is to come with food presentation at 1st course, then 2nd course (you get the idea....anytime food is presented) unless someone is drinking faster than the food presentation, then you are to pour accordingly.

Never have I felt/seen this to be any kind of interuption....people happily go about their talking business and just place a hand over their glass if they do not care for anymore at that time.

I also feel this a 'service' they are paying for when ordering a bottle, and as so, get that feeling of 'bad service' when I see a customer doing it for themselves who hasn't asked to.

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As you mentioned, some people do prefer to pour their own wine, but I wish those people would just actually say, 'I'd prefer to pour my own wine' instead of refuse when you come to pour and then pour themselves two minutes later. This brings on said hounding from the manager, and sometimes on a busy night I don't have time to explain what happened.

If there's one thing I've learned being a server, it's that everything is your fault. You are the group of employees in the restaurant who makes the most amount of money for the least number of hours, and you are the one directly in contact with guests. This means guests tend to blame you for things you have no control over and the kitchen and sometimes management staff also blame you for things you have no control over. Not that I don't screw up, but so does everyone else - the kitchen staff, managers, hosts, everyone.


Edited by phlox (log)

"An appetite for destruction, but I scrape the plate."

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You're absolutely right....I experienced the same thing as a server....everything is seemingly your fault.

And while that is just not true on *so* many levels, now being on the side of management, I do see a whole other perspective at times...

it's actually amazing....once a server, now a manager.

Honestly, I acknowledge you just can not be there for everything and you can not know every little detail at all times...case in point...you tried to pour wine, they polietly refused, only to pour when you turned your back...

BUT there are so many little incidents....now that I am FREE of a station a much more emotionally involved in the restaurant as a whole...where I 'see' servers that have the time to fold a napkin when a patron leaves the table to use the rest room, or light a candle when it goes out, or CLEAR that wine glass ASAP, BE there and present at the runner staition/at the table when food goes out EVERYTIME and it just does not happen. I conclude that they are just not as emotionally involved as me as miss stuff...no matter how important I stress these details.

ahhhh....some servers are just not detail orreinentied I've learned. some are more personable, some more professional, some more...well...'fast'....good table turning...

yes, they all have quality's and well....no one is perfect.

It's the way of people and Life, I conclude, and I try to contain my disappointment....

BUT....for the record...I do acknowledge and appreiciate that I DO have one of the best staffs in the biz which is VERY hard to find...

hahah...it's actually....sometimes...why they are so 'spoiled' and miss that napkin :smile:

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It's easy to panic and get preoccupied with things that you know will get you in trouble or are a disaster waiting to happen and skimp on the little things. When you have to be physically in the kitchen every time food for one of your tables comes out to make sure they actually did the mods you asked for and that they don't try to sneak out an incomplete order, for example, or spend 20 minutes searching for a bottle of sake that may or may not exist in the restaurant because the liquor is not organized, it becomes harder to do all those little things every single time. Believe me, I am extremely detail oriented, but I can't do those things and spend tons of time at my tables if I'm not backed up, you know what I mean? It becomes a vicious cycle. In a volatile environment where you know you will catch more hell for certain things than for others, it becomes more about damage control than anything else. I hate it more than anyone - I didn't start doing this job to make money, I did it because I love food and restaurants and finally accepted that I had to put in a certain amount of time serving before anyone would even consider me for a management job. The constant tension, yelling, blaming, paranoia that every tiny mistake will push you further down in the server hierarchy...ugh, I feel like I'm on some kind of demented sports team and it's draft pick time every single day. And because I'm a server, I feel like it's always assumed that I have the worst intentions, like the kitchen and management staff just assume that if I press the wrong button on the POS or add something incorrectly, that I'm trying to steal or something.

Sorry to go off-topic, maybe I should just start another thread.


Edited by phlox (log)

"An appetite for destruction, but I scrape the plate."

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