How can I be a better waiter?
December 20, 2007 12:32 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to be a better waiter. Got any tips?

I just started a new job at a wine bar/restaurant, and I'm looking for tricks of the trade. I've waited tables several times before, but I'd really like to step up my game for this new gig.

The restaurant serves small, tapas-style dishes and has an extensive wine list from which guests can order either three or five ounce servings (in addition to several hundred different wines in the adjoining retail shop). A party of two generally spends between $25- $50 on food and another $15 - $40 on wine.

Taking into account the fact that every customer wants something different, what are some good guidelines for providing excellent service? If you work in a restaurant, what works best for you? If you just eat in restaurants, what do you like/dislike about the way your servers interact with you?
posted by solipsophistocracy to Food & Drink (64 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I was a pretty successful waiter for a long time. Two things are key, to my mind: first, the ability to read people. When you can get a sense for what type of service the customer wants by reading them, you'll get better tips. Second, being something of an actor. Once you read your customer, you then 'perform' the role they want you to play. This second piece is even more important as a bartender, since it's a more intimate relationship in many ways.
posted by miss tea at 12:41 PM on December 20, 2007

Keep your appearance tip-top. I dunno if you have a uniform, but regardless, something personal in addition to that sends a signal "notice me, I'm cool, we're having fun!" to your customers. I know I get caught up sometimes being unable to tell if I'm tipping on service or personality. That said, overdoing it, getting too friendly or chatty is usually a FAIL. Just be smooth.

Make sure your relationships with your co-staff are smooth as silk. You'll need help sometime, so give it now. If you don't have sidework, offer to help other servers.

Be familiar enough with the dishes to be able to descibe them in your own words, but artfully and with feeling
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:45 PM on December 20, 2007

This might come from the restaurant management rather than the server, but upselling of things like bottled water really irks me. At Delfina, one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, they have a really nice way of handling this - at the end of taking the initial drink order the server has always said to us something like "And would you like some water as well? Will tap water be OK?" I think it's nice that they assume you just want regular water out of the tap, and don't make you feel like a cheap jerk for declining the bottled water. To me, that's a hallmark of a really gracious restaurant and server.
posted by handful of rain at 12:45 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I was a terrible server (in four restaurants and three bars... augh). But as a restaurant patron, I always value honesty. Tell the truth if you think a dish is disgusting, and recommend something delicious.
posted by changeling at 12:48 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I eat in restaurants a lot. I like it when a server writes down the damn order, brings me what I've asked for, and keeps my water glass full. (If I ask for a pitcher of water, I mean that you should bring me a pitcher of water.) I do not like waiting.

I don't care a fig about a server's personality. I just want my food as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I waited tables for several years. I was a much better busboy than I was waiter. I was quick and industrious. But as a waiter, I was unpolished. I was always sweaty and out of breath. I wasn't smooth. I didn't know how to upsell. I was too worried about doing my sidework and not worried enough about making sure the customer was happy.
posted by jdroth at 12:52 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think the obvious is know your wines. What kind goes with what food? If a person like 'x' liquor or food or whatever normally, what wine would you suggest? The key is to sound confident about your wine choices. If you don't know, be a really good BSer or ask somebody else- do not fumble around, "Well, maybe this, or maybe that." Rather, "This red 1989 vintage California Cabernet goes wonderfully with your 'y' tapa and will go down smoothly with a 'x' (or insert expensive item on the menu that does go well with the wine. For upwards of $50 for two on food alone, I hope all the food really is good).
The power of suggestion is huge in food industry, particularly if you have the people skills to gain a good relationship with the customers and can pull if it off because you actually know what you're talking about (the wine and food).
I say this because when I worked in a similar position, I had numerous people ask me for recommendations with a direct correlation between knowledge and tips.

Along the same likes, test out the food. When a customer asks, "Is your tapas frufru any good?" You should be able to respond, "Yes, I love it! [point out a particular aspect of the food why you like it. And why a certain wine would go well with this tapas]."

Teamwork. I've worked a few restaurant gigs, and above all else, I've found helping out each other contributes tremendously to my overall sanity and the quality of service a customer gets. Better service = $$$ = happy waiter = $$$$$$ etc etc etc.

If you already haven't learn how to interact with your tables depending on their personalities. Some people want to be left alone for 2 hours and want you to come over only when they motion. Others enjoy have a comedian and someone who can banter for a waiter.
Regardless of the personalities, act like your genuinely care about each person's experience. Night after night and shitty tables can make anyone go mad It's not always easy, but as an old waiter once said- it's like water off a watershed. Just let it go, move on, and treat each customer with respect. They don't give two shits that you just got stiffed out a tip the kitchen screwed up your order. Just make it right.

Also act like you enjoy the job. Smile and glow a little.
posted by jmd82 at 12:53 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Once you read your customer, you then 'perform' the role they want you to play.

