Monday, March 14, 2011

Time To Wait

There are some restaurants in Europe that only offer one sitting. It is not hard to imagine that the prices are high but the atmosphere just as rarified as patrons wait weeks for a table and are never, ever rushed through their meal in order to seat a second or third party. The concept is that the meal is only a part of the experience of simply enjoying an evening out at a fine restaurant with good company, good food, wine and service...almost literally all night long. Not so much, the experience at a typical American restaurant.

The dining culture in the United States is typically one that features dinner as part of a larger evening, be it dinner and a show or dinner and home to the kids or a favorite program. Rarely it seems do Americans dine out simply for the sake of some time together as a couple or part of a group just for conversation, fellowship or what have you. We rush to get a good reservation, hustle for a good table and then, encouraged by both wait staff and the establishment itself, we hurry through a meal only to decide later whether or not it was all worth the effort. Anything over an hour at most restaurants in America is considered déclassé and a colossal waste of time.

High volume and low prices is the order of the day in virtually every business, particularly in the restaurant game where waiting tables is not a career profession in North America as it can be in Europe. Few people other than the restaurant manager make anything close to a comfortable living while the wait staff is often a healthy mix of Florence Jean "Flo" Castleberrys from the TV series "Alice" and bored, gum-snapping Generation Y'ers hustling tips to supplement their student loan money. And in the high-energy culture of dining out on this side of the Atlantic the only way for any waiter or waitress to earn a living is to keep the tables turning.

Service must be courteous and attentive but fast. It is not necessarily rude here to be presented with the check when the waiter perceives your dining experience to be over. The worst part to me, however, seems to be an increasing trend in wait staff at the end of their shift boldly asking tables to cash out while they're still on the clock so they can get the tip instead of their replacement. Even worse, some restaurants will ask to close the exiting ticket and open a second for as long as you with to remain.

Big problem here, of the kind that just doesn't happen in Europe, and not much of an incentive for the desert and coffee server, either. I don't necessarily see an issue with the waiters and waitresses who feel compelled to protect their earnings in this fashion. The issue I see is with the restaurant itself who do not have a system in place to support their staff better. Why seat parties in a section where the shift is about to change? Why not log tickets according to when they opened so the exiting waiter's work will be paid when that table finally decides to up and leave?

One abysmal summer during my college years I was a cater waiter, the lowest form of wait staff save that of the buffet server. Neither can ever expect much in the way of tips and we were never permitted to hint or overtly beg for gratuities. I got $10 once and was told by the customer not to share the news with my lead waitress. He didn't like her but thought that I was at least giving it a good college try to serve his table.

That event and the art of serving both seem so long ago.

Gotta go.

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