Often when you go out to eat, your meal is simply viewed as a necessary means of sustenance -- a vehicle for nutrition on the days you can't even muster the energy to push the buttons on your microwave to conjure food from a frozen box. Days like these your waiter might have to drop a plate of spaghetti in your lap to turn your mood south. You're just happy to have a beer in your hand that someone else had to pour.
Other meals -- the ones that mark special occasions, involve dining destinations or otherwise promise a culinary escape -- come with higher expectations for the service you receive. A customer might expect to be pampered a touch, to feel attended to, or at the least treated with some basic level of dignity. It isn't that hard to twist a bottle cap and nuke a Salisbury steak, after all.
No matter what sort restaurant, we all prefer good service, and sooner or later we all encounter the opposite. You recognize what's coming as soon as it starts. Your waiter drops off the menus with a curt hello but neglects to take your drink order or fill water glasses. After spending time with your menu (and deciding on three courses, dessert, the bar you'll visit next for a night cap and your vacation destination for the following spring) your waiter returns and takes your drink order before quickly scurrying away again.
This is about when you notice the customers in the section next to yours. They're drinking, laughing and nibbling on golden bread slathered with warm, salted butter that is sadly missing from your table. Then your candle goes out. Then the sadness creeps in. You realize it's going to be a very long night.
So what do you do?
Lots of us claim we'll giddily stiff the waiter with a substandard tip. But the thing is, you likely won't. Studies show we always tip similar amounts, if only to avoid learning a new math equation. (Move the decimal to the left, double the tax, carry the seven ...) Unless your treatment was bad enough to warrant a sock full of pennies, either dumped on the table or swung with great heft, you'll likely tip what you always tip. Now you've paid full price for a sub-standard experience. You go home pissed off and the waiter is rewarded for sucking at his job.
While it may go against the commonly understood definition of service, the burden of assuring that you get treated properly sometimes rests squarely on your shoulders. If you end up with a bad waiter, don't silently stew while you passive aggressively plan a fiscal retaliation that you likely won't carry out anyway. Here are some tips for salvaging your evening.
Try not to blame them for everything It may be hard to believe, but the person holding that pad of paper and a pen is actually a human, complete with feelings, emotions and limitations. Is your steak not cooked to your liking? That's likely not your waiter's fault. Nor is the amount of time the food took to arrive, the funny look the valet driver got you handed him your keys, or that extra charge that appeared on your cable bill last month. Frame your expectations and understand that your waiter is responsible for only a portion of your experience.
Admit you're half responsible for the relaitonship between you and your waiter It's true. You might think that because you hold the power over a portion of their salary with a pen stroke that you've bought your own personal servant. It's not really like that. Act gracious and warm and you'll likely get those great vibes back. Act curious and adventurous and your energy will infect your waiter, too.
Try the Jedi intervention This is an advanced maneuver that can only be pulled off by those with a certain personality, but if you've got the gift, it works. As soon as you feel things going south, get up from your table and approach the waiter's station and say something in line with the following: "Hey man, I feel like we got off on the wrong foot. I wanted to let you know that my friends at the table have been looking forward to this meal for weeks. It is a very special occasion for us. We were hoping we could start fresh."
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People don't normally do things like this, so your waiter is probably going to freak out a little (if only on the inside). But if your tone was sincere and genuine, you just got a new lease on your evening.
Talk to the manager and ask for a new waiter Still have an empty glass? Use the same speech from above but tell the manager you were hoping you could get a new waiter instead. Try not to make eye contact with your old waiter. It will be uncomfortable.
Blow off your waiter and sit at the bar Use this tip enough and you'll wonder if most waiters are just jilted employees that wanted to be a bartender instead. Bartenders almost always seem to have a little extra cool. And the fact that they're framed in by a massive piece of mahogany assures they'll always be in front of you. The bar isn't optimal for eye contact if you have a large party, but a corner section will help you seat more people comfortably. You might even meet someone new.
If your service is bad at the bar, all hope is lost. Run out to your car, sneer at that valet guy and gather the pennies from your ashtray and the sock from your gym bag. You've done everything you could. Make this tip count.