Five Ways to Have a Better Relationship With Your Waiter

waiter relationships

I always find it amusing when guests ask my name the moment I greet the table. I also hate it. In their eyes, knowing waiters’ names is humanizing and their way of acknowledging that they see waiters as more than just servants. That’s all well and good, but asking personal questions can put the waiter in the uncomfortable position of having to divulge personal information before you’ve established any relationship. It’s a lot like dating. Coming on too strong can be a real turn off.

Of course, these guests’ hearts are usually in the right place, but the strategy often backfires. It can feel intrusive when friendly guests feel entitled to know more about their servers (Where are you from? How long have you worked here?). Asking unwanted questions may cause waiters to avoid your table. If you insist on knowing your server’s name, always introduce yourself first. It’s less threatening and reinforces that you see them as equals. 

Remember that good service is impossible without your participation. Take ownership of your role in building quality relationships with the people serving you, and you’ll see an immediate impact on the hospitality you receive. Big tips aren’t the only way to show your waiter you care. Here are a few good habits that will help you succeed:

Ask your server how his day is going? – It’s remarkably disarming when guests ask servers about their day. It breaks up the typical scripted dialogue and disrupts the phony pleasantries that define the usual introduction. Since most restaurant guests show little to no interest in their server’s role beyond providing them food, this is an opportunity to distinguish yourself. Asking about their day also shows concern without expecting intimacy. It’s a much more effective question for building solidarity than asking the server his name. 

Listen attentively to the specials – Today’s diners are so distracted by technology it can be difficult for waiters to keep their attention. You’d be surprised how rude restaurant guests can be when their waiters are trying to convey information about the menu. Interrupting a server’s presentation—even if it’s unintentional—sends a message that you devalue their participation in your experience. Set a positive tone. Put away your cellphone, listen to their spiel and ask thoughtful questions about how the new dishes are prepared.

waiter

Acknowledge when you enjoyed a dish they recommended – Recognition is rare when you wait tables. No one who works in restaurants is in the business for the appreciation. It’s a thankless job. But once in awhile when a guests says, “I really loved the dish you suggested,” it feels good. Next time the waiter comes back to the table to check on you, give credit where credit is due.

Offer to pour your server a taste of your bottle of wine – Waiters are rarely given the opportunity to taste high-end wines from the bottled list. If you order a nice bottle, ask your server if she’s ever tried it before. If she hasn’t, tell her to bring a glass! Pour the wine yourself so she doesn’t feel apprehensive about how far your generosity goes. Make a toast to great service!!

Ask your waiter to order for you – This is the ultimate gangster move. It takes a lot of trust to go to this extreme, but taking the leap of faith can pay dividends. Trusting blindly sends a message to servers that you feel comfortable in their hands. The worst service experiences are the ones where guests cannot give up control. Handing the waiter the steering wheel is empowering and will help fortify your relationship the rest of the meal. If you’re disappointed with the choices, share the blame. You had the same chance of being unhappy with your food if you ordered on your own. Ride or die together. 

Why You Should Never Order White Truffles in Restaurants

On the surface, people who sell white truffles to restaurants aren’t quite the merchants of luxury one might expect. No Rolex watches, no Cartier jewelry. They fly under the radar like undercover cops or the neighborhood weed dealer. It isn’t unusual to see them dressed down, in sports caps and hoodies, nonchalantly wheeling around their nuggets of buried treasure in carry-on luggage like doe-eyed tourists who fly Spirit Airlines.

Their contraband is meticulously sealed in airtight containers to ensure no truffle aromas might seep out and blow their cover. When you’re shlepping around tens of thousands of dollars of rare earth candy, it’s unwise to make a spectacle of yourself. Unlike most business deals between chefs and their purveyors, the anonymous exchange of truffles for money is shady af.

Oddly, it’s difficult to authenticate the provenance of truffles, which adds to their mystique. Even though you’d expect that chefs would insist on buying the genuine article, the truffle industry lacks a proper ombudsman in the way that consortiums govern Italian wine production with A.O.C designations or Italian cheeses are assigned to a specific D.O.P. Truffles trade on trust.

This means there is always a chance that you’re being sold truffles advertised as from Alba that are actually from Slovenia or Istria, among the very few other places in the world that have soils conducive to unearthing these wild little tubers. White truffles cannot be cultivated. Nature decides for herself where they randomly spore, and she doesn’t make them easy to find.

Provenance aside, the most important reason you shouldn’t order them in a restaurant is freshness. Assuming you aren’t sitting over a bowl of fresh tagliatelle in a restaurant in Piedmont, the truffle you’re eating is likely well past its prime. While the importation of white truffles has become more efficient through the years, they’re still among the most highly perishable agricultural products. Even the most fastidiously preserved white truffle will have lost most of its potency within just a few days.

