A similar conversation has occurred repeatedly throughout my restaurant career. We will be gathered around the bar or table enjoying that evening’s "shiftie," (restaurant lingo for shift-drink) when someone will say, in some variation, usually after a particularly difficult evening with particularly difficult customers, "Everyone should be forced to wait tables before being allowed to eat out." The rest of us will then nod knowingly, smile slightly, sigh and then raise our glasses to the idea.
Having waited tables quite a bit over the years and now being an owner of a restaurant that prides itself on superior service, I know well that it is the job of the front-of-the-house staff to provide excellent service regardless of circumstances. This being said and understood, there are simple things that you as a restaurant patron can do to improve your dining experience and as a benevolent side effect make your server’s night that much better, because often it is a trying job.
First of all, if you are not trolling for a restaurant but know exactly where you are going and when, then make reservations (if the restaurant takes them). Even if it is a matter of calling ahead from your cell phone as you are getting into your car, it can make a difference. You will be put ahead of a "walk-in" that comes at the same time as you and at most good restaurants you will be given the best possible table available, where otherwise you will be at the mercy of chance. This does not guarantee that you will get the beautiful table by the window, but it does increase your odds.
More important than anything is being able to communicate with your server what kind of an experience you are looking for. A good server is trying to read you from the first interaction. Are you the kind of table that wants a lot of interaction or are you the kind of table that wants to order, have your drinks filled and be left alone as much as possible? Be mindful of this and try to let the server know what it is you are after. Every restaurant has its pace, depending on the kind of place it is. A chain that wants to "turn-and-burn," will have a naturally faster pace than a restaurant that isn’t microwaving your entrée and that is encouraging a more leisurely and enjoyable experience. If you are planning on deviating from the norm of the place you are in, communicate this. If you have a movie to catch in 45 minutes, let your server know, or if, like me, you like to linger between courses and make a dinner last an evening, communicate this. Now your server knows that he/she needs to speed up or slow down the pace of your meal. The main point is to make your server guess as little as possible.
When it comes time to order, let your server know you are ready. The best way to do this is to fold up your menus and put them on the table. The longer you sit there admiring the font, the more times the server is going to pass by thinking you are still deciding. It is also good for everyone to put in drink orders at the same time. It is time consuming to return to a table to discover that you need yet another coffee with cream, because with every pass through the dining room there are three or four other tables that want attention as well. Any unusual preferences or allergies need to be disclosed during the order. If you are allergic to peanuts, make sure the server knows or if you can’t stand cheese, don’t wait until you see it melted all over your lunch before mentioning it.
Throughout the meal you can subtly indicate what you want without having to ask by using placement of the object on the table. Want another refill even though there are a couple inches left in the glass? Slide it toward the edge of the table. This is also convenient for the server to access. Sometimes when a table is full of wine glasses and appetizer plates, snatching the water glass without banging into things or grasping it by the rim (a serious faux pas) is like trying to remove the wishbone in the board game "Operation." More bread (especially if it is homemade …)? Someone can grab that last piece from the basket (your friends won’t think you are greedy) and place the basket toward the edge of the table. Are you done with your plate? Placing the fork upside down on it is a good cue or the napkin of surrender also works well. But don’t assume that your plate will be taken automatically. Some restaurants, such as mine, have trained the staff not to take your plate until everyone is finished, so you may have to ask if it is bothering you.
So now it is time for the bill. If you need split checks, tell your server as soon as possible. This is not usually a major problem but it will take longer because it involves many more steps (especially if it is a large party). If you are in a hurry, figuring it out yourselves definitely will be faster. If you can, bring cash with some small bills so you can leave exact change. This is wonderful for the servers because it saves them a step and you time.
One of the most awkward situations that can occur during a meal is the battle for the check. This should be decided in advance. Also know that "dibs" applies in the restaurant business. Whoever calls it first gets it. No server wants to stand there for what feels like an hour witnessing the power play for the right to pay the bill. Lastly, when the check is dropped off, make sure you leave part of the cash or the card sticking out from the edge of the book so the server can see it rather than placing your money in there and closing it as if nothing had happened. Otherwise they are uncertain if you have indeed paid and now have to choose between possibly seeming like they are rushing you if you haven’t actually paid or neglecting you if you have.
Hopefully you have now had an excellent dining experience, made that much smoother because you know how to communicate with your server. I know they will appreciate it and later that evening, when folding napkins and recounting the experiences of the night, you will be remembered fondly.
Roger Stukey is an owner/operator of Cedar Creek in Sequim.