Your Server | 1.7.2015 | Issue #8
Sometimes, when I'm talking to tables, I can hear my voice reaching Chihuahua-levels. It's not anything like an actual Chihuahua, of course; it's not yippy or aggressive or anything, it just sloooowly rises past its normal mid-range register the more questions you ask me and the bigger rush I'm in. The affirmative squeak that happens when I speak through a full smile always kind of gives me the willies. Someone comes in the door, and my eyebrows hit my hairline. I put away my dead-shark eyes and slap on that smile that will pay my rent next month, and beam in a sort of relaxed way at this total stranger like they're a long-lost friend. I feel like a psychopath, but it’s what we're all doing. Watch a server the instant they turn away from a table, though: they’ll try not to, but that cheery façade will VANISH because, baby, they’ve got other shit to take care of.
Service, no matter where you are, is a performance, and people—that is, the dining public—are looking for service that reflects what they think they’re walking into. It's a constant push and pull between what they want and what you're going to give them: you go to a diner, and you expect to be called hon. You go to a white-tablecloth joint where the servers are called captains, you expect various levels of swanning around and practiced movement, plus a wealth of inside voices and pleasantry. The striking thing about service in this country is that choice: what that means for the ubiquitous Restaurant in the United States is that service has evolved into a Choose Your Own Adventure, depending on who you want to be and who you want to attract.
In the France of anecdotal lore, service is just service. Perfect service. It has a built-in level of pomp, snooty tradition, and well-worn etiquette delineation. Café waiters are the same as Michelin-starred ones, at least in appearance and attitude, maybe minus a few degrees of finesse, but there's a way things are done. This establishes a comfortable degree of predictability, which is something we absolutely lack. In any given city in the U.S., there is no way for you to know how your night will be before you spend a few hours scoping the place out. You can read Yelp (even though you claim you never do, because ugh, plebs, man) or scour the website hoping for an indication of tone or atmosphere, but damn if it isn’t a total toss-up every single time.
So, what then is the FOH ideal in the industry? Depends on who you are, but it’s probably a subtle blend of TGI Fridays friendliness, Brooklyn gastropub cool, and Downton Abbey-style humble invisibility. Don’t tell me your name and say you’ll be taking care of me, please, but be a friendly human. Know when to ignore us and when to chat us up. Be an expert in both perfect table maintenance and telepathy. That being said, if I’m going to Chinatown, I want people that will yell in my general direction and toss plates down like they could care less. "Good service" usually means service you don’t notice, but is that true, really? Judging by how nicely they're cleaning up, maybe Dicks’ Last Resort is an exemplar of great, entertaining service for the normals who make up the rest of the proverbial dining room.
The impossible part about pinning down as broad a term as "American service" is that the Wild West still runs deep in our bones. We're stubborn, we like The New, and we're competitive. That goes for the customer and the restaurant. We restaurant folk shape-shift depending on what the customers want, whereas everywhere else, diners seem to conform to the restaurant's ground rules. This can't be the case here, because serving in this country does not simply mean taking care of a person's needs, it means mirroring their personality. Which an old-school Euro maître’d would never fucking stand for, but here we are, demurring when condescended to, coddling a hesitant eater, or restructuring an entire menu for a sometimes-vegan guest. If we don't—if we put our foot down and tell someone to eat somewhere else if they don't like the menu, to call them out when they interrupt us, refuse to serve them until they get off the phone—they'll ruin us. Because golly, how rude!
Service is a free-for-all not because we're all manner-less heathens, but because we're spoiled by choice. We can have any kind of service anytime we want it, but we forget the second bit of the arrangement: it's a collaborative experience. Just as we're indulging in only certain aspects of our personalities, so must the guest play along with the exchange. I know you know my Chihuahua-voice is not my real voice, but admit it. You're into it.