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There is a general misconception that anyone can be a waiter, a job that is the purview of the young and requires little more than good balance and a black tee shirt. At the very least, however, a good waiter is like a conductor, overseeing the bustle that gets the right food to the right person in a timely manner. At best, he or she suggests, guides, attends but does not smother, and orchestrates the timing of courses. And more frequently than not, your chosen restaurant’s waitstaff can make or break your dining experience.
Several years ago, a Baltimore newspaper published an article on dining out from the waiter’s point of view. Based on interviews from a selection of waiters from popular Baltimore restaurants, the results were quite surprising. From the moment a customer entered the restaurant, a quick inventory of jewelry, clothing, handbag was telegraphed to the waitstaff. Additional snapshot assessments like "hot date," " old geezer," and "party of women" rounded out the profile. This information dictated the caliber of service, with those who failed to order drinks quickly falling from grace.
The article also revealed that another pet peeve of waitstaff is New Years Eve and Valentines Day, otherwise known as “amateur nights.” These are the two nights where people who don't usually dine out make a special trip, and are at cross purposes with staff. A waitperson wants to turn the table as quickly as possible and the diner wants a memorable lingering romantic evening, hopefully resulting in their own " tip" at night’s end.
Whether a frequent restaurant diner at Easton’s many choice establishments or an “amateur,” we are all familiar with the lexicon of waitstaff extremes—the waiter from hell or the iconic haughty French waiter, with the perky chain restaurant staff injected in the middle. A good waiter, however, appreciates a knowledgeable customer, as this facilitates a pleasurable experience for both parties. Above all, though, a good waiter needs a good memory and a good attitude.
Where can you find the best example of an artful waiter? Easton is fortunate to have several establishments where obvious care has been given to the training and education of the staff. The staff of Bartlett Pear Inn is friendly and attentive (although I have to say this trend of refolding napkins when one leaves the table makes me feel like a naughty, messy child). They can explain the French cooking terms and pronounce them correctly. When they check back on your entree, it is with the appropriate, "Was the meal prepared to your liking?" rather than, "Is everything ok?" —a question that implies the possibility of it not being ok.
Another restaurant that boasts a pleasant waitstaff is Osteria Alfredo. Their lack of sophistication is redeemed by their great attitude and having the chef/owner stop to chat table-side is a bonus. Brasserie Brightwell gets service points for an energetic waitstaff who know the menu and are passionate about the food. Hearing our waitperson gush about the BB Burger—a burger topped with the richness of brie, ham and a divine creme fraîche—more than sufficiently excites the palette.
Not all good service comes with hefty price tag. As far as chains go, the waitstaff at Chili’s gets my vote for best casual dining service. They are bubbly and helpful, with endless patience for order changes, drink refills, and chatty repartee. A frequent stop-off for families with small children, their easy-going attentiveness can help prevent a doomed evening out.
Finally, although not a restaurant, Bean: Coffee for a Cause has an excellent service practice that is worth noting. The owner and his occasional attendant never cease to leave you with a “We’re grateful for your business,” at the end of the transaction. This drive-through coffee hut on Washington Street gets it right, recognizing that spending money out is not a given in these economic times.
So, attention waitstaff: Providing a pleasant service experience is more than a job, it is an art that can be cultivated through training and high expectations. Fill my water glass, know the answer to "How was this prepared?" and appreciate my patronage—and I will be sure to leave a palatable tip.
Sharon Harrington, a passionate foodie, owns The Art of Cooking, a business specializing in private cooking lessons in clients’ homes. She has studied culinary arts at L' Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda and at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Do you agree with Sharon's picks? Let us know your favorites in the comments section below.