To build on that, I have never waited tables, but have read studies that said that if the waiter can actually act like the customer, they receive better tips. That is, read the customer, and then be like the customer as much as you can. I don't know why; perhaps it's a familiarity-breeds-bonding thing.
posted by iguanapolitico at 12:56 PM on December 20, 2007

1. Know the menu. Know it inside and out. Know it upside down.
2. Know when you're out of something, so you don't have to be the bearer of bad news after they get their heart set on it.
3. At a minimum, know at least one interesting thing you can share about each wine. Where is it made, what are some of the flavors they might find in it, what does it go well with, what's special about the vineyard it comes from.
4. Be friendly, but professional. There is nothing worse than an overly friendly, fake waitron.
5. Learn to read and anticipate the needs of the diner.

See this thread for some other great tips.
posted by cosmicbandito at 1:03 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

seconding write your order down. it doesn't impress me (aka increase your tip) if you memorize my order.

a tip i read once is to keep a pair of reading glasses in your apron/pocket whatever. a lot of patrons will squint at the menu, "damn, i left my glasses in the car, it's so dark in here, the type's too small," etc.
posted by kidsleepy at 1:05 PM on December 20, 2007

Don't ask if I'd like dessert, ask if I'd like to see the dessert menu. Chances are I have no idea what you restaurant serves for desert.
posted by 517 at 1:05 PM on December 20, 2007 [4 favorites]

Wear something unusual.
Introduce yourself by name.
Squat next to the table. (etc.)

Mega Tips: Scientifically Proven Techniques to Increase Your Tips. (PDF)

I also remember reading an interesting first-person piece where the woman realized she got better tips when she wasn't too nice. Anybody remember that one?
posted by ottereroticist at 1:08 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I like a waiter that is there when I need them and not there when I don't. When the meal is done they are there for me to ask for the bill and they bring it quickly and process my payment quickly.

Pet peeves: telling me your name (in the forced "I'll be your waiter for the evening" sense, not if it comes up in conversation), saying "no problem" when I ask for something, constantly offering me ground pepper, upselling, and touching my shoulder because you heard it will increase your tip.

Likes: being able to tell me something I can't read on the menu--ingredients in each dish, what is good today and what dishes go well together; being able to make a decent wine recommendation based on the food I'm ordering.
posted by cardboard at 1:09 PM on December 20, 2007

(From the perspective of a customer, not a waiter.)

jdroth and I may be a rare breed, but it always scares me when waitstaff don't write down my order. I've never understood the trend of trying to memorize orders.

I value promptness and communication. It seems to be a rare skill, but for things like drink refills and such, a few waiters/waitresses have been excellent at not coming over every 5 minutes, and yet managing to be there when needed. I suspect that they just spend some time watching.

As far as communication... The other night I went out to dinner and, a while after placing my order, the waiter came over and apologized, saying he'd just checked on our order and was told that the chef had burned one of the dishes and was remaking it. It was just the way he put it, really, but it seemed like he was on 'my side' helping me get my food. He got a good tip.
posted by fogster at 1:18 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I eat at tapas-style restaurants a lot. The advice I have, as a great tipper, is this: You have to know the food (not just the menu). If I'm wavering between sweetbreads and braised squid, and you tell me that they're both "nice," I'm going to laugh. Bitterly.

Obviously, if you hate brussels sprouts, you should not share this tidbit of personal info. However, you should know how large the portions are and how rich the preparations are and what the standouts are, to help me make an informed decision.

Oh, and have some compelling (and true) reasons why I will like the cheapest wines on the menu, and which of the cheapest wines on the menu are better than others. If the wine sucks, it shouldn't be on the menu at all. There's a long and proud tradition of inexpensive table wines that pair well with food, particularly rich food, and aggressive upsellers make me nuts.
posted by desuetude at 1:22 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Know your allergies. It is your job to know what is in the food you serve. I have an allergy to wheat gluten and I appreciate it when the waiter checks on everything I order, as I request them to. Frequently, on something like french fries, they'll assume no wheat and they won't check. They will bring them to the table, obviously golden-brown dusted in flour. I tell them (again) to go read the ingredients on the french fry bag and low-and-behold they are dusted in wheat flour. It gets tiresome. Take some time to make up your own list of allergies associated with the dishes you serve, if the restaurant does not have it available. Why has dairy? What starts with a rue? Extra points for saying things like "the polenta fries are wheat-free, but they are deep fried in the same oil that we use to fry our fish n' chips." I don't care personally, but others do and it shows that a waiter is really paying attention.

If the customer orders beef a certain "doneness," come back shortly after you serve and make sure it is right.

I do not like it when people squat. I do like it when people write down my order.
posted by Eringatang at 1:27 PM on December 20, 2007 [4 favorites]

I have worked as a waiter, many years ago. So this is from that experience as well as my more extensive experience as a customer.

