It’s Time to Retire These Waiter-isms

The San Francisco Chronicle’s new restaurant critic, Soleil Ho, wrote a wonderful essay recently citing a melange of words she vows never to use in her restaurant reviews. This got us thinking about all the flaccid phrases and tired terms waiters peddle around the dining room every night that should be expurgated from the lexicon. In the spirit, we’ve compiled a list of things waiters should stop saying to their guests. 

“Have You Dined with Us Before?” – This phrase has become a common waiter crutch to suss out first time diners, but it has also become comically overused. A simple “May I help you with the menu?” would better cut to the chase. Greeting the table with this question can also come across condescending—as if the diner will be lost without the server’s road map for placing a proper order.

“Served on a Bed of…” – First of all, there is no such thing as a food bed. In fact, there is nothing remotely mattress-like about a pile of Brussels Sprouts. It’s perfectly sufficient to say a dish is “served with” something. Why does conjuring pieces of furniture paint a better picture? We don’t eat beds, so why should we use the term to describe a dish?

“Medallions” – Servers use this word to describe pretty much anything that is cut circular. The thought of eating an actual medallion is not even appetizing. Bottom line: this term makes everything sound like banquet hall catering food and waiters should remove it from the vocabulary of menu descriptors. What’s next… Doubloons of Hakurei Turnips??

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“Housemade” – It can be exhausting sometimes listening to servers describe ingredients on the menu as “Made in House”—Housemade Pancetta, Housemade Tartare Sauce, Housemade Cheesecake. It’s obviously a term meant to make the food sound more homespun and appealing, but nice restaurants should make everything in house without having to call attention to it. Also, the proper English is to say homemade.

“Pan-Seared” – This term began popping up in the late 90’s as a sexier way of describing the way certain fish and meat are cooked. Apparently, guests were supposed to be impressed that the chef was using a pan to sear something. Todays diners are more savvy about food so maybe waiters can leave the pan part out now. Let’s just go with seared.

“Cuts the Richness” – This phrase is often deployed by servers when recommending a wine pairing. It’s meant to suggest that the wine has good acidity, but it’s totally unnecessary to speak in such abstract terms. Waiters love to overcomplicate the description of things because they think it makes them sound smarter.

“Our Signature Dish” – The notion that chefs must have “Signature Dishes” has stifled creativity in restaurant kitchens. In the era of social media, groupthink has homogenized the way people order and waitstaff couching its recommendations around what is popular reinforces these bad habits.

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If Your Waiter Could Yelp About You

Let me start by saying I never Yelp about my guests. Ive been working at this restaurant for a long time—WAY before you read about it on Yelp—and most people consider me an excellent waiter. I get great reviews all the time, so I can only assume since you were such a problem when I waited on your table last Friday night that there must be something lacking on your end.

First of all, your Open Table guest notes said you were a VIP. I guess maybe my expectations of you were a little too high from the beginning. The minute I approached the table I knew it was going to be a long night.

“Welcome to the restaurant,” I said cheerfully. You didn’t answer. I set the wine list on the table in front of you but you were too busy on your iPhone to bother acknowledging me. It’s obvious that impressing your friends on Instagram with still life portraits of napkins and cutlery is more important than considering the menu. 

“Can I bring you something—”

“Tap water no ice,” you interjected dismissively, “and some bread right away.”

I guess this must be how Open Table VIPs act, I thought to myself. After I poured the water, you ordered a Casamigos Margarita and asked if the bartender could make it with agave nectar. Does this look like a Mexican restaurant? Sorry, señor.

“Fine, fine, fine, just NO sugar. I’m Paleo,” you said.

Your friends at the table must’ve been really impressed by your story of how you saw George Clooney in an elevator once in Beverly Hills. I wasn’t. Even George knows Casamigos is total basura. Why do you think he sold the brand? Maybe you should go back to Cocktail School and learn how to order a proper drink. 

Like clockwork, you start waving me over like you were hailing a cab after I already checked in with you five times to see if you were ready. Of course, NOW you’re in a hurry and need to order RIGHT AWAY. Maybe if you tell me one more time that you have Hamilton tickets I’ll feel a greater sense of urgency. Probably not, though, because I’ll be too busy in the service station ridiculing you to my colleagues. I told them you must have given all your money to Lin-Manuel Miranda because you obviously don’t have the funds to order a proper two-course meal.

When your food arrived, it must’ve looked like I was enjoying standing there waiting for you to move your iPhone while I tried to serve your Abalone Crudo. It was hard to fight the urge to tell you right then and there that you pronounced Abalone wrong when you ordered it. It was obvious to me that you thought you were ordering Tuna. That’s Albacore, Einstein. 

When I finished putting your plates down, I couldn’t believe you had the nerve to ask if I could divide your salad too? Do I look like your mommy? You want me to cut your food into tiny pieces and spoon feed you little bites while I make roller coaster and airplane noises? Don’t be such a baby. Use the serving utensils we gave you like everyone else. This is a fine dining restaurant, not hospice care.

Someone should petition Open Table to revoke your VIP status. There are so many diners better than you. Even that guy with the bad hairpiece and the emotional support animal who always sits alone on Table 42 and drinks Beaujolais puts you to shame. He comes in all the time—ten times the VIP you’ll ever be. Do you hear me, Open Table?

