Despite all my big, jaded talk Monday, I really do try to be a good server. I want to give good service. I want to justify my guests' decision to spend money at my restaurant. I hope my guests feel relaxed, satisfied and nurtured, as though I am the momma bird and they are my chirping babies.
More than anything, I want to make my guests happy. Happy guests leave tips, and tips mean I get to stay in my apartment another month. I may even get to buy some groceries. The thing is, my restaurant usually runs a shift with four or five servers on the floor. If we get too busy, I have to decide which tables are worth more of my attention. There's a difference between serving and serving well.
The tables I just serve get a warm greeting and a rushed recitation of the specials. Their drinks arrive promptly. I don't roll my eyes when they ask if "starter" is synonymous with "appetizer." I check back a few times and thank them warmly for coming in. For my efforts, that table will leave a 13 percent tip, just as I predicted. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Probably not; some tables just have that "10-13 percent look" about them.
But I'll give excellent service if it seems like the table will appreciate it. I learn my guests' names and lead them confidently through the specials menu, abusing adjectives such as "luxurious," "lavish," "exceedingly fresh." and, of course, "scrumptious." ("Exceedingly fresh" doesn't make a lot of sense, and it makes the ingredients sound unripe. But when describing food, I find it's best to talk like a sad high schooler's overwrought poem.) You want some soup? Let me get you a free sample of soup. Just wait and sip on this drink I convinced the bartender to make special for you. Because you are the most special person in the restaurant and probably on the planet.
In between, I carefully scrutinize drink levels and whisk away dirty plates. I tell that hilarious story about how I met the Prince of Wales when he stopped in for a bite last weekend, and how we're going to play beach volley ball as soon as I get off. These tables are top priority.
Usually, I'm handsomely rewarded for this level of service. Restaurants, being the loaded-with-humans industry that it is, really is a two-way street. Show me decency, and I'll trip over myself bringing you those extra napkins. Here are the top five ways to ensure your server will give you excellent service.
Enthusiasm or friendliness If you seem at all happy to be in the restaurant, your server will be happy to have you. I don't want to tarnish anyone's mood. I especially don't want to upset the people who looked up from their menu and said hello and waited patiently for me to ask for the drink order. I have an easier time imagining friendly people as real people who exist outside the restaurant, and I feel bad if I let them down.
Contrary to everything I've said, I can usually forgive a lukewarm tip if the table was gracious. If serving the table is a pleasure, I'm unlikely to snub them on their next visit (this is not to say that just because you don't act like an asshole, you get to tip like one.) I mean, think about it: if I'm in the weeds, should I check on the table who smiled at me when I walked up, or the guy who warned me my ass was his?
Order a lot Remember when I said servers are mathematicians? Servers get bigger tips on higher tabs. A $20 ticket will get a $4 tip, but a $150 ticket will get a $30 tip. I give the most attention to the highest bidder. That's just science.
Tip well habitually. Or leave an unreasonably high tip, just once. The former: Duh. The latter: A few years ago, I had a man in a bright yellow sport coat sit in my section. Another server pulled me aside and told me, "That dude right there? He tips like crazy. He'll leave you, like, 100 percent." I gave him service normally reserved for royalty and the second coming of Christ. My world stopped for this man. He left me $5 on $30. Good, but way less than I expected.
Although I still believe that he will eventually leave me the mythical 80 percent tip, most of my coworkers have demoted him back to "just serve" status. To avoid that, see: Tip well habitually.
Become a regular People who come in regularly become Real People to servers. As we get to know and like them, we're more likely to pay attention. The manager will be inclined to comp something, eventually, off the bill, as a friendly gesture. I mean, we're going to have to see you next week, anyway. Might as well be friends.
Come in with a notepad and ask pointed questions If you discreetly take notes and ask specific questions about the menu, servers will suspect you're a secret shopper. Nothing makes servers wipe their sweaty palms on their grubby aprons more than a secret shopper.
If a secret shopper writes a bad review, suddenly corporate is aware that I spill drinks and how often I say, "Uh, I don't know, let me find out." A blasé attitude is shameful. I probably treat secret shoppers better than I treat my mother. At least my mother can't get me fired because I couldn't list all the cheeses in the queso.