Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A server with balls: 'You did not order that'

Posted By on Wed, Jun 26, 2013 at 10:27 AM

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Monday's New York Times devoted its "Room for Debate" column to tipping. We're not talking how much to tip, but whether the practice needs to be eliminated altogether. Servers rarely earn even minimum wage. Tips form the bulk of their pay. As the debate column points out, many servers live near the poverty level.

When I first started writing "Grazing" nearly 30 years ago, I had a pretty disrespectful attitude towards servers. But every issue, I picked a "Waitron of the Week." Most liked receiving the designation. But other servers were sometimes offended by the term "waitron." It was widely used in the culture then as a sarcastic gender-free designation. But some servers objected to it so much that they circulated a petition to fire me or ban the word's usage.

I got it pretty soon: servers must be the most patient people alive. I've heard story after story of being stiffed by diners, dealing with coked-up chefs, and seeing their paychecks shorted. I've watched dining room dramas that would make me dump plates on the customers. Yes, good servers in fine-dining venues can make a pile of money - if they get the hours they need.

But then...

Recently I encountered a server who was so intimidating that she stepped over the line of appropriate behavior into the world of "Saturday Night Live." I'm not going to name the restaurant, because when I wrote about two wacky servers in the past, they were fired. Well, one of them actually thanked me for motivating her to get a better job. But I felt awful about the other one. The restaurant owners had no sense of humor about my comments.

The server at this restaurant was an attractive young woman who greeted us with almost bizarre charm, placing her hands under her chin as if in prayer, telling us how wonderful it was to wait on us. Her smile looked like it could swallow you. The word "obsequious," used in the Times, doesn't begin to describe it.

Things turned a little odd when I asked her how a certain classic Southern dish incorporated the distinctive style the restaurant advertises. She explained that it was an exception. Ditto for another dish. Already, by this time, her smile had disappeared.

Appetizers arrived - except for mine. After a while, I caught her attention and asked if she'd forgotten mine. She frowned. "You didn't order one," she said.

"Yes I did," I said.

"No, you did not," she repeated. She then polled the table. Two at the table had heard me. Others did not. "See!" she said. "If you'd like to order it now, I'll be glad to get it for you." I declined.

Entrees arrived. One lagged a long time. She then ranted about how inept the chef/owner was, that he couldn't seem to pace meals appropriately.

At one point, I asked her where she had worked before. She named two very successful upscale restaurants.

"How could that be?" I wondered aloud when she left the table.

"What do you mean? How could she keep a job at either of those restaurants?" a friend with connections to the industry replied.

As the meal - and the check - neared completion, the mood was less tense. I tipped over 20 percent and slunk out the door while the manager beamed. "Mea culpa, mea culpa maxima."

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