1. Be unobtrusive. Appear when needed, take care of all of the customer's needs, and then stay out of the way. As said above, "spend some time watching." Avoid needless chitchat, the customer didn't come to socialize with you. (Although, going with what jmd82 said above, I suppose if they want to have you shoot the breeze with them, go ahead. But most people aren't looking for that. Follow their lead.)
2. Show up as soon as the party has sat down. You're the waiter, not them. If they have to wait for you, you've started on the wrong foot already.
3. Record precisely who ordered what, and deliver it without asking "who gets the Scampi?"
4. Do not call your customers "you guys", ever. We are not "you guys". If you're not doing this, terrific, but you'd be amazed how many servers do this. "How are you guys tonight", "Are you guys all set", and that kind of thing.
5. Remove EVERY dish belonging to one course before serving the next. My tips get really small when I've had to eat dessert with the salad plate still on the table. (A friend of mine would get upset if the salt and pepper were not removed after the main course, but that's kind of optional, it seems to me).
6. After dessert and coffee have been served, keep a sharp eye on the table's host to summon the check. Don't bring it unasked, and don't make him or her have to snag another server to ask for it. Read the body language -- I found that if you catch their eye at the right moment, they'll make that pen-waving movement meaning they want the check. This being close to the moment where the tip gets decided, attentiveness in this phase is vital, even though all the food and drink have been delivered.
posted by beagle at 1:31 PM on December 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Oh, and, if this is the kind of place where waiters carry a towel, (a) make sure it's always a clean one, and (b) never, ever, put it over your shoulder. It belongs on your forearm.

Also, never mind that stuff about serving from the right or left. Serve from the side where you can do it without interrupting my conversation or otherwise getting in my way or inconveniencing me.
posted by beagle at 1:34 PM on December 20, 2007

Also, I don't care a whit if you write down my order, as long as you get it right.

Oh, tapas-specific -- you're going to have to help course the meal. Please see above comment about knowing the size and richness of foods and provide appropriate advice.
posted by desuetude at 1:36 PM on December 20, 2007

Speaking as a restaurant customer:

1. Don't come to work with a cold. Nothing I hate worse in a restaurant seeing the same hands that serve my food wiping away snot. Well, maybe rats.

2. If I ask you "how's [item x]?", don't bullshit me if you don't know, or don't like it, or just don't like anything with [ingredient y].

3. Check in a minute after dropping off the order, and pick up the tab a minute after dropping it off. I know this is basic, but many waiters disappear indefinitely.

4. If the order is horribly broken, fix it. I don't think I'm a demanding customer, but if a plate of spaghetti is taking 45 minutes, or it comes out of the kitchen cold, or emerges as a pot of scallops, I will not be happy. Some waiters only grudgingly acknowledge that anything could be wrong. Some go out of their way to make you happy. I don't need my meal comped or anything, but an honest acknowledgment that something is not right and some hustle in making it right will make me happy.

5. A tapas joint is going to have everyone ordering a lot of different stuff. You'd do well to observe which dishes get cleaned quickest, and when customers ask "what's good?" you'll know.
posted by adamrice at 1:37 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

ottereroticist, was it the This American Life segment summarized here: when aloof, waitresses made more tips. (So, for one thing, don't squat!)
posted by salvia at 1:38 PM on December 20, 2007

The two most common things that greatly decrease my satisfaction are my drink not being filled quickly, and having to wait for the check when I'm ready to go.

Also, I agree that just saying "my name is _____, I'll be your waiter today" seems a bit forced and unnatural. At least replace it something like, "my name is _____, how are you doing today?" It will be fairly obvious that you're their waiter, so no need to point that out. If you're not able to just fit your name into a conversation naturally, then say anything but "and I'll be your server". This is just how I feel of course.

Also, I'm a quieter person. I don't generally like chatting with my waiter that much. So, as someone else mentioned, make sure and work on reading people. Be friendly, even chatty at first. But if someone does not seem impressed, don't push the chatting, assuming that conversation and jokes=friendliness. A smile and a friendly tone when you do have something to say are plenty for me.

The article linked to by someone mentions addressing customers by name. It suggests learning it from their credit card so you can thank them by name when you return the bill. I think that's slightly weird whenever someone does it. If you do happen to know a customer's name already, though, certainly call them by it. If you really want to try learning their name from their credit card so you can thank them by name, you could glance at it when you're picking it up, and before walking away, say, "oh, ____, that's a (pretty/interesting) name, or "oh, my best friend evar is named _____". Then it's not quite so weird later when you thank them by name, and them taking a couple seconds to realize, "oooohh, he just read it from my credit card".
posted by gauchodaspampas at 1:42 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

To add to Beagle's excellent list. Never never serve the dessert if the coffee hasn't been served. Never never serve the dessert if the coffee hasn't been refilled. This, of course, means, bring the coffee out, dammit!
posted by crush-onastick at 1:45 PM on December 20, 2007

Don't bring [the check] unasked

What? No. Maybe for a super-fancy restaurant, you can wait for "the table's host" to signal for the check, but in every other case, I would much rather the check appears, unrequested, immediately after we've told you we don't want dessert/anything else.
posted by Squeak Attack at 1:46 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

The best waitress I know - the only person my husband and I request by name when we go out - is incredibly observant. A couple examples: I'd been playing around with the ketchup bottle and left it upside down, and she brought a new bottle under the assumption the bottle on the table was nearly empty. Another time, my husband removed his sweater about 10 minutes after we were seated, and the next time she came to the table, she asked if we were too warm, and would we like to move to a different table away from the heat.

If I ask for water or iced tea with extra lemon, I would like fresh lemon with every refill.

I get annoyed when the waiter asks me to "cut into my steak to make sure it's cooked the way I like it" as soon as my plate is set down. Give me a minute and come back.

