Megan Bayley
Photo Credit: Megan Bayley

A week or so ago, I had dinner with an old friend and her family at a very, very tony restaurant here in San Francisco. The layout of the space was beautiful– everything was styled to the teeth: the flowers, the décor, the enormous boards of cheese which sat near the bar, offering a come on to the men in the general vicinity that was nearly as pungent and gooey as those from the perfume-soaked women who jockeyed for prime barstools. Even the service staff looked as if it had been culled from the pages of a Brooks Brothers catalogue– they were clean cut, attractive, and wearing dark, conservative suits.

Everything looked perfect.

When we sat down at our table, we discovered a delightful surprise– the large, hard bound menus revealed a personal message: “Happy Birthday Jill” on the inside. She was touched. I think. Anyway, she was pleased.

We were excited about the menu’s offerings. There in small black print were things I’d never had, but had always wanted to try, but lacked either the energy or knowhow to actually hunt down and cook for myself. Things like rampion and fiddlehead ferns.

The sommelier was spot on, too. I told him what part of the world we felt like drinking from, what we were willing to spend, and what sort of basic qualities we wanted. He returned promptly with exactly what I was looking for.

The meal itself was delightful. The flavors and textures and plating were gorgeous, if a little on the meagre side, but that was to be expected in such a place. We were having a grand old time. Unfortunately, there was one element that completely fell flat on its face, as far as I was concerned:

The service.

The waiter was polite. Almost too much so. He was deferential to the point of seeming afraid to approach the table as we talked. When we asked his opinion on specific dishes, he didn’t seem to have any, yet when someone at the table asked what his favorite items were, he told us something to the effect that everything was delicious.

And when asking us if we had made our decisions, he made the fatal (with me) error of saying something akin to “Have we decided on our dinner?”

Funny, I never thought to ask if he was hungry. I thought of asking another waiter if he could pull up an extra chair so that we could make it dinner for five.

What on earth was he so afraid of? Three lovely Texas woman? Me? Is that what made him shy away from the table so much that he couldn’t manage to fill our wine glasses when they were going on empty? Was he simply less interested in us because we were more than likely not spending as much money as his other tables?

Sitting there in my plush banquette, I wondered to myself this question:

What the hell does it take to get a great waiter in this town? I have had so few. The only answer I could come up with is this:

Luck. Pure, unholy luck.

It doesn’t seem to matter much what type of venue you are patronizing. High end restaurants are no guarantee of great service, though one’s expectations are higher when there. Boulevard? I’ve had both great service and totally lack-luster service. Masa’s? I was lucky enough to have someone I knew take care of me. We were the only people in the place that seemed to be having a good time. The French Laundry? Don’t get me started. One of the best servers I have ever encountered in this city was at a little breakfast place in the Haight. I wanted to kiss her and give her all of my money. At least I had enough courage to do the latter.

Of course, I am a professional waiter by trade, so I tend to notice everything happening around me when dining out. It’s an occupational hazard. I do not, however, think my standards are sky high. Nor do I think they are universal. My ideas of great service might differ from yours. Here are my particular needs and idiosyncrasies:

My ideal server…

• Is confident in his knowledge of the food and wine he serves.

• Has opinions.

• Is not afraid to either approach my table nor make menu suggestions.

• Is friendly and warm, but not over-sharing.

• Does not say “How are we this evening?” or “Have we decided yet?” He uses the plural “you.”

• Does not tell me her name when she walks up to the table for the first time. If she is wonderful and engaging, I will ask for her name as well as give her my own.

• Does not try to sell me something right off the bat. Rather, he says “Hello.”

• Lets me know if she feels I am ordering too much food.

• Asks me if the temperature of my wine is good and if I would prefer my white wine on the table or on ice.

• Keeps my wine glass filled, but does not over-pour.

• Is as kind to the table next to me as she is to me.

• Does not look disheartened when I order a bottle of wine that costs less than $100.

• Claims an undramatic responsibility for any mishaps. Mistakes happen. They don’t bother me.

• Acts as if he cares about what he’s doing.

• Makes me feel welcome.

• Makes me feel as if I am being taken care of.

Frankly, it’s that last bullet point that I want the most. When I dine out, I just want to be taken care of. Not coddled. Not ass-kissed. Just taken care of.

I mean, this is the hospitality industry I’m talking about, isn’t it?

What do you expect from your servers? I’d really like to know. Of course, if you are one of those people who feels that a server should be seen and not heard, you may feel free to refrain from comment.

