While researching Best New Restaurants (coming soon on chicagomag.com) this year, I encountered a lot of good food and, more often than you’d expect, a lot of lousy service. Why is this part of the restaurant equation so hard to get right? Or are my expectations unrealistic? In search of answers, I sat down with my intern, Kristina, a part-time waitress at a restaurant in River North, in hopes of somehow ending the passive-aggressive war between our people—and answering the age-old question: Can’t we all just get along? The age-old answer: No.
ISSUE #1: IMPATIENCE
I had a waitress who looked annoyed every time she stood over our table, like we were keeping her from more important matters elsewhere.
The worst thing you can do to busy servers—apart from stiffing them on the tip or snapping your fingers—is waste their time. “If I ask, ‘Are you ready to order?’ you either say ‘Yes,’ or ‘We need a few more minutes,’” Kristina explains. “Don’t make me stand there while you debate the whole menu.”
Suggestion: Appoint a table dictator to act as a spokesperson.
ISSUE #2: UPSELLING
At one restaurant—OK, it rhymes with Cram Shelliot—I inquired about a $35 wine and my waitress ruthlessly pushed a $70 bottle. I wanted to lock her in the walk-in freezer.
She was just trying to make a living, says Kristina, who has also been taught to upsell: “The $70 bottle is better. I wouldn’t recommend the crappy $10 glass of cabernet; I’d try to give you the $18 glass that’s going to improve your meal.”
Suggestion: If it’s crap, don’t put it on the menu.
ISSUE #3: “HAVE YOU DINED WITH US BEFORE?”
Why do you ask this, and how can we get you to stop?
Kristina says this dreaded phrase basically serves as a conversation starter and a potential shortcut: “It means, ‘Do I have to go through the whole spiel or can I get on with it?’ ”
Suggestion: Get on with it.
ISSUE #4: SUBSTITUTIONS
My guest asked for slight changes to be made to a dish and encountered vigorous eye-rolling. Is it that hard for a line cook to pluck the bacon off the salad?
If it’s just bacon, fine.
“But if you want the turkey chopped salad, dressing on the side, minus the turkey, eggs, bacon, blue cheese, and tomatoes,” Kristina says, “then stay home and make it yourself.”
Suggestion: Stop inviting that guest to dinner. Sorry, Aunt Pat, you’re out.
ISSUE #5: INTRUSION
At one restaurant—rhymes with Spam Swelliot—the waitress kept injecting herself into our conversation, forgetting she was, in fact, there to serve my meal.
There’s an art to feeling out your customer, Kristina says, and this one didn’t do it well. “But when she approaches the table, acknowledge her,” Kristina advises. “A simple nod. Don’t ignore her and don’t stare like you’re confused as to why she’s there.”
Suggestion: I’ve been a jerk. But the waitress at Slam Yelliot still sucked.
ISSUE #: SEATING
I wanted the empty booth by the window and I got the wobbly four-top near the bathroom. When I raised a stink, more eye-rolling.
Though it may seem random, the hostess put me at the four-top for a reason. “She has to go in a certain order to be fair to each server, so things are spread out,” says Kristina. “If you move, the waitress loses the table.”
Suggestion: Unless there’s a rabid gibbon squatting on your table, sit down and shut up.
ISSUE #7: PHYSICAL CONTACT
My waitress at The Bristol kept putting her hand on my shoulder. Unless I am about to burn myself or spill something, I don’t want to be touched.
“I can’t justify this one,” Kristina says. “I don’t touch customers.” (Why? Because it’s creepy?) “Yeah.”
Suggestion: Don’t. It’s creepy.
Check out the full transcript of the conversation between The Closer and his intern—complete with judge’s rulings on each item. Then post your own judgments in the comments below.
Illustration by Matt Vincent/agoodson.com