No, hold on. Don't leave yet.
I know that I, disgruntled bearer of coffee and a bad attitude, should be the last breathing person to give serving advice. But I've worked in restaurants for years. I've talked some tables into leaving a few extra dollars, and I've frustrated others into scratching through the tip line completely. Talk about a learning experience, especially when that month's rent is on the line.
Also: I thought it would be fun to write an article that blames the server, not the patron. Comments, ahoy!
Here are five of the worst things a server can say to a table, and how you, waiter of tables, can say them better.
"Anyone save room for dessert?" This doesn't make sense. No one's stomach is designed like a game of Tetris. And worse, it lends a revolting image to the diner: "Hey, you've got all this chewed up meat and food bits gummed together with saliva sloshing around in your stomach acid. Is your stomach stretched to capacity, or do you want to put some cheesecake on top of it?"
Instead, say: "Are you looking forward to a piece of Key lime pie? How about our homemade apple crisp?"
I know that offering dessert is annoying, and I know plenty of people subscribe to the "If I want it, I'll ask for it!" theory. But most restaurants require that the server say something about dessert. This phrase is the best lure I've found. It acknowledges a guest's capacity for foresight and lets them say, "Oh, no, I wasn't planning on dessert," instead of admitting, "Not this time, I gorged myself at dinner because I'm a gigantic glutton."
Saying this also lets the server upsell the living shit out of the dessert menu. Anyone same room for dessert? No. Were you looking forward to our freshly baked chocolate cake, topped with ice cream made with milk from God's cattle and sugar collected from angels' wings? Well, maybe we'll look at a dessert menu.
"You need some change?" Assuming a table is going to leave you anything at all is a server's first mistake. Picking up a wad of cash and essentially saying, "I get to keep all this, right?" is understandably infuriating. It puts the guest in an awkward position. "Uh, no. I need change. That is, after all, my money."
Instead: Always, always assume a guest wants change. Never in the history of ever has a guest thought, "Oh, well, I really didn't need change. Her tip was in there, but since she brought me all these smaller bills, I guess I'll go have a field day at the vending machines. No tip today!"
If I see cash sticking out of a book, I pick up the book and assure my table, "All right, let me make some change for you." This leaves a comfortable gap for the guest to stay quiet and wait for change, or to interrupt and say, "Nope, don't worry about it. I don't need it."
Rambling, quasi-hilarious stories to one table after another Even though it's a server's job to make every table feel like an intensely special snowflake, we usually slip up and use the same script over and over. It's hard to remember everybody at every table is their own person with a set of thoughts and feelings and ears.
I can always tell that as much as my table enjoyed my monologue about the time I played water polo with Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Hasker, they shut down a little when they hear me giving the same performance to another table. They believe that I am trying to charm a few extra dollars off of them, and they are big, hungry ATM machines. They feel duped.
I used to work with a guy who, when refilling drinks, said over and over, "Because dehydration is nobody's friend!" Repeating this not only makes your tables feel un-special, but it also makes everybody in the world hate you.
Luckily most guests do not care much about their server, and they're probably more interested in their dining mates and spinach dip. So just phrase things differently, so each table feels they got a unique dining experience. Or: Don't say anything at all. Just shut the fuck up and bring the entrées.
"Are you still working?" Cleaning dirty plates off of tables is a must, but whisking away half-full dishes leaves you with a hungry, irritated guest come tip time. Asking repeatedly, "You finished? Still working? Are you done? Can I get that? Can I have it? Drop the fork and push away from the table, fatty..." -- all of these make the guest feel rushed, leaving them with indigestion and a gob of half-chewed enchilada floating in their stomach, which you will later remind them about when you ask if they saved room for dessert.
Unless a guest's plate is licked clean, pushed away from them or covered with a napkin, I leave my tables alone. They can tell me when they're finished. Even if a plate matches the three conditions above, I'll usually say something to check: "Can I get this out of your way? Are you still nibbling?"
I know that the word "nibbling" may be grating for some guests, but it's better than asking, "You still working on that?" because since when has eating out been work?
"Oh, everything is good here!" It's a tough question when guests asks, "What should I order?" It's different when a guest asks, "What do you recommend?" or "What are the best dishes?" That allows me to share my experience with the dishes and previous guests. I can work with that question. (We usually have a stock answer we have to give, anyway: "I prefer the most expensive dish," or, "I prefer this dish because we ordered too many ingredients and need to get rid of them.")
But when a guest asks, "What should I order?" it forces me to assume things about their tastes and preferences. I mean, I don't know what you want. You grew up eating food. Look at the things that are similar to the things you like.
But saying, "Oh, it's all good!" is equally unhelpful. It's just not likely that a table will hear that advice and order everything on the menu. "Everything is good" translates to, "Everything is bad," and the meal can't progress. It also sounds like nobody has eaten here, ever, so the results for Best Dish aren't in yet.
Instead, put on a brave face and act like you work here. Eat something (if you're a star server, sample everything on the menu) and enjoy it. Then tell your tables about it. It's the easiest way to be a better server.
If you can spotlight one particular dish for its flavors and textures, your guest will, if they don't take your advice, at least trust you as a server with thoughts and know-how.
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