After all that, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when the busboy cleared your table and you asked me to bring you a toothpick. You seriously can’t wait until you leave to grab one at the door on the way out? I’m sure your dining companions got a real kick out of watching you pick your teeth while they considered the dessert options. Real classy. Of course they declined dessert because the sight of you poking and prodding your gumline doesn’t exactly scream “Hey… Let’s have a slice of Key Lime Pie!!”

The highlight of waiting on you was delivering the check. Obviously, you never asked me for it, but I dropped it anyway. I figured you were inconsiderate of me all night so it only made sense that I return the favor. Your ten percent tip was just the icing on the cake. Maybe if you tipped respectably, I might not have resorted to shaming you on Yelp.

Oh… and just in case you thought I didn’t see it, I’ve already read the salacious one-star review you posted about your experience and I have two words for you: Fake News. Your “alternative ending” was worthy of an episode of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

Honestly, I can sleep at night knowing that the odds of your ever sitting in my section again in this restaurant (or in any other restaurant that could potentially employ me in the future) are slim to none. If it was up to me, you would never be allowed back into this restaurant again—unless maybe you’re ordering take out. 

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The Secret Conspiracy to Turn Your Table

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Every time you set foot in a busy restaurant there is a secret conspiracy going on behind closed doors, a synchronized and covert operation, designed to encourage you to finish your meal as soon as possible. There’s a good chance you didn’t notice because hospitality professionals are masters of deception. Fine dining has become a culinary shell game, distracting you with flamboyant presentations and table-side theatrics, while your next course is being fired against your will.

It’s a delicate balance, but we’re trained to hug you so tightly you won’t notice you’re suffocating. Pay closer attention next time you dine out and you might notice a more aggressive push to take the order, ever-shortening intervals between courses, and your bill arriving to the table before you ask for it. These developments violate time-honored tenets of hospitality but, in many cases, they have become necessary evils.

The fact is many restaurants can’t afford to wait for you to order at your own pace, to pause in between courses or even to ask for the check at your leisure. There is a new economic reality in the restaurant business where growth is impeded by skyrocketing rents, ballooning labor costs and cutthroat competition. Making guests feel welcome cannot be unconditional anymore. 

A recent article by a San Francisco restaurateur, whose restaurant Tawla prematurely closed, outlines some of the new challenges the industry faces and warns of danger ahead. Many of these external pressures—higher minimum wages, health care costs, talent drain—are uncontrollable so owners focus on internal elements to protect profitability. Raising prices is always a last resort and can alienate clientele. More aggressively turning tables, on the other hand, is a stealth way to increase revenue without charging more. Since we can’t just add tables, we need to seat more people at the tables we have. The goal becomes offering guests a great experience but delivering it in a shorter window of time. 

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Chefs have redesigned their menus for speed, prioritizing alacrity over precision. The trend toward small plates, not coincidentally, has contributed to shortening turn times and increasing cover counts. Instead of grouping dishes into courses, they trickle out out of the kitchen as they’re ready. Dining experiences have become more anxious. Waiters hover over your table as you consider the menu. Busboys bully-clear your plates. Dessert is on the verge of extinction with fewer options to expedite the decision-making process and clear the path for payment and departure.

This existential threat has forced the industry to question its traditional ways of defining hospitality. The new rules of engagement require guests to make bigger sacrifices. Many restaurants refuse to seat your party incomplete because doing may increase the aggregate time you monopolize the table. They also may not allow you to place your order piecemeal because they can’t afford to forfeit control of the pacing of your meal. If someone joins you in the middle of your main course, management may deny them the menu in the event that adding a new dish would delay your returning the table. Attempts to order more cocktails after dessert may be rebuffed or you will be asked to drink them at the bar.

Popular restaurants have had to cinch the waist on their reservation systems—booking more tables with shorter projected turn times. Even in fine dining, you’re rarely allotted a table for more than two hours. No one will tell you this officially but everyone will be working in concert to keep you on schedule. Weekday nights, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to expedite the first tranche of tables to ensure the second wave seats promptly. On weekends, there may be a third seating. Any problems turning tables early in the night can have a domino effect throughout service.

Restaurant management has become less apologetic about needing your table back. They obsess over cover counts because they have become the leading indicator of growth. Pre-shift meetings have become increasingly dogmatic about table-turning, often at the expense of honing service. On the whole, the industry is collectively less sympathetic toward guests who feel rushed and less tolerant of guests camping after the check has been paid. The thought of asking someone to get up used to be unthinkable for a restaurant manager. It isn’t anymore. ‘Can we get you anything else?’ is no longer a courtesy. It’s an ultimatum. Speak now or forever hold your check. Saying you don’t need anything else has become de factopermission for us to present the bill. 

As hospitality norms erode, purists will cry foul. They’ll tell you restaurants that forsake their guests will lose business. It’s a risk—hard business decisions have consequences. But this is no time for unicorn ideology about good service. Our industry’s survival depends on embracing a new paradigm. As input costs skyrocket, accepting the status quo will only lead to more restaurants closing their doors. Foodies can scream till they’re blue in the face about their right to occupy the table as they want, but without their willingness to compromise, in the future, there may be no restaurants left for them to enjoy on their own terms. 

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