If the guests are lingering after you've dropped off the check, check back - we may need another cup of coffee or have changed our minds about dessert.

And speaking of dessert, don't ask me if I've saved any room for it, just if I'd like it.
posted by ferociouskitty at 1:49 PM on December 20, 2007

Don't ask if I'd like dessert, ask if I'd like to see the dessert menu. Chances are I have no idea what you restaurant serves for desert.

And better yet, have the menu with you when you ask this a) so that it's ready to go, and they won't have to wait longer for it and b) because it will push them more towards "sure, might as well take a look", instead of "no, I don't want any dessert", which will mean more desserts served, which means bigger bills, and thus tips.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 1:52 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Mostly.. just fill up my water before it runs low.
I think its the one big thing (at least to me) that is most often neglected.
posted by gomess at 1:57 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I would much rather the check appears, unrequested, immediately after we've told you we don't want dessert/anything else.

Sure, in effect, saying you don't want anything else is a signal to bring the check. But dumping the check, unrequested, in the middle of the table, precipitating the old scramble for the check, is a no-no. Figure out who the host is, and follow the host's lead on when to bring the check. If the place is fancy enough, yes.
posted by beagle at 2:02 PM on December 20, 2007

oh dear God, don't ever squat beside the table. It's awful. It's just irredeemably awful.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:06 PM on December 20, 2007 [8 favorites]

Yes, that TAL episode is the one I was thinking of. I've never waited tables, but the premise seems more plausible than the "wear a bow tie, tell them your name, and be super-friendly" thing.

Here's one: don't interrupt the conversation to ask whether everything is all right. It always stuns me when waiters do this. You shouldn't have to ask. Just walk past the table periodically, and pay attention if we're trying to get your attention.
posted by ottereroticist at 2:09 PM on December 20, 2007

If I use my knife to butter the bread brought to the table, before I receive my order, please do not place the knife back on the table when you clear the bread plates: bring me a new knife. I've found that only super observant servers do this and it certainly impresses me to no end.
posted by ms.v. at 2:10 PM on December 20, 2007

Please do not ask me how is the food while I am in the process of eating and to answer you would be very rude with all that partially masticated food in the way. Also, one of the best waiters I ever had was in a dive Chinese restaurant near a university who made sure that the water glass was always full and wrote a short note on the takeaway boxes so you would know the dish and the date it was bought; that was very considerate.

My best friend was a waitress and no lie, she made insanely great tips. She was always moving and observing. She made sure that her bus folks were well taken care of and she NEVER declined helping a customer even if it was not her station. Her neuroticism and clean freak ways made her natural for nursing which she later entered as a career.

Here is something that always surprised me, the air of expectation of 25% or better tipping even if the service was minimal. This was an actual presentation done by more than one student/waitron in one of my courses. Like all things, it precipitated a large debate.
posted by jadepearl at 2:19 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, I agree that just saying "my name is _____, I'll be your waiter today" seems a bit forced and unnatural.

Out of curiosity, where are you guys located? I eat out 2-4 times a week. Have lived in San Francisco and New York and have never had a waiter say this.

If you work in a wine bar/tapas place the best advice I can give is to check on your customers constantly. I'll often decide to get another tapa but then change my mind after I am unable to find the waiter after 10 minutes. Its the same trick as the "Would you like another glass of wine?" the moment you see a wine glass empty. It raises your tip in two ways - by raising the total bill and by being that waiter that was always there when needed.
posted by vacapinta at 2:20 PM on December 20, 2007

Be passionate about food. Always have a little story that makes the dish interesting when people ask what it is and tell it anyway of they dont ask. Also start by making some honest recommendations and tell why this dish in this restaurant is special.

Know wine and offer to suggest some wines that matches their food. This will be greatly appreciated by thoose who dont know much about wine. Suggest wine in all price categories and have something to tell about how this specific grape or year matches their food selection.

Be attentive at the end of the meal when people want to request the check.
posted by ilike at 2:29 PM on December 20, 2007

Also be educative. The biggest tip i left was at an italian restaurant after the waiter asked us if he could introduce grappa to us. He went and got four or five diffrent bottles of different types and introduced them one by one while telling about the diffrence between them and the process of making them. We got to smell them all and ordered diffrent types to compare.
posted by ilike at 2:34 PM on December 20, 2007

When I waited tables, I found that the night went a lot smoother when I attended to my logistics good and early.

That means having your bus station well-stocked, with as much stuff staged ahead of time as you can get away with. Have pitchers of water filled nearly to the brim and pots of coffee brewed. Make one full pitcher or one full pot your bare acceptable minimum at the station. Any little side items you serve alongside meals and drinks (butter, creamer, etc) already in their dishes, ready to go. If there's any way you can prearrange place settings, like rolling silverware or even just stacking it in layers with napkins, do it.

Try and spot trouble well ahead of time - for instance, at one place I worked, it was on the waiters to make their own salads. The salad fixings were on our side of the kitchen pass-bar, so I tried to make sure we always had plenty of these supplies out and ready. I found it was little incidental details like this that would trip me up and slow me down during rushes, so I tried to get prepared well ahead of time.