What Makes A Great Waiter Great? 13 May,2010Michael Procopio

  • Alex

    Agreed. A great waiter should enhance the evening. I shouldn’t feel like a burden (as long as my requests are somewhat reasonable/simple). I want to feel like a guest and that the waiter sincerely wants me to enjoy my time there. Shouldn’t be that difficult, but I agree that it is…

  • Stephanie

    Well put. My 2 cents:

    –Does not refer to my table as “you guys.” Unless we’re dining at, say, Red’s Java House, my friends and I do not want to be referred to as guys. We are probably twice your age, punk, and many of us are women. Just a plain “you”, or even “you ladies”, will be fine.

    –Does NOT say, ever, “Are you still working on that?” I loathe this phrase, and rue the day it entered, seemingly instantly and all at once, into the server lexicon. A simple “May I take your plate?” will suffice. Or I will start replying, per Florence Fabricant, “No, we’re still SLAVING away here.”

  • Jen

    for such a high profile food city, sf has what i consider mediocre service, even on the high end. i had a very similar experience to what you described at spruce. the waiter, although proficient was completely detached from providing a superb dining experience, one which expects from a restaurant like spruce! i really believe the servers in sf do not take their profession seriously. they all have this attitude – this is a temporary job while i pursue my “real” career. i know when i have good service. i can tell that the server treats his/her profession like a job that they want to excel in. then everything falls into place. the attitude goes away, they give and expect respect, and there’s a sense of care and commitment to the relationship between them and the diner as well as to the overall dining experience.

    another point i would like to add to your list.
    – Don’t condescend me or my guest
    For example, if I bring my father in-law who’s not from a big city out to dinner and he asks you what kind of sauce is on the pasta, don’t talk down to him and say “oh we don’t do sauces here, the pasta is..blah blah….”

  • Kkcc

    I understood where you were coming from until I started reading your list. It seems to me that waiters must rely on luck, too, to be paired up with a customer who won’t whine about everything. Your ideal waiter doesn’t offer their name just because you don’t care unless they’re “interesting”? Please.

  • I think if your willing to spend your money on everything or anything on a menu, even if you want it specially made for you, then you really need to demand great service, but if your looking to Nickle and dime a place and the server, then don’t expect great service!!!!!

  • John

    One of the qualities that a waiter should have is to be observant enough to know when I am about to ask for something and be available for my request. I find it very awkward when waiters come every five minutes and ask you how you’re doing, as I inevitably will have just stuck a fork full of food in my mouth. Be there, be available, but only when you’re needed. It’s not an easy quality to find, but makes for a wonderful dining experience.

  • Margaret

    Number one faux pas in my opinion? INTERUPTING the conversation with your friends to ask how the food is. This is basic courtesy. Mom taught you not to interupt, but now that you are living on your own terms you just bring that bad boy behavior to work. Generally I leave a very small tip for the boneheads who commit this sin. I do not want to spend my evening with my waiter, I am engrossed with my guests, and a waiter should approach the table courteously, with eye contact, or bending a bit nearer to signal that they want to ask us something. And wait for a lull in your conversation,(or chewing)to ask the silly question ‘How is everything?’ Honestly, if things weren’t right I would have let them know. Now leave us alone please, and let us enjoy our food. Please don’t demand that it’s all about YOU. (Waiters).

  • Michael

    I agree with most everything you wrote on your list of the essentials in a waiter. And I agree whole-heartedly on the INTERUPTING post by Margaret.

    I will admit that I think it is a sign of respect to the waiter for the customer to call him/her by name. While I realize that most people do not remember names, I feel that a waiter should be called by name as opposed to “EXCUSE ME” or some random hand signal. Waiters are people too and deserve to be called by their proper name, even if they are serving you as a customer.

  • Becky

    I’ve been a server for many years and I think the most important bullet on your list is that the server is knowledgeable about the restaurant’s food and drink selection. Nothing worse then a server merely memorizes a menu and refuses to really know the food. A good server knows how to form appropriate opinions and suggestions. Accountability is also important, although the server has no control over the actual cooking of the food, he/she should never let a plate go out that doesn’t look right, and if a customer is vocal about a bad dish, do whatever he/she can do to make up for it. Proper coursing and pre-busing is a must, I don’t forgive a server for leaving empty glasses and dirty flatware on the table.
    That being said, you simply cannot please everyone all the time. Sometimes diners have unreasonable expectations for servers, we are not mind readers, we are not there for your entertainment purposes. Sometimes we have to interrupt to ask if everyone is enjoying the meal, Margret. I don’t want to sit and have dinner with you, or chat it up while you’re tying to eat. I’m just there to make sure you get the most out of what the restaurant has to offer. Remember this while over-scrutinizing the wait staff.


Michael Procopio

I am terribly fond of martinis, Edward Gorey, and sleeping with many pillows.
You are more than welcome to follow me on Twitter: @procopster

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor