In a culinary destination, service is always king

September 14, 2018

One of the highest - and lowest - points in the ownership of my most recent restaurant was the review I received from a major Washington, D.C. food critic. In short, she loved our food. That was the high point. The low point was that she roasted us for the service. One of my more lackadaisical servers had failed to remove the appetizer plates before the arrival of the entrees. The writer had a field day with it. In retrospect, it was actually quite funny (in a snide sort of way), but at the time I couldn’t see that through the tears.

I knew we were weak in the training department. So I hired a restaurant consultant who specialized in server training. I learned so much from him, and many of his tried-and-proven points have stayed with me. Given the plethora of new restaurants opening here in the Cape Region, I thought I’d share a few of those points that have stood the test of time.

Servers! Maximize your tips and keep your restaurant busy by remembering these 17 basic practices.

Do not serve any dish that looks wrong to you. If your chef huffs and puffs when you question a dish, that’s the restaurant owner’s problem, not yours.

Don’t remove an empty plate from one guest while others are still eating the same course.

Always greet newcomers warmly. Don’t just make eye contact then look away. A little smile and a “Welcome!” go a long way when someone first enters your place of business.

Never interrupt a conversation! Stand politely for a moment and you will be acknowledged. After all, they are there to eat.

Nothing is more annoying than an uneven, rocking table. And sugar packets under the legs don’t fix it. Most commercial tables have levelers that screw in and out. Make sure your section isn’t rocky!

If your restaurant sells bottled water, don’t sound desperate by saying, “Bottled water or ‘just’ tap?” Both are fine and everyone knows it. “Just tap” is pretentious.

Don’t race through the specials like you are announcing the Kentucky Derby. It’s not an oration. Do it warmly in a businesslike manner.

Don’t carry and serve water or drinks with your fingers on the rim of the glass! If your restaurant has bought into all this straw uproar, you are giving your customers every reason to demand a straw. Handle wine glasses by their stems and silverware by the handles. And always eyeball a glass before you fill it. Waxy stuff like lipstick does not wash off easily.

If a single individual enters your restaurant, don’t make them feel bad by asking something like, “Are you waiting for someone?” You can get the same information by asking if they have a reservation. If they are indeed alone, offer to seat them at the bar.

When you ask how everything is, listen to the answer and take care of whatever might not be right. In the same vein, know your menu! Don’t answer a question with, “I don’t know” without saying with a smile, “But I can find out for you.” Yet again in that same vein, if a person asks for more cheese, gravy or whatever, serve it in a side dish. Don’t pour stuff onto their plate.

Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of restaurant food ordering programs allow you to tag an order with a seat number. If the restaurant doesn’t have a set system for that, make up your own and stick to it. People hate food auctions, and it’s difficult to tell the difference between two similar orders (like one steak that’s medium and another that’s medium rare).

If a customer has not touched his or her food, don’t just remove it and strut away. Ask what went wrong and then try to resolve the problem. Remember: That customer is responsible for whatever money you make at your restaurant. You want him or her to return, even if there was a kitchen misstep.

Never wear perfume. Seventy-five percent of our taste is through our nose. On the same note, don’t eat or drink in view of the customers. Would you like it if you were sure that your server’s fingers had recently been in his/her mouth? Yuck. In the same rather personal vein, never reach across one guest to serve another. Nobody is there to experience your armpit.

Don’t answer a request with “No problem.” It smacks of insincerity. “It’s my pleasure” or “You’re welcome” works just fine.

If you spill or splatter, apologize sincerely, then quietly clean it up, replace it, and offer to pay for whatever damage you caused. Don’t wipe wet spots on a guest!

Never expound on your personal eating habits. Nobody cares that you are a vegan, lactose intolerant or whatever. To this day I remember a server responding to my question about a particular meat dish by informing me that she was a vegetarian and “wouldn’t know.” Really? I never went back.

Don’t suddenly get chatty and start smiling when it’s tip time. It’s annoyingly needy. In that same vein, if guests pay in cash, don’t ask if they need change. Just bring the change. Few people enjoy rewarding desperate attempts at getting an extra buck or two.

Smart restaurateurs know that in many cases their most unhappy customer can teach them more than all the happy ones combined. In a culinary destination such as this, service is king. Guests will usually forget that you brought cole slaw instead of green beans. But they won’t forget rude, careless or offhand service. Servers who act that way are hurting themselves and the restaurant that hired them. They should give themselves - and their employers - a break and find another line of work.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at