Cultivate your connections with you coworkers. Make friends with the cooks, bartenders and dishwashers especially. Kick down some tips to these crucial members of the team. And if there's already mandated tip-sharing, give a little extra every now and then. It makes a world of difference for you when those in the rear with the gear are on your side. Pitch in and help whenever you've got a spare moment, and you'll find such favors are returned to you.

It comes down to that old cliche, really. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
posted by EatTheWeek at 2:39 PM on December 20, 2007

Oh, and don't squat next to the tables. Personal preference thing, maybe, but when I'm eating out I find that intolerably obsequious.
posted by EatTheWeek at 2:40 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also start by making some honest recommendations

Agreed, as long as "some" is suitably small, say one to three. I appreciate it when my waiter makes a few recommendations. I did not appreciate it when a waiter recommended what seemed to be one out of every four items on the menu at a restaurant with an extensive, multi-page menu!
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:40 PM on December 20, 2007

This is a pet peeve that might not impact your tip directly unless you can get your coworkers to play along, but along the lines of what jmd82 said about teamwork:

If you're passing by an area that's not the section you're responsible for and I ask you for something, I don't want to hear "I'll let your server know" or, even worse, "I'll get your server for you." Just tell my server for me and say ok or sure or no problem. It's not my responsibility to know how you partition out the tasks in your restaurant and I don't care.
posted by juv3nal at 2:43 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Out of curiosity, where are you guys located?

I see that "My name is _______" line used most often at suburban chain restaurants, not so much elsewhere. Maybe it's part of their training, but for the love of God please don't do this. I'm sure we'd be great pals if we got to know each other, but that's not why I'm at the restaurant.

I'm generally happy as a clam with a waiter who's attentive but unobtrusive, alert to what's happening at the table, and doesn't disappear for long stretches of time.

Also, please don't have or follow a rigorous table-checking agenda in which you are unavailable at any other time. It smacks of institutionalized service to have the waiter present at the following and only the following occasions: drink order, food order, "how's everything going guys great kthxbye", dessert, check.
posted by metric space at 2:47 PM on December 20, 2007

The best service is always that which I never think about. If you introduce yourself in a normal way, I won't notice. If you take my order promptly, I won't notice. If my drink is never empty for more than a couple of minutes, I won't notice. If the food comes out before I wonder where the food is, I won't notice. If you bring the check w/o me having to track you down for it, I won't notice. If at the end of the meal I realize I have not thought about you much, I'll probably comment to my dinner companion that you've been a hell of waiter and tip you accordingly.
posted by probablysteve at 2:48 PM on December 20, 2007 [5 favorites]

I see that "My name is _______" line used most often at suburban chain restaurants,

In my experience, this was due to secret shoppers and the pressure from above to satisfy them (if we failed the secret shopper, the boss heard about it, their boss, the boss of their boss, etc). They'd literally score us on what we said. If I did not say, "Hello my name's John. May I start you off with a fresh cup of queso or an ultimate margarita," I'd fail that part of the shopper's experience and get reamed by my manager. Luckily, I never got shopped as it felt incredibly contrived to me. Additionally, the secret shopper system reeked of the attitude metric space (rightly) deplores where you must check back at certain intervals or else. Points were only given for checking back at x, y, and z times so some waiters neglected a, b, and c times.
posted by jmd82 at 3:18 PM on December 20, 2007

Not sure what your restaurant's "policy" is, but I'd like to second the recommendation to write the order down. I get the impression that waiters often do not do this because they think it will impress us. It doesn't, and I won't leave you a bigger tip because you can do it. And if you fuck anything up, I will think you're an idiot because you could have written it down. And then I will leave you less of a tip.

Oh, and don't try to pretend to be my buddy. A big pet peeve of mine is when waitresses flirt and say things like "sweetie." Unless your name is Rose and you're past middle age with your hair in a bun, this annoys me.
posted by dhammond at 4:04 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's not much that can turn off my instinct to tip well -- but one thing that does turn me off is a server who always addresses the guy rather than me when I'm one of a guy-girl pair, then puts the check down in front of the guy. I'd say give equal attention if there's a male-female pair and always leave the check halfway between them. (And I bet I don't need to tell you, but just since this has happened to me even in nice places where I'd never expect it... don't make comments/jokes if you see the girl paying!)
posted by allterrainbrain at 4:17 PM on December 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

Proven technique to increase tips: append "...for you" wherever you can when you talk to the customer.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:35 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here are things I think are very important for waiters to do:

Don't display an aggressive, high-energy personality that puts on a "show" for your table. Some twentysomething male waiters seem to think they have to be the "alpha male" and it's irritating as hell.

Always keep drinks refilled.

Always be pleasant, don't be sullen, and thank the patron at the end of the meal.
posted by jayder at 4:40 PM on December 20, 2007

I'd say give equal attention if there's a male-female pair and always leave the check halfway between them. (And I bet I don't need to tell you, but just since this has happened to me even in nice places where I'd never expect it... don't make comments/jokes if you see the girl paying!)

