How do you assess good restaurant service?

What to eat. What not to eat.
Sept. 26 2007 4:11 PM

Table Manners

What Service Included teaches us about restaurant service.

Service Included by Phoebe Damrosch.

When dining out, a significant percentage of what we pay for is service. Having cooked in restaurants for many years, my respect for servers, who earned much more money than I did cooking, has come grudgingly. But especially as I now spend time reviewing restaurants, I am willing to admit that a waiter's skill has a lot to do with how much I enjoy my meal. Still, the whole craft of service is hard to pin down, especially in our supposedly classless society. What should waiters do to make a meal sparkle? Should they dote? Should they be remote? How should they earn their tip?

Phoebe Damrosch can be very good when pondering these questions inher waiter's-eye memoir, Service Included, about being a server at Thomas Keller's haute-dining New York restaurant, Per Se. It has its flaws—I am less interested in the large chunks of the book dedicated to her budding romance with one of Per Se's sommeliers. And part of me was hoping for a dishy account of reservation blacklists and celebrities who don't tip well—a waiter's Kitchen Confidential—which it is not. I suppose discretion (and fear of libel action) is too engrained in the service mentality.

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But we can still learn from her clean-nosed account of waitressing in one of the country's poshest restaurants—it helps us home in on what good service is. Service at Per Se may be different from that at your neighborhood bistro, yet there is something fundamental about what we want from service in either eatery. In that spirit, here are some general formulas to help you assess the skill of your service no matter where you dine.

Greeting skills: S+ = HGTY
New York chef David Pasternack recently told me good service (S+) is basically "hello, goodbye, and thank you" (HGTY). A simple principle but one that is often forgotten, or even, at trendy restaurants, willfully overlooked. Someday, I will learn to walk out of restaurants when I am not acknowledged with at least a "We'll be right with you …" within a minute of arrival—it is as good a harbinger of a bumpy night as any I know.

The Personality Principle, aka the Rule of Flo: $ = 1/P+C
In general, the amount of personality (P) on display will be inversely proportional to the amount of money you're spending, not including a base level of cordiality (C). Diners and pubs thrive on emotive servers with tattooed sleeves, and aging waitresses like Alice's Flo who address you as "hon." Such personality may make you more forgiving if your entrees don't come out at the same time. Fine dining, however, relies more on polished neutrality. This should not be mistaken for unfriendliness, but rather a sense that the evening is about the diner and the food, not the server.

Per Se takes this to an extreme, with no music or art on the walls to distract from the meal. And Damrosch notes that the thick employee handbook includes a ban on wearing anything fragrant: "[T]he goal of a good waiter is to be present when needed or wanted, but also to disappear when not needed or wanted. That is hard to do when you smell like a bottle of Pantene Pro-V."

Checking In: ? ≠ MF
When to appear and disappear is a fine art, and without a doubt, my least favorite server is the one who interrupts your mouthful (MF) with, "How is that pinot/salt-cod croquette/lamb loin?" Such questions should be occasional and timed for a moment when guests are not chewing. At the finest restaurants I've dined in, the question itself is obviated—waiters swim about like benevolent sharks, eerily sensing your needs.

"The secret to service is not servitude, but anticipating desire," writes Damrosch, who surreptitiously kept an eye out for women who might be pregnant through observation: "The salmon cornet usually gave it away because most pregnant American women are deathly afraid of anything raw. Immediately we sent them a cornet made with tomato confit and eggplant caviar."