If you dine out regularly, you've probably experienced it: a server flashing that deer-in-headlights stare and coughing up a lame "I don't really know" to your question about an item on the menu. It's enough to make you suggest to your server the he or she consider other career options -- in government service or technical support, say -- but you hold back. You've heard the legends about waiters spitting in food or dropping steaks on the floor in the name of vengeance.
If it helps soothe your exasperation, know that you're not alone. Some of the harshest critics of wait staff are other members of the service industry.
"Lack of menu knowledge is a huge turn off," says veteran chain restaurant server and key hourly Ariana. "It's like you just want to ask 'How long have you been working here? Do you think maybe you could go and, I don't know, ask someone?'"
There isn't anything wrong with expecting competent service, Ariana says, and there's no need to worry that one wrong move you're part will get you a salad that's been sneezed on. Servers aren't waiting gleefully for an excuse to fuck up your food. In fact, most are eager to give you the best possible experience.
When these sames servers become diners in a new restaurant, they bring a sharp eye for telltale signs their servers know their stuff, beyond just answering questions about the menu.
"I feel like I'm picky because I walk in and know where everything is," Ariana says.
Like Jason Bourne, an experienced server can walk into a dining room and with just a few glances size up everything from where every exit is to how well the glasses in the bar are stocked. "I'm going to watch where that server's other tables are, where she is in relation to the beverage station and what her attitude in general is," she says. "That's the biggest thing is attitude."
It's OK, she says, to cut a server a little slack on an exceptionally busy evening or if they forgot to bring you that extra side of ranch, but generally servers don't come to eat at restaurant during a lunch or dinner rush -- they're working - so slow service for them is inexcusable.
"I have horrible short term memory," she admits. "But you always apologize when you space bringing something small like that to a table because you are busy. You just have to always remember that you're working for your guests. They're the ones paying you."
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But don't just stiff on a tip if you're unhappy.
"Speak to a manager rather than stiffing your server," Ariana says. "That way the issue[s] can actually be addressed. Stiffing someone won't accomplish anything."
She also says not to gauge the whole evening by that initial vague response about a menu item.
"You can always smile and pleasantly suggest that they go ask someone who might know," she says. "And they will."