It is National Waiters Day on 16 May but I assume that covers both sexes. In honour of the day here are a few memorable experiences provided by those who wait on.
THE waitress scuttled crablike to our table, arms outstretched as she put down my plate of lamb shank as gingerly as possible. Then she shot back with relief. “Whatever is the matter?” I asked. “I’m a vegetarian,” she said. This was a girl in completely the wrong job.
If she treated the food with disgust, what was the customer to think? Unlike the veggie waitress I got chatting to in a lovely fish and chip café in Hunstanton, Norfolk. “All I can eat here are peas and the occasional chip,” she said brightly.
I do seem to have trouble with lamb shank, a favourite of bistros in the Nineties, cooked long and slow and low until the meat is falling off the bone. At least, that’s the theory. In another Sheffield restaurant when I cut into mine it was decidedly raw. Naturally I complained, pointing out to the waitress the blood in the centre.
“No it’s not, it’s a trick of the light,” she claimed. The meal did not proceed sastisfactorily. Shortly afterwards the place was sold to a very good chef I was friendly with. “Those ovens, they couldn’t get up to cooking temperature,” he confided. Which explained my undercooked shank.
I have had waiting staff do a runner on me. Once was in France when my wife was served up langoustines, one of which was so rotten and off you could see it black with pus. I summoned the waitress, a slip of a girl, but did not quite have the right French words. “Cette langoustine est tres, tres, tres mort!” She fled to the kitchen where Monsieur le chef was called out. He shrugged. We bridled. But there were complimentary glasses of Grand Marnier to follow.
In a smart enoteca in the middle of Rome the whole waiting staff suddenly decamped to the kitchen in an instant, understandable because a gunman wearing a large red bandana over his face and toting a big black pistol suddenly came through the door. He wanted our wallets but he was not having mine. I played the English and stupid cards.
Waiting staff are supposed to be part of the hospitality industry but you would never know it at one hotel in the middle of Bakewell, now under different ownership. We walked in to dine past reception, down a corridor and into the restaurant passing at least half a dozen staff all of whom passed us silently avoiding eye contact. What a welcome by part of the hospitality industry!
So did the single waitress working overtime in the crowded dining room, avoiding our gaze until I coughed pointedly. She found us a table and gave us our menus, without a word. What a pity we ordered dishes she had neglected to mention were off the menu.
Waitresses – and it does seem to be mostly women and girls who wait at table – have done this a lot to me during my reviewing career. I took it as part of my job to review the front of house staff as much as the kitchen because they are the face of the restaurant. And good service can make up for defects in the kitchen.
Part of a waiter’s or waitress’s job is to know the menu and, ideally, to have eaten it so they are knowledgeable. I always asked some damn fool or idle question to see if they were up to the mark and had been listening when the chef explained it to them.
One chef I knew was so keen on his chicken three ways (roasted, poached and moussed) that he had rung me up to tell me in the hope of a paragraph in the paper. I obliged, then went to taste it. How did the chef do his chicken? I asked the girl. She paused then blagged, “He’ll do it any way you want.” Well, full marks for chutzpah.
I have had food slopped all over my jacket by inattentive waiting staff and my wife nearly had her foot speared by a knife dropped by an elderly waiter.
Of course, I have only given you the bad bits because they are the most entertaining. I have had excellent service over the years and it is always a pleasure to see it well done, so that you almost don’t notice it, rather than overdone.
You know the sort of thing – being asked what you want to drink before your bum hits the seat, asked to decide on the wine before you’ve chosen the food and zooming up to the table to inquire if all is well with the meal after you’ve just had the first mouthful.
I always hate, and this is a generational thing, my wife and I being referred to as ‘You Guys.’ One of us isn’t. It is an awful Americanism. And being told ‘No Problem’ about almost anything.
Sometimes there is a language problem with so many Europeans in British restaurants and hotels these days. But the biggest one we ever had was with an American waitress working over here. She asked if we wanted any Meanies. We looked blank. She had several attempts before it clicked. She meant mayonnaise!
We’ll end with an accolade, to the long-gone Italian ristorante I reviewed in the Eighties when my tie (who wears one now?) dropped into the tomato sauce. It was whisked away, cleaned, dried and presented to me clean, fresh, pressed and dry at the end of the meal, free of charge. I still have no idea how they did it.