Ohh, seconded. Even worse -- check lands in front of my SO; I take it and pay. Change or charge receipt is then put in front of my SO!
posted by desuetude at 4:41 PM on December 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

About bills, if you have to write them out or if you get any input into the design of them, do so in a way that makes it as easy as possible to split them. For example, divide them into sections: drinks, appetisers, mains, desserts. Leave space on the bill for customers to write notes (at least, initials) and supply them with a (cheap) pen or pencil. Also leave space for calculating a tip.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:51 PM on December 20, 2007

Seconding SO many things in this thread, some of which may be repeated below. This is what I've found, having waited tables off and on for 10 years (and eating out way more than I should).

I agree that announcing your name and "I'll be your server" is cheesy and lame; what's even worse is "My name is such-and-such and I'll be taking care of ya!" Um, no. The servers who say this seem to be the ones doing the least caretaking. If your restaurant forces you to introduce yourself, do so quickly and begin your service (asking for drinks, etc).

Don't squat next to the table, or even worse, pull up a chair or squeeze into the booth with your customers. Don't touch your customers. Do write down the order, if management allows. If management doesn't, tell them they suck. Don't call your customers "guys" or "kids" or use condescending labels like "sweetie." Say "May I," say "thank you," say "you're welcome" and not "no problem" or "mmm-hmm." Don't under any circumstances, tell your customers you're looking forward to the end of your shift or you don't feel like working.

I'm all for offering menu suggestions if asked, but if you're required to announce specials or tell your customers what your favorite dishes are, do so shortly after they receive their menus, and not immediately before you take their order. Maybe I'm the only one, but it feels weird when a server says "My favorite is the duck and I highly recommend the roasted potatoes," and I have to then respond with "Well, then, great...I'll have the steak and the spinach." Give them a few minutes to think about it.

Try to make a habit of never entering or exiting the kitchen or the waiters' station without something in your hands. Try to constantly scan your tables for things a customer may need (a drink refill, a steak knife, napkins, etc) and grab them before you're asked. If you refill one table's water, see if the other tables could use some water as well. However, if one table asks you for something -- ESPECIALLY if it's something they need in order to enjoy their meal, like a condiment or a proper utensil -- don't then check in with every other table in your section before running off to fulfill the request!

Oh, a few HUGE pet peeves of mine: don't ever bring the check without checking to see if your table would like to see the dessert menu, needs another drink, etc. It really annoys me when a server is clearly just trying to get rid of my party. Also, don't force a customer to repeat their drink every time you offer a refill. Look at the computer or on your notepad to see what they are drinking. And if you're serving soda, don't assume the lady always ordered the Diet Coke! Finally, don't bother asking a customer if they'd like a refill if what they're drinking has free refills. So I drained my iced tea/soda/water within 5 minutes of sitting down. Do you *really* think I'm going to eat my entire meal without a beverage? Just bring the refill; the worst thing they could do is not finish it.

Finally, generally speaking: Be polite. Be pleasant. Look clean and well-kept. And, what's sometimes overlooked: look busy, but not frazzled. The only thing that pisses a customer off more than a server coming across overworked and incompetent, is a server who is lazy, slow and can't be bothered to do their job.
posted by justonegirl at 5:18 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Please don't ever ask me if I'm "still working on" my food; for whatever reason, that phrase annoys the hell out of me. Asking me how I'm doing or if there's anything else you can get for me is fine. Along the same lines, don't reach for my plate before I've indicated that I'm done with my food. I don't want to feel like you're tired of me sitting there (even if you are).

Sometimes I ask my waiter to choose between two dishes. Please don't tell me they're both good. If I'm asking, it's because I don't really care which one I have and I want a little interaction, so just pick one with certainty. If I hate it, I'm not going to blame you, but if I love it, I'll remember that you chose something I liked. Caveat: if the two dishes vary significantly in price, and you pick the more expensive one, adding on a couple reasons why you prefer that one will diminish that "upselling" feel.

Unlike some posters above, I really enjoy light chat and banter with my waiter. I guess that's down to feel for the particular customer and following their lead, but I like a little personality, so if I'm being chatty, engage me a little bit. I probably won't want to talk to you for very long, but I'll remember being treated like a person and not a wallet. And if you seem knowledgeable about the food and the drinks, I'll think of your restaurant as a place I can go to find out about and try new things, which means I'll come back a lot.
posted by Errant at 5:33 PM on December 20, 2007

--Don't ask if I'm still "working" on something. "May I take this?" is fine.

--Don't put dirty silverware back on the table!! That is disgusting. Just bring another fork, for godsake.

--Clear plates promptly.

--Relax, don't be too obsequious, and be yourself.
posted by exceptinsects at 5:37 PM on December 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Answer in a completely dispassionate and factual way the question “What can you make that’s strict vegetarian?” (We don’t always lead with the word “vegan.”) We won’t show up at a place that really can’t handle us (French restaurant; steakhouse) and, especially if we’re out with a group, we will accept reality if all you can manage is some variation of salad.

(Note: Any variation of “we have dish X, but we can make it vegetarian” will lead to a discussion of the difference between making a dish and removing meat from it and making it from scratch without meat.)

I’ve eaten everywhere from Reykjavík to Austin with these questions and have almost never had a problem. (Where did I have a problem? Down the street from Peggy Atwood at Dooney’s. And to think it came this close to turning into a Starbucks!) I credit my waiters for answering the question I asked, not anything else. And, interestingly, at Break Bread with Brad one year, the waitress crouched down and went over the entire menu with me, it was so complicated.

