The Fayette Citizen-Weekend Page

Wednesday, November 14, 2001

More than one way to please a diner


In uncertain times like these, airing life's minor irritations and pet peeves seems trivial, to say the least.

Yet there may be comfort in sharing life experiences, whether they bring us joy or exasperation.

In that spirit, let us get back to human commonality.

Two recent dining episodes:

We were in one of our top three favorite Peachtree City restaurants, and had exchanged the usual introductions with a waitress whose name I'll change so as not to get her in trouble with her manager.

"Hi," she beams. "I'm Michelle and I'll be your server this evening."

"Hello, Michelle. I'm Sallie and this is Dave, and we'll be your diners this evening," while writing our names upside down on the paper table cover.

She was startled, but recovered, took our order, brought us iced tea, then our salad, and then our entrée, came back again to check if everything was all right, topped off our tea, asked again if everything was all right. All told, I counted 14 encounters we had with Michelle in approximately 45 minutes at the table.

Wait, in fairness, one visit was by the manager himself, a gesture of hospitality, I'm sure, but honestly! Their constant coming and going and hovering over us made conversation impossible, and their devotion to our well-being so smothering I lacked the courage to say, "Please, just leave us alone. We'll wave when we want you."

Next time we go there ­ if we do ­ I think I'll invite Michelle to sit down and join us. It would be far less intrusive.

The other experience was in Demo's Steak and Spaghetti House in Nashville. It was a springtime Thursday evening when Nashville offers free riverfront concerts, and downtown was crowded with fans of all ages. We tied up our boat at the city dock on the Cumberland and stretched our legs by walking a dozen blocks or so among the fun-seekers.

Demo's looked good, and although its white tablecloth ambiance put us a little on guard, the prices posted at the door reassured us. We were seated promptly and Rose, our waitress, brought menus, took our beverage orders ­ and then gave us our marching orders.

"Take your time. When you're ready, just close your menu and I'll be right with you."

Sure, we thought. The place was filling up and Rose whirled from our table to the diners who came in behind us. Let's see if this works.

It did. We perused our menus at ease, closed them at about the same time, and Rose instantly materialized at our table, pencil poised over order pad. Over the course of the meal, she may have asked once if everything was all right, but other than that, she kept her distance, anticipating our need for refills when our drinks were about half gone, not just down one sip.

We were so seduced by good food and good service that we ordered one serving of a wickedly chocolate dessert for which Rose brought an extra plate and two forks without being asked.

She made me think of a recent piece by AJC food columnist John Kressler about the differences between American and European restaurant service. Our experiences eating in Germany were similar to what he described.

Servers there are efficient, intent on serving you, not developing a personal relationship with you. Sometimes the kitchen is a bit slow, but that helps the wait staff cover sections that are usually much larger than American servers cover.

The important thing is that Gunter or Henri is watching you. It's easy to catch his eye if you want something, but he doesn't hover and would not dream of interrupting your conversation. And while he'll answer your questions about a dish or a wine as graciously as his language skills allow, you never get the feeling he's pushing something expensive.

We also noted that no one in European restaurants is trying to get a second or third shift of diners to your table. As our daughter Mary put it, when you take a table in a German gasthof, you're renting it for the evening. It's yours. You never feel rushed. And you won't have the bill slapped down in front of you as soon as your sauerbraten arrives ­ in fact, the only complaint we've ever had with German waiters is that they disappear when you're ready to settle the bill and leave. Maybe they think that if you wait around awhile, you'll get thirsty and order another bier.

Kessler thinks the difference may be attributable to the fact that European servers do not expect tips ­ service is included in the price of the meal, and waiters are paid decently. It's hard for Americans to believe, but odds are that the young man waiting on you is not just working his way through college or between "real" jobs. This is his job. He's a career waiter and no more feels demeaned or "temporary" than your bank teller or real estate agent.

So, restaurant managers take note: Instruct your staff just to keep an eye on their customers and give your diners the delicious feeling that they're in control of their dining experience.

I for one may be so pleased I'll order dessert for each of us.


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