As a seasoned diner, you've been through it all.
You've listened, dumbfounded, as the opinionated fantasist held forth. She's the server who tells you her favorite dish – never mind that she hasn't had the opportunity to taste a single thing on the menu. You've fallen victim to the Champagne pusher, the maitre d' who offers you a glass of bubbly, with the implication that it's on the house. (It's not. It turns up on your bill at $18 per lovely flute.)
You've suffered the BFFW, the waiter who introduces himself, squats down next to you to tell you the specials and later in the meal jumps into the conversation because, hey, we're all friends.
Just as great service can turn a mediocre meal into a jolly good time, poor service can ruin an otherwise excellent dinner. Last month I put the question to readers of Eats, The Dallas Morning News' food blog: Which service mistakes bother you most?
And readers responded, passionately, in more than 90 comments describing an array of miscues that drive them crazy. The list paints an interesting picture of some of the biggest service issues facing Dallas restaurants.
Here's the good news: All the mistakes are easy to fix. In the interest of polishing up our dining act as Dallas steps into the national spotlight, let's take a walk through the problems (listed in order of how frequently readers mentioned them) and their fixes.
1. Servers with boundary issues
The miscues readers mentioned most often involve servers who have problems with boundaries in one way or another. "Servers interrupting my conversation, introducing themselves, chatting, constantly asking if we're 'OK,' " was the way one reader put it.
"I actually prefer professionally aloof to friendly," another chimed in.
Elisio Ruiz, a reader in Dallas, objected to being touched by a waiter. "I can't explain it," he wrote. "I am generally a warm and cordial person. But for some reason, I cringe when a server thinks it's OK to put his or her hand on my shoulder or my arm."
Sometimes the boundary being crossed is the plate, as the server describes the dish she's just placed before you, pointing to each component. "The closer the finger gets to the food, the more it bugs me," wrote one reader.
In fact, servers may be trained to touch customers. "There's some research that shows that it improves tips," says Alex Susskind, associate professor of food and beverage service management at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily appropriate. "I don't consider it friendly," he says, "I consider it intrusive." In a casual or fast-casual restaurant, people have a higher level of tolerance, he says, but servers should be able to read the guest and guess at their comfort level.
The fix: One reader, a former server, suggested that it's up to the customer to voice preferences, such as whether he minds being touched. Susskind disagrees. "The server has to figure out what the guest wants," he stresses. In any case, he says: "Never interrupt a guest. There's nothing you have to do as a server that's more important than a guest's experience."
2. The AWOL waiter
Another constellation of annoyance concerns the waiter who does a disappearing act.
Sometimes he fails to materialize. The host or hostess shows you to your seat, and then – nothing. No one. If you're lucky, you already have a menu. But sometimes you're left stranded for five or 10 minutes before being greeted. Diners search the room futilely for the AWOL waiter when they're ready to order, when the steak's overcooked, when wine glasses are empty and the bottle's been set out of reach, when more bread is required.
The fix: This is a management issue. The manager needs to make sure the restaurant is properly staffed, that each server isn't responsible for too many tables. And he or she needs to be on the floor surveying the scene. If a table needs attention, the manager can make sure the server gets to it.
3. Mea culpa? Not!
The clumsy or inadequate handling of mistakes got under the skin of many readers: servers who don't know when a problem requires the attention of a manager, servers who don't apologize for mistakes they've made or who don't ask whether there was a problem when you left most of the food on your plate. "Don't make me ask for the manager after determining that the black speck in my wife's wine is moving on its own and is a live insect," commented Tom Mueller in Dallas.
The fix: It's the server's responsibility to make sure diners are enjoying the experience. Are they pushing the food around their plates? Find out what's wrong, beyond just asking generically, "How is everything tonight?" And then make it right. Not cooked properly? Take it back to the kitchen. Did the guests suffer crazy-long waits for their food? Comp a dessert or two. Not sure how to handle it? Get the manager.
4. Diner held hostage
Dinner has gone swimmingly, with great food and wonderful service. But now you can't get your check. You've been there, right? More than a few readers have.
The fix: "There are two things that management and staff have direct control over that will always help the guest's experience," says Susskind. "The beginning of the meal and the end of the meal. You can never get a guest seated too quickly, and you can never get a guest the check and get them closed out quick enough." Just do it.
