In late October, as part of his start-up chronicle for the New York Times’s You’re The Boss blog, Bruce Buschel posted what he called “a modest list of dos and don’ts” for servers at the Bridgehampton, N.Y. seafood restaurant he’s opening on April Fool’s Day. He included the above nuggets, along with 96 others. Far from “modest,” the list, laid out in two parts, touched off frantic comment-slinging in New York Times-land. Interest grew as links to the article and rejoinders from far corners of the food and business blogospheres ping-ponged through Twitter and Facebook. I first saw Buschel’s piece on Facebook. The morning of the second part’s publication (a week after the first), a friend posted it to his profile and dissed it hard (“what an asshole”). A former bus boy at Per Se and the original Momofuku as well as a third year law school student, my friend is familiar with both the industry in question and argument as a general preoccupation. He brought both strands of experience to bear on his brief take. Combing the comments to Buschel’s posts, I found that reactions were typically extreme and severe, running the gamut from similarly negative (“Who died and made this guy the bossy know-it-all?”, for example) to laudatory (“This should be a must for every server and restaurant employee to memorize.”). Comment-writers are a special breed. A certain kind of person has the time to read widely, strong opinions on most subjects, and a compulsion to dive into whatever fray they sense forming. Comment-writers rarely stand in for the larger population, just a subset of opinionated comment-writers who happen to have read the same thing. This is especially true when the piece provoking debate appears in the New York Times, a journal of record frequently accused of catering to an elitist readership.
In this case, some of the entries — a hearty portion, actually — concern a wee wafer of the food and hospitality universe — nice restaurants for dates, expense accounts, vacations, and special occasions — specifically, the sorts of places I imagine the writer frequents with more regularity than me. After all, the proprietor of a barbecue restaurant in rural South Carolina would not be compelled to offer olive oil as well as butter with bread (#19), and if some asshole from New York skated through and dumbly asked for it, he’d have to send him on his way — maybe to Olive Garden, where bread and oil are endless. Buschel anticipates that critique: “I realize that every deli needs a wisecracking waiter, most pizza joints can handle heavy metal, and burgers always taste better when delivered by a server with tattoos and tongue piercing(s).” Aside from his frail and stunted knowledge of delis, pizzerias, and burger places, Buschel’s advice ostensibly only concerns plans for his own restaurant, an organic vegetable and fish dispensary with nary a hoof nor a feather on the menu; yet the act of publishing his list suggests he thinks it has universal value.
Of course, Bruce Buschel doesn’t even know what he’s doing. He’s a novice, you see, a dilettante, something he made sure to lay out in his very first post, a question-and-answer session with a hypothetical naysayer. He’s never taken an order. He’s never been tipped worse than a washroom attendant. His experience with restaurants is limited to dining in them. He’s unfettered by an intimate knowledge of the industry. How refreshing! His do’s and dont’s reflect his own preferences, and perhaps those of his friends; when they’re pressed into service at his own establishment, he’s assuming diners will feel the same way. I’m not hating on #5. “Tables should be level without anyone asking.” Oh god, yes — shaky tables are the pits. No one wants to spend the first five minutes of any meal anywhere trying to fold a paper towel under a wobbly leg. Others are absurd. For example, if a guest “goes gaga” over dish, no server should have to ask the chef for the recipe on the excessively complimentary guest’s behalf (#97). The guest should be told to chill out and come back soon.
I eat out a lot, both recreationally and professionally, and I have my own preferences too, though I would hesitate to open a restaurant and impose them on guests and employees. I’m a wreck, basically. I send mixed signals. I like to be left alone, for starters, but I hate having an empty glass. Fill it frequently enough and I’ll fall asleep before dinner is over. I dread the sight of a beaming server approaching to check in with me. I am sensitive, and I anticipate condescension well before it happens, and I know it happens all the time. Excessively nice servers make me feel bad, like I should go get my food myself and share it with them, maybe feed it to them, bite by bite. I don’t like anyone acting like they’re catering to my needs, but I don’t mind them being catered to just a little bit. I don’t care how fine a dining experience is supposed to be; I like to hang my own jacket on the back of my chair and put my napkin in my own lap. And I don’t like to have anything to complain about because I can’t stand the possibility of conflict — at least with strangers. I have seen people pitch fits in restaurants over service. Interestingly, my friend who hated Buschel’s column is himself a very demanding consumer. In college, hung-over, at a breakfast place, he once sent back a ham-and-Swiss omelette because it came topped with inauthentic white American cheese instead of Emmentaler. A year or two later, he cleared a booth at a Manhattan diner to exchange screams with a waitress after he refused to pay for fries he received and ate but didn’t order. He had points to make in both instances, but neither situation would have riled me. A white American omelette is authentic in northern Ohio, and fries are always nice to have. He should have ordered them in the first place and saved the waitress the trouble of guessing he’d probably like eating them.
Food and service are two very different things intertwined in the dining experience. I’m food-focused, and apart from my admitted quirks, rarely find that service rubs me the wrong way unless the food also sucks. Four years or so ago, I had a strange, sneering server at Perbacco, but I turned the other cheek. It was full of coppa. On several occasions, my girlfriend and I shifted nervously through meals at the lovable and lamentably late Vogalonga Trattoria. Our regular waiter was capable and friendly to me, but strangely, when he took her order, he refused to look at her. He would stare into my eyes awkwardly and ask her what she wanted. How weird, I thought every time it happened, but we still went back. Another time, we waited for a table at The Front Porch for over 45 minutes, and then, upon finally sitting down and ordering, waited once again for an hour before the first scrap of food arrived. I didn’t give a shit about the fried chicken by the time it came; I just wanted to bail, which was why it was annoying that the server kept trying to make us eat dessert.
Restaurants love to offer free dessert when something goes wrong with your meal. The idea is to soothe you, and send you off with a sweet taste in your mouth, instead of fuming over the under-cooked chicken you sent back. I don’t get it. If I want dessert — which I usually don’t — I order it. If I don’t order it, I’m full. Buschel should add a #101 on the subject: when someone screws up something, comp cocktails instead of dessert. Then again, my lady and I dined at Delfina the night before Christmas Eve, and at the conclusion of our meal, received a free dessert — a lemon panna cotta, I believe. The food that night was great, if a little less stunning than it’s been in the past, but this made it better — even though we’d already had plenty to eat. We had no idea why we’d been selected for such a treat. We saw no quivery cylinders squishing across other plates in the vicinity. They must have known my status, I joked on the way home. Was our server’s generosity a random display of holiday spirit? Had we failed to notice something terribly amiss with our meal? We could thing of nothing. Buschel, take note: comp something even when no one screws up — even if its dessert (#102).