"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Hi, My Name Is Bruce–Horrible American Restaurant Service

I have been in restaurants were there was excellent service, in most where the service was acceptable, and a goodly number where it was piss poor.  In many of these ‘acceptable’ restaurants mediocre service is covered over by a faux solicitousness. “How’s the turbot? Can I get you anything else? How’re we doing here? Still working on it?”.  The waitress may be late with the fish, and petulant when asked to heat up the soup, but as long as she is chipper, all is forgiven.

I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone else, and my father, the doctor to Guido, Angelo, Stash, and Lyudmila, got great service at their restaurants.  I liked going to Henrico’s Restaurant on the square for lunch with my father.  Henrico would always come over to the table, chew the fat with my father, encourage him to order off the menu, and always threw in an anisette on the house.  Service was prompt.  The food as hot and delicious; and the attentiveness in exactly the right balance with deference.

I learned what really great service is in Paris.  I first went there in the late Sixties and ate at prix fixe restaurants on the Boul’Mich where the steack frites, crudités and carafe wine came quickly.  In any case we were too young to notice the service.  It was only years later when I went through Paris on my way to Africa with a World Bank expense account that I was able to see what all the fuss about French cuisine as all about.  Not only was the food at top restaurants excellent, a product of hours of sautéing, reducing, and combining the best and freshest ingredients – a labor of love of professional chefs according to centuries of tradition - but the presentation and the service were impeccable.

White tablecloths, brilliantly polished silver, sparkling glasses, flowers, attractive décor and lighting, formally-dressed, white-aproned waiters – it was all perfect.  My favorite restaurants were the grand brasseries of Paris – Bofinger, Julien, Lipp, Flo, and Terminus Nord.

Food in brasseries is simple – oysters, fruits de mer, fish, pate, and choucroute – the wine list always extensive, and the atmosphere lively and exciting.

Somehow waiters show up at exactly the right moment.  They know when you are ready to order, when you need another bottle of wine, when the bread is running low.  They are attentive but never servile; respectful, but never friendly. They know every item on the menu, how it is prepared, the provenance of the meat or fish, and what wine pairings are best. They are professionals, you are their clients, and you deserve the best service they can provide.  Gratuities are included in the bill, so there is no need for treacly smiles. 

American waiters are never taught the basics of good service. Perhaps because waiting on tables is usually a part-time job, work on the way up, or a temporary way to pay off debts, there is no investment either on the part of the establishment or the staff on good service; but as the American clientele becomes more savvy, they will have to learn.

Even in better restaurants it seems as though the only instructions given to the wait staff are ‘Don’t spill the soup’ and check in on diners every five minutes.  Before you have had a few sips of wine, the waiter is there pouring you more.  Just as you are about to take your second bite of Rockfish and Pork Belly, he is back with “So, how’s the rockfish?”.

They are also told to congratulate diners on their menu choice.  “An excellent choice!”, said our waiter; but the chances that Bruce from Gaithersburg had ever tasted pork belly or a Hama Hama were pretty slim indeed.

Even worse is when he tells us that the rockfish is his personal favorite. Why on earth should I take the word of Bruce, whose father is a pipe-fitter in Baltimore, whose mother a clerk at Target, whose favorite food is Mac ‘n’ Cheese, and most of whose meals are wraps from the vending machines in the basement of his community college?

I will listen to the waiter at Bofinger, however, who neither introduces himself, nor wears a name tag, nor would ever entertain a question about his personal life.  Monsieur X knows the difference between a Belon and a Fine de Claire; how the veal is prepared; whether or not the velouté has a fish or chicken base, and how the blood sausages are prepared. He knows whether the tarte aux pommes or the tarte aux poires has been most appreciated by diners today, and whether the dinde is served with truffles or chanterelles.

Because of my Parisian experience, I never chat with waiters.  I don’t care where they come from or what they are studying.  I am not interested in whether they take the Red Line or Blue Line to work; or whether their mother is out of the hospital.  I want them to shut up, observe and serve, present the bill, and move on.

There are some exceptions to my rule, of course.  I have become friends with the owner of a family-owned and operated BBQ in eastern Mississippi. In fact he sits with me while I eat my ribs and tells me about his plans for expansion, his brother’s trouble with the law, and his wife’s home hairdressing business.  But Randall never fawns or intrudes.  If he asks how I like my steak it is because he has been out back over the coals trying to get it exactly how I ordered it.  On slow days, I linger over my catfish with Amory, the waitress and Randall’s niece, and hear about her kids, new boyfriend, and car troubles.  Randall and his wife know how to cook BBQ and catfish as well as anyone.  They can talk of provenance, rubs, corn meal mix, and hush puppies, and are happy to share what they know.

Tim Stanley, a British columnist for The Telegraph shares my dislike with American big city waiters:

However, I’ve often found that eating in the US can be equally uncomfortable in a different way. As someone fundamentally awkward – to the extent that even conversation with friends is a trial – having a waiter ask me not just what I want to eat but where I’m from, what I do and what my star sign is can add anxiety to nausea as the ubiquitous beef burger is brought to my table. Often, the friendliness of the staff is so overwhelming that I don’t know whether I’m supposed to tip the waitress or swap phone numbers. (1.9.14)

According to Stanley, Chef Marcus Wareing has ordered the staff of his renovated London restaurant to act less French and more American when serving food. In other words less smart-alecky and know-it-all and more friendly and accommodating. Many Brits and Americans have suffered at the hands of French clerks, servers, and shop owners.  After I had tried on four or five sports jackets in a trendy shop near the Rue de Rivoli but found the cut too tight in the shoulders and too short in the sleeves, the salesman said, “Perhaps Monsieur might prefer to shop in his own country.  We do not make clothes for orangutans here in France”.

In France I have been lectured on the right way to eat, how to lock lavatory doors; how to, dress and eat Camembert. There is no such thing as a polite, respectful bit of advice in all of France. . On one occasion when returning a car in Paris after a long trip to Brittany, I found that I had misplaced my rental contract.  I was sure that the company had a copy, and I assumed that with car and keys returned, all should be fine, and told the clerk so. He looked at me as I spoke, and when I had finished, he put his hands over his eyes and said, “Your car no longer exists.  Without the proper papers it has disappeared.”  If that weren’t enough, he want on, “Now, think where you might have left them.  At home?  In the car? Have you checked your pockets?”. He was right.  They were in my pocket.

“See? What did I tell you”, he said.

It is true that even the best-behaved waiter at Bofinger can get uppity and pissy with Americans who don’t know shit from Shinola when it comes to French cuisine; and perhaps my fluency and knowing the ropes has saved me from the worst Parisian sniffiness, but I have rarely been disappointed at the food or service at the city’s best restaurants. They are worth every penny.

So, I wish Mr. Wareing well on his new venture, and I hope that he strikes the proper balance between French reserve and American soppiness; but the tendency is usually towards he latter.  Who can resist those smiling, blonde happy California faces, and warm friendliness? What he has to learn is that those tanned, freckled Valley Girls are just fine on roller blades at Venice Beach, but not serving in any restaurant other than Taco Bell.

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