All of the foregoing is a restatement of a request not to pull a Bourdain and treat vegans as though they were a “Hezbollah-like splinter group” of already-troublesome vegetarians.
posted by joeclark at 5:59 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

For the love of god, if you walk by my table at least look in my direction to see if I'm trying to flag you down or give you the laser eyes that mean I want your attention. Nothing worse than waiting to state my request and see you walk by, apparently forgetting that I'm your table. Because even once I state my request, I *still* have to wait again for it to be fulfilled!

Also, when you drop off the check, I don't need 10 minutes to analyze it. It takes me about 30 seconds max to ensure you haven't charged me $24.95 for the espresso. Because especially at this point, I have no more food to keep my occupied. All I have is time to sit around wondering where the hell you are, and trying to decide how much less tip to give you.
posted by umlaut at 6:47 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

After reading the thread, two more:

- There is one waiter I cannot stand at a restaurant I frequent because he speaks way too fast. I seriously have to have him repeat everything he ever says to me. Not to mention how it feels like he's rushed, so then I guess I should be rushed so I can let him get on with his work. I am under 30 so I should have no problem understanding most people, but with this fool I do.

- To agree with many above: used flatware does not go back on the table. Give me a clean replacement. No question.

I also do my best to code to waitstaff with my flatware. Together at an angle = my meal is complete. Separate knife and fork = still eating. This useful bit of etiquette seems to have vanished from eras long past. Be aware of this symbolism and you will blow my mind.
posted by umlaut at 7:26 PM on December 20, 2007

Don't put the bill jacket/credit card holder in the back waistband of your trousers. Dear Heavens, I don't know when waiters started doing this, but it's absolutely revolting. If you don't have the correct size apron pockets or uniform pockets to carry it, then just don't. Bring a small tablet to write orders so you don't need to use the firmness of the credit card holder.
posted by 26.2 at 7:44 PM on December 20, 2007

Don't refill my tea or water with the glass still on the table and don't thunk my plate down on the table. Don't serve hot food over a baby or set hot plates in front of a baby or small child.
posted by tamitang at 8:05 PM on December 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

If the customer pays in cash, DO NOT say "Would you like me to bring your change?"

Instead, please say, "I'll be right back with your change."

You're damn right I want my change. I am not tipping you $15 on a $25 check.
posted by chiababe at 8:08 PM on December 20, 2007 [6 favorites]

Seconding, know the food. Know what's vegetarian, and be right about it. I've had waiters tell me some tapas item is vegetarian, but when it comes it has prosciutto or a meat gravy or some damn thing.

Also, this is well-trod ground, but:

"No problem" does not sound gracious. It sounds like the waiter thinks the customer is asking for a special favor. ("I'd like the manchego" "No problem" -- well, no shit, dude. You're the waiter. I'm glad to hear it's not a problem for you to take my order.) It strikes the wrong note at a nice restaurant. "Certainly", "Yes", even "Great" are perfectly fine alternatives for when you're taking an order, and if the customer ever has reason to say "Thank you", the civilized response is "you're welcome".

Ditto the over-familiar squatting by the table (we're not in a little league football huddle, we're out for a lovely evening), touching a customer (WTF?), or aggressively trying to be a focus of attention (here's my name, I've been in the area for so long, look at my funny hat). I'm of the school that says waitstaff are meant to be smiling, knowledgable, and unobtrusive. You're helping people to enjoy the food, the wine, and whomever they're dining with; you're not seeking to be a "character" in their memory of the evening. A bit of natural banter is fine, but you indicate that you're open to that with your initial smiles and your responses to questions, not with a pat line at the beginning of the meal.

Don't read my name off my credit card and then suddenly call me by name even though I haven't introduced myself! Argh! Creeeeeepy!

And a good insight above, about how tapas is such an impulse food that if you show up about 1 minute after I finish those potatoes, I will order more, but if you wait 10 minutes, I won't be hungry anymore.

(Sorry this is all so negative! I'm sure you will be great, and I'm hungry right now thinking about tapas.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:42 PM on December 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am not tipping you $15 on a $25 check.

Funny, I do this all the time. But then, I used to be a waiter, and know how hard it can be to earn a living at it.

My advice, garnered from time working at quasi-Chi-Chi places in Boston, is this:

Be polite. Be efficient. But above all, be professional.

That's it. Because honestly, there's really nothing more you can do. Just take a look at the responses you've already received here: some people want their pitcher of water topped off all the time and don't like waiting! (Might I suggest the local McDonalds?)

Others, they want to enjoy their meal, they want to be at their own leisure, they don't want to be rushed! Now just how in the fuck are you supposed to know if someone is going to be insulted because you tried to bring them their food too fast? Christ. "You made me feel rushed, so you only get ten cents."

The one thing I learned very early on was, you never know your clients. You might think you can "read" them... oh, those Canadians are lousy tippers... oh look, a young couple in love, let's give them plenty of space and time... The truth is, people are who they are no matter the quality of your service.