White Truffles

Chefs in upscale restaurant must front thousands of dollars to put truffles on their menus and sales can be very erratic and inconsistent. Unlike other products chefs would dispose of when spoilage is an issue, they’ll do anything possible to usurp old inventory of truffles before serving the freshest ones. They’ll never admit they do it, but they do. Chefs love serving truffles because they’re a profit machine that requires little effort. Buy them, shave them and overcharge.

Sommeliers in high-end restaurants face a similar predicament when opening expensive trophy bottles. If they perceive that certain wines may be slightly off or borderline, they may try to serve them anyway hoping that the guest will not object. Wholesale cost on an $800 bottle that was purchased by auction five years ago cannot be recouped.

All of this means that the truffles on your hundred dollar pasta dish are likely not the freshest ones the chef has in the kitchen. If the aroma is flat or newspapery, you’ve been suckered. Of course, all chefs aren’t guilty of compromising their standards. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know which kitchens are trustworthy and which aren’t.

The best way to avoid being served inferior truffles is to dine at restaurants that do more volume. The more they cycle through product, the fresher they’ll be. But it’s never guaranteed. Chefs prefer to buy larger quantities of truffles to get better pricing. That can lead to an unwanted surplus when sales lag behind expectations.

Beware the bait and switch. You might see sexy “show truffles” on display, filling the dining room with their musky smell but those will often not be the same ones the chef is shaving over your dish. Ask your servers if the truffle will be shaved table-side. If they say no, insist they do. Politely ask to smell the truffle beforehand. If its aroma is not potent when you smell it, its flavor wont be when they shave it over your food. Remember, generously covering a dish with shavings of an old truffle will only make it taste more like an old truffle.

Good Food Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

good food

I met a friend for dinner recently at a new Italian restaurant that was getting a lot of buzz. When we arrived for an early reservation, the bar was full and the decor was predictably minimalist and modern. It was the kind of restaurant that made you feel like you’ve been there before even though you hadn’t. The silhouettes in the bar area made it almost impossible to read the tiny font of the menu. Maybe it was the shadowy light, but the cocktail glasses looked sad and shrunken, struggling mightily to make a two-ounce pour look generous.

Delicate handmade pastas were flying out of the kitchen while we sipped on our Campari-less Negronis and waited for our meal to begin. We were surrounded on all sides by privileged millennials slugging back overpriced Rosé. As the parade of delicious pastas arrived to our table—Vongole, Ravioli, Rabbit Ragú—there was a sameness about the whole affair that didn’t feel as special as it did twenty years ago when nobody knew what the hell burrata was and everyone thought salumi was a misspelling. The food was good, but it felt like a meal I’d eaten a hundred times before.

Americans used to be ignorant about food. We’re still ignorant about many things—politics, climate change, soccer—but not about food anymore. Our newfound worldliness is a blessing and a curse. We expect more from restaurants but it takes more to satisfy us. Cooking comfort food has become too comfortable.

good food

This puts chefs in a difficult predicament. Delighting guests that are more food literate can cause restaurants to prioritize innovation over flavor. As they push harder for new discoveries, their kitchens become more experimental but they inevitably function more like sterile laboratories than as incubators for culinary creativity.

Satisfying more discerning guests also puts undue pressure on the front-of-the-house to entertain. Staying out of guests’ way used to be a feature of attentive service, now it may be perceived as negligence. Table-side shtick makes service feel more like busking, unapologetically drenching guests in manufactured charm lest anyone forget to leave cash in the guitar case on their way out.

I recently dined at a new restaurant reinforced these ideas. The food was quite good and the kitchen hit all its marks, but it felt uninspired somehow. The obligatory Sashimi style raw fish appetizer—stripped naked of its Asian roots—was Anglicized and safe. The compulsory pan-seared rhombus of farm-raised white fish sounded as fresh as a bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio in the early 90’s. A vegetarian dish, blatantly pandering, headlined the entrees but even vegetarians would probably swipe left on its predictable presentation.

Many articles have appeared lately about the “New Nostalgia” that has seen the resurrection of relics of America’s culinary past like the gaudy pomp and circumstance of Chrome trolleys carrying Prime Rib and Flinstonian slabs of Chateaubriand buttered up and sizzling on Mauviel copper pans. It would seem that once certain chefs run out of fertile new ideas or futuristic flavor combinations, nostalgic cooking becomes a convenient style to fallback on.

Perhaps some diners, too, long for the days when chefs didn’t exist to challenge our palates; they were there to simply feed us. There will always be a segment of the population that wishes we could “Make Restaurants Great Again.” But as with American politics in the Trump Era, yearning for yesteryear causes us to build more walls than bridges and too easily forget just how far we’ve come.