Table Manners

What Service Included teaches us about restaurant service.

When dining out, a significant percentage of what we pay for is service. Having cooked in restaurants for many years, my respect for servers, who earned much more money than I did cooking, has come grudgingly. But especially as I now spend time reviewing restaurants, I am willing to admit that a waiter’s skill has a lot to do with how much I enjoy my meal. Still, the whole craft of service is hard to pin down, especially in our supposedly classless society. What should waiters do to make a meal sparkle? Should they dote? Should they be remote? How should they earn their tip?

Phoebe Damrosch can be very good when pondering these questions inher waiter’s-eye memoir, Service Included, about being a server at Thomas Keller’s haute-dining New York restaurant, Per Se. It has its flaws—I am less interested in the large chunks of the book dedicated to her budding romance with one of Per Se’s sommeliers. And part of me was hoping for a dishy account of reservation blacklists and celebrities who don’t tip well—a waiter’s Kitchen Confidential—which it is not. I suppose discretion (and fear of libel action) is too engrained in the service mentality.

But we can still learn from her clean-nosed account of waitressing in one of the country’s poshest restaurants—it helps us home in on what good service is. Service at Per Se may be different from that at your neighborhood bistro, yet there is something fundamental about what we want from service in either eatery. In that spirit, here are some general formulas to help you assess the skill of your service no matter where you dine.

Greeting skills: S+ = HGTY
New York chef David Pasternack recently told me good service (S+) is basically “hello, goodbye, and thank you” (HGTY). A simple principle but one that is often forgotten, or even, at trendy restaurants, willfully overlooked. Someday, I will learn to walk out of restaurants when I am not acknowledged with at least a “We’ll be right with you …” within a minute of arrival—it is as good a harbinger of a bumpy night as any I know.

The Personality Principle, aka the Rule of Flo: $ = 1/P+C
In general, the amount of personality (P) on display will be inversely proportional to the amount of money you’re spending, not including a base level of cordiality (C). Diners and pubs thrive on emotive servers with tattooed sleeves, and aging waitresses like Alice’s Flo who address you as “hon.” Such personality may make you more forgiving if your entrees don’t come out at the same time. Fine dining, however, relies more on polished neutrality. This should not be mistaken for unfriendliness, but rather a sense that the evening is about the diner and the food, not the server.

Per Se takes this to an extreme, with no music or art on the walls to distract from the meal. And Damrosch notes that the thick employee handbook includes a ban on wearing anything fragrant: “[T]he goal of a good waiter is to be present when needed or wanted, but also to disappear when not needed or wanted. That is hard to do when you smell like a bottle of Pantene Pro-V.”

Checking In: ? ≠ MF
When to appear and disappear is a fine art, and without a doubt, my least favorite server is the one who interrupts your mouthful (MF) with, “How is that pinot/salt-cod croquette/lamb loin?” Such questions should be occasional and timed for a moment when guests are not chewing. At the finest restaurants I’ve dined in, the question itself is obviated—waiters swim about like benevolent sharks, eerily sensing your needs.

“The secret to service is not servitude, but anticipating desire,” writes Damrosch, who surreptitiously kept an eye out for women who might be pregnant through observation: “The salmon cornet usually gave it away because most pregnant American women are deathly afraid of anything raw. Immediately we sent them a cornet made with tomato confit and eggplant caviar.”

Degree of Difficulty: C = $$$
Always account for the complexity (C) of your server’s work. High-end restaurants may require servers to french vegetables (not as naughty as it sounds), fillet fish, or poach meringues tableside in liquid nitrogen. At the movies, I’m a sucker for training scenes— Rocky, Showgirls, Tampopo—and my favorite parts of Service Included detail the training Keller’s management puts the servers through. Such tests include choreography lessons, simulated soup serving using watered-down ketchup, and quizzing on the restaurant’s dishes and wines. A gem of a question from one written test: “Circle the correct one: Cippolini, Cipolini, Cipollini, Cipolinni.”

The Mistake Principal: CM ≤ 2(M)
The time it takes to correct a mistake (CM) should be equal to or less than two times the time it took to make the mistake (M).

Unfortunately, Service Included skirts the issue of mistakes (and I’m sure they’re made, even at Per Se). I’d liked to have heard how feathers are unruffled in a place of such calm. How to handle mistakes quickly and efficiently? At a two-star restaurant in Lyon, France, this year, my husband and I were nursing a half bottle of white Burgundy. Our waiter absent-mindedly poured some mineral water into my husband’s wine glass, before crying out an exclamation both pained and hushed (anticipating, I suspect, the hiding he would get). Before we could react, he returned to our table with two glasses of an eight-year-old Côte-Rotie, a far grander wine than we had been drinking. We were hard pressed not to wish for another stumble, but the rest of the meal was flawless down to the mignardises.

While an apology might come in the form of very noble grape juice at fancy restaurants, efficiently mitigating mistakes is a key to good service at any restaurant. A slice of pie can do the trick, but even a sincere, but simple “I’m sorry” can work.

The Tipping Principal: T ≥ .20
My formulas above would seem to add up to a tip calculator, but in truth, I am as flat as Steve Forbes on tipping: 20 percent on the tab—wine included—every time. (The national average tip is 18.9 percent, according to Zagat.) Why? Waiters are generally paid minimum wage, and tips are their income (they are even taxed on estimated tips). I don’t care to mess with that. Many diners view tipping as a method to evaluate a server—a percentage plus or minus for the sloshed water service or a friendly smile. But, as I’ve written before, tipping is not the best way to communicate your opinion. When tipping 16 percent, you might be trying to say, “I waited too long for my check,” but the waiter just thinks you’re cheap. If you have complaints and want to voice them effectively, follow up with management.

Perilous as a stiffed tip can be for servers, gratuities are not something they are ready to give up—especially at restaurants like Per Se. Just before Damrosch quit, Per Se switched to a different compensation system, with 20 percent gratuities built into the bill (in lieu of tips at the discretion of the diner) to be divided by management among all staff, cooks included. Fair as the system sounds—similar programs are also in play at Chez Panisse and Charlie Trotter’s—and despite the fact that Per Se offered a higher wage for the servers to make up for their lost gratuity income, Damrosch estimates that the new system would have meant the loss of one-quarter of her salary.

In the end, Damrosch’s decision to leave waitressing after less than two years at Per Se limits the draw of the book. Service Included gives us a peek at the world of fine dining, but since Damrosch clearly has more of a passion for writing than wine, she doesn’t show the complete dedication to métier that has made Keller and his team stand out in both Napa and New York. That’s fine—it’s the line-cook dabbler in me that recognizes the serving dabbler in Damrosch. But I’m still hoping someone will publish a truly fanatic voice on service, someone who writes as passionately and arcanely about finessing a table as Keller writes a menu.