5. The hard-sell
Whether it's a server overselling the side dishes to the point that you wind up with a table full of food you can't eat, or suggesting a wine that's twice the price of the one the restaurant has run out of, readers resent the hard-sell. "I never return to a restaurant when, after dinner, I feel like I have been victimized by a huckster," wrote one. Still, part of servers' job is to sell the restaurants' dishes and wines. How to find a balance?
The fix: Servers should suggest side dishes or wines they honestly think will enhance the guests' meal. Don't push the side order of roast potatoes if French fries come with the main course. If a diner asks about a $50 bottle of wine, and you have an even better one for $40, suggest that; the diner will appreciate it and may well leave a more generous tip. The corollary is knowing the menu and wine list. If you can describe the way something is cooked and make it sound as good as it probably is, or know the relative bargains on the wine list, that's a much easier sell.
6. The pace flub
Diners don't like to feel rushed, nor do they want to have to wait too long between courses. Even if the server nails the beginning and end of the meal (getting customers seated quickly, making sure they have a drink, getting them the check as soon as the customer's ready for it), pacing the meal in between those two endpoints is much trickier.
The fix: Servers should watch their tables and try to estimate when diners will be finished with a course to know when to fire the next one. Kristin Kinowski, a server at Salum, says that four or five minutes before diners are finished with their appetizers, she'll tell the kitchen to fire the main course. How does she know? She watches the tables closely. "That's why you see us pacing around the floor," she says. "Watching closely is key to providing good service in general."
7. Uh-oh, it's Mr. Unclean
A number of readers objected to bussers or servers who sweep the floor while guests are dining, who wipe the table with the same cloth used to wipe the chair, who generally disregard hygiene or noisily drop dirty dishes into bins within diners' earshot. One reader is bugged "when the waiter is clearing the plates and tries to make it into a logic puzzle by seeing how they can stack the plates and mush all the remaining food together so that they can take it all away in one trip. Disgusting."
The fix: Offending bussers and servers, clean up your act.
8. Tip shenanigans
"Do you need change?" This is a question that irked a number of readers. The server who rounds up change from a cash tip in his own favor, or who brings the change in big bills in the effort to land a bigger tip also fared poorly.
The fix: Bring the change, bub, even if you're not sure it's necessary. If some smaller bills are needed for the diner to leave a 20 percent tip, then by all means, include some smaller bills.
9. The plate escape
"I cannot stand it when a server begins removing plates before everyone at the table has finished the course," wrote Liz Ginsberg, a reader in Dallas. "The person still eating feels rushed, and the person whose plate is cleared before everyone else feels like they ate too fast." I have to say that those are my sentiments exactly, and they were echoed by a number of readers. But Jerri Joles in Richardson commented: "It bothers me when they don't pre-bus or remove some of the dirty, used plates, bowls, etc. from the table. They clutter the table and are unappetizing-looking." So who's right?
As it turns out, it depends on the type of restaurant and on the specific policy of the management. "Some restaurants allow servers to clear plates before everyone's done," explains Susskind, and it's usually the casual spots. In more upscale establishments, he says, "The standard is you don't clear till everyone's done."
And what about in-between places? "There is no one convention," he says. "It's up to the feel they want to have in the restaurant."
But how confusing for customers! And how disturbing to the diner who finds one or the other objectionable.
The fix: At Ellerbe Fine Foods in Fort Worth, a server came up with a smart solution. "Normally I don't clear plates until everyone has finished," she said, when one of my dining companions had finished his soup. "But perhaps you'd like me to take this now?" Problem solved, though it was a mouthful for a busy server.
10. The wine squeeze
A server pours the wine all around the table, overfilling the glasses, and comes up empty before getting to the last guest. "Another bottle?" he asks perkily. It may or may not be an honest mistake, but it's a mistake nonetheless, and in any case it can leave the diner feeling had. Of course, you have to spring for that second bottle.
The fix: This one's easy. "You've got to do the math," says Michael Flynn, wine and beverage director at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek. A bottle has 25.4 ounces, "so you do some quick division. You have to make sure you're pouring the same amount in everyone's glass, no matter how small that portion may be." And if it's just three diners, and you're on the second round of pours? If someone hasn't been sipping, don't top off their glass.
Turns out it's just like most other points of service. "You have to keep an eye on them," says Flynn. "It's actually being involved in service, in serving people as they need it."
By LESLIE BRENNER
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