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Memoirs of a server: About restaurant etiquette …

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“Top Chef” finalists Nina Compton and Nick Elmi, provided by Bravo. (Photo by David Moir)

I’ve always wanted to write about my thoughts on dining out and share some of my insights and observations collected from years spent in service. See, as a writer (like most artists), my craft and passion for writing forced me to find money outside of writing. Food and drink and selling stuff is typically the most accommodating way to do that. I can’t tell you how many times I went into a service shift dragging my feet with a head full of ideas, drafts, deadlines and narratives floating around in my head. But for, typically, six to 10 hours, I’d compartmentalize it and try to treat every customer—or client, guest or whatever nomenclature management decides is best—like they’re the most precious human on earth, and their every wish is my command.

Sometimes you’d get gems—heavenly humans who are polite, charming, polite and, even on some occasions, flirtatious and curious about you, your life, your favorite stuff in the city and the like. But unfortunately, sometimes sitting in a restaurant seat or booth turns people into the meanest, cruelest kind of monsters that the imagination can conjure. It’s pretty tough to swallow sometimes, and I never, ever wanted to write about it because I feared job security and the inevitably mean things that folks who’ve never worn non-slip orthopedic server shoes would say.

Well, a few months ago, I quit. I got a full-time media job and gleefully put in my two-weeks notice. And since then, there’ve been multiple moments of going out for food and drink in which I squirm and silently hate so much. Thing is, once you’ve spent years waiting tables, it’s hard to leave that behind when you find yourself on the other side. You nitpick points of service and empathize when you see some dick acting a fool a couple tables over, making outlandish demands. But more and more, I tend to think of it as a situation in which I am happy to be an oasis of polite reasonability, who’ll be appropriate with a server’s time—and tip well.

So, what I plan on doing is offering a multi-pronged guide to good behaviors. Obviously, some folks will disagree. In almost a dozen years in restaurants, even in my last few months, I still got shocked by what some people considered acceptable. There are some gripes that might get pretty specific, to me and to a server, but there are some that are more common sensical and may end up opening some eyes to the nuance of the dining experience.

Consider this mostly just an introduction to what I’m hoping will be a series of posts. I’ll touch on a couple things real quick, though. They’re both plugs; one selfish and one not.

The selfish one: I wrote about Top Chef winner Nick Elmi for the South Philly Review this week. I like him. He seems like a genuinely good dude, and I would not turn down a dinner at his place, Laurel, on East Passyunk Avenue—but maybe when (or if) I get a tax return or somethin’ and can plan a reservation four months in advance. There was actually this weird situation in Top Chef’s finale episode: The chefs get assigned a service staff pretty much right before they’re set to deliver the most important cooking/meal of their lives. When Elmi’s servers botched some simple tasks (mise for dessert, confuse tables and courses), he got understandably pissed. There are bad servers out there. Theoretically, the judges are judging flavors and execution, but not having silverware when the dish gets put in front of you could certainly influence a dining experience. And with $125,000 on the line, it’d be pretty sad if he was just like, “It’s cool; we all make mistakes.” Some folks freaked and tried to paint him as a monster in the kitchen. Elmi did a pretty good job (from what we saw as viewers, anyway) of not dwelling on the service annoyances, but it was something that anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant didn’t exactly find shocking.

The other: A couple weekends ago, my parents were in town, and I took them to one of my favorite spots in the city, Monsu. The food, per usual, was awesome. And I love our server, a guy I’ve had a couple times. He seems to be running the show a little, all with an extremely chill nonchalance. My issue was exclusively with a table I observed for a solid 20 minutes because our table wasn’t ready. It’s a small, pretty tight spot, one that doesn’t exactly have a waiting area, and it was cold as shit that night. So we dodged parties coming in and out, the door opening and closing, while we waited for our table. What I saw was a large party, an eight-top near the door, who had no food in front of them, and whose bill looked to be all settled and paid, but they were bold enough to keep opening and pouring wine (Monsu’s a BYO) while nearly 15 people floated around their table waiting to be seated.

When you pay, your meal is finished and you insist on staying seated, you’re wasting a server’s precious table real estate. The longer you sit without spending money, the fewer chances the restaurant has of using it again. Ideally, a table for a restaurant like Monsu gets turned at least twice, hopefully three times a night. Across this city, there are all kinds of idiots who believe that they’re entitled to sit at a table as long as they wish, and as soon as a manager or server suggests that maybe they could use the table again, they get indignant. So here’s the message: Be reasonable about the duration of your meal time, especially in a small place. Take heed when there’s a big crowd waiting for tables. And know that when you insist on lingering and not spending money, you’re costing servers money.


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Mar 4 2:45 PM

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