In full-service restaurant dining, to provide guests with a satisfying experience, a delicate balance must be struck between three components: the server, the kitchen staff and the diner.
Your server’s role is to meet your needs efficiently with an air of pleasant professionalism. He also acts as a conduit to communicate your requests to the kitchen staff. The cooks and other kitchen workers have an obligation to fulfill those requests to the best of their abilities and in as timely a manner as possible without sacrificing quality or integrity.
“Hang on a minute,” you’re thinking. “What have I, as a diner, got to do with the level of satisfaction I experience?” After all, you’re just coming in to enjoy a meal and be waited on — and paying for the privilege. Should restaurant guests be at the apex of the service triangle? Absolutely. But, believe it or not, diners do have some responsibilities in the service equation.
You need not be in a stellar or jovial mood as a restaurant patron. Perhaps you’re coming from a funeral, or a hospital bedside, or a court proceeding that didn’t go your way. The best servers are part psychic, and they’ll pick up on the fact that you’re not feeling celebratory and deliver subdued, professional service. Your only obligation is to be courteous and civil with the restaurant staff. Don’t arrive spoiling for a fight or determined to take your bad day out on someone else by finding fault.
Do your best to communicate effectively. We don’t expect you to have our menu memorized when you walk through the door. Take your time. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed into ordering; if you’re not ready, say so. Servers have plenty of other things to do while you decide, even if the dining room is largely empty. You can set your own pace of service by saying, “We’re sort of in a hurry, we have to make an 8 p.m. curtain,” or “We are in no hurry tonight — we’d love to have a few minutes with the wine list before we order.”
Veteran servers will take your cue and adjust their behavior accordingly, even going as far as telling the line cooks, “This is a curtain-call table” or “This will be a leisurely table, guys,” when they put your order through to the kitchen. The beauty of a ticket rail is that a cook can change the order of the tickets. Take advantage of this. If you’ve brought children with you and they are likely to get antsy, let your server know you’d like to order their food and have it served as soon as possible while the adults’ courses are being prepared.
This is important: Please don’t lie about food allergies. Some diners think it’s expedient to claim they are allergic to a hated ingredient to ensure it doesn’t end up on their plate. We in the kitchen are trained to take such claims seriously and at face value. So, if you tell your server, “I’m allergic to mushrooms,” and then order pommes frites, you could bring your meal, other patrons’ meals and the whole kitchen “engine” to a grinding halt while a cook devotes a whole burner and 15 minutes to heating a fresh pot of oil, since mushrooms have been in the fryer at some point earlier. And your fries will end up a pale imitation of what they could have been had they been properly blanched, cooled and re-fried in the high-BTU professional grade fryer.
If you have questions, ask. “How is the grouper prepared?” is perfectly reasonable. “Where do you source your lamb?” is, too. If the server doesn’t know the answer, she’s obliged to find out for you on the double. The manager can find out if the server’s too busy to ask the cooks. Good chefs are proud of their food and happy to answer questions. A chef might even visit your table for a chat if he gets the idea you’re hungry for knowledge as well as food.
Above all, remember — most restaurant workers are simply people trying to do the best they can, so at the end of their shift they can be proud of a job well done. Just like you!
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as Sous Chef of Juleps Catering.