Which is why the advice--be polite, be efficient--is actually not for your customers. It's for you. Inevitably you are going to deal with an asshole that held on to a four-top all by himself that you babied for 3 hours, only to get irate because you didn't bring the bill fast enough. Or you get a 12-top that runs your sorry ass to-and-from kingdom come, ordering specials all around and a bottle of wine a piece, and when the check comes, they take out paper and pen and start itemizing their purchases to each other. (Always a bad sign.) "I didn't have the artichoke, that was Suzy. I had the oysters, which I remember the menu said were $9.95." Ugh.

Some people come into a restaurant, and if you do absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, are still going to tip you 25%. Others, it doesn't matter how nice or fast you are, it doesn't matter that you balanced six hot soups up a flight of stairs and still remembered the crushed pepper, it doesn't matter that you ran two blocks to the local pastry shop to get a really fresh canoli for the missus'... you're still only getting $five bucks. Don't kill yourself for your clients. Just do your job, and at all times appear to your boss the greater likeness of civility and poise (because customers will lose it from time-to-time). Be efficient not for their sake, but so you can be sure you won't get overwhelmed with backed-up orders, or potentially lose tables in the rotation because you were busy with a family of five that "Absolutely insist on a high-chair for our 6 year-old!"

Remember that being a good waiter isn't just about the people sitting at the table, it's also for the cooks that need you to move your plates so they can get the next batch up, or for the other waiters that need you to help carry a big order, or for the managers that need you to empty the tables because there's a line building up front, or for the owner who's trying to get rid of a particular bottle of wine that he got a good deal on. All those people have different ideas of what it means for you to be a good waiter, and most are in direct opposition to the other. In the end, the only thing that will keep you in everyone's favor is your professionalism, your attitude and your work ethic. Like I said above: polite, efficient, professional.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:47 PM on December 20, 2007 [8 favorites]

As others have said, know the menu inside out. I'm allergic to coconut and also cannot have alcohol in anything. The coconut isn't so much of a problem - I usually just steer clear of Thai food, and most Indian restaurants provide good information on the menu about the ingredients. But (in the UK at any rate) many menus do not mention alcohol, especially in desserts, so I always have to ask. And the waiter in most cases has to go back to the kitchen to find out.

*also, laughs ironically at 'water glass being refilled', living as I do in the land where you have to buy a bottle of water costing £5 and where every refill of coffee adds an extra £2 to the bill*
posted by essexjan at 1:01 AM on December 21, 2007

Best answer: I was a (good) waitress for many years. I think the number one rule is to keep an eye on your tables. You look at them every time you walk by, you make sure that you take a quick look at the people and stand near the table so that if they should need anything they can indicate this to you. If they realise they need something, they should be able to look up and see their waiter standing very nearby, ready to come over and help them. You shouldn't inturrupt tables. This is a general idea (though needs to be adapted as all tables are different) of how often the tables should be visited:

1. Stop by a minute or two after then arrive to say hello and see if they'd like to order a drink right away.

2. Bring drink orders asap (within a few minutes). People may be ready to order right now but generally need more time. Don't ask to take the order unless it's obvious they're ready.

3. Enter order immediately after taking it and bring food to table when ready. This should really be no more than 20 minutes unless special circumstances apply e.g. food take longer to cook.

4. Two minues after the food arrives you need to go up to the table and ask if everything is okay. This is to make sure they are happy. If you don't do this, at some point you will get a customer who eats all their food and then says they hated it and don't want to pay for it. You will have no real recourse because you didn't stop back to the table to see if it was okay or if they needed anything else.

5. When it looks like they're done, take their plate away. This is explained in greater detail below.

6. Depending of how much or a hurry that they look like they're in, give them a few minutes before you go up and offer them the dessert menu. Have the menu with you. Don't ask if they want it and then have to go fetch one. Ask if they'd like coffee or after dinner drinks. Serve all these things as necessary and only when all the plates are cleared do you set the check on the table and say "Whenever you're ready." Keep refilling their coffees and waters.

More points:

Don't introduce yourself, don't squat has been covered above.

If you are a naturally gregarious person and can joke around with your customers and have a laugh, then do it (unless it's obvious that they're not interested). I know waiters who do that very successfully and make loads of money, but it comes naturally to them anyway. It doesn't come naturally to me and when I tried to do it, it seemed forced. Don't force it if that's not who you are. There are some people who will expect you to entertain them in addition to being your server, but most people just want good prompt service. My point is, don't fake being something you're not in order to get better tips.

Your table will all be grouped together in a section. Every time, you walk past, no matter how much of a hurry you're in, look at the tables. You're looking for:

- drinks that are less than half full
- any empty dishes, bread baskets that need clearing
- the customers (briefly, you don't need to stop), so should they need you they can indicate this to you

If coffee, iced tea or water is less than half full, refill it without asking. If pop is free and less than half full, bring them a new full glass and take the old one. If they don't want any more, they will tell you and it's better to do this than to neglect them or make them ask for a refill. Do not pick the cup/glass up off the table to refill it. You should be able to reach it.

Do not clear the dishes until you are sure they are done (they have put the napkin in the dish, the dish is completely empty or they have pushed it away). LOTS of people take long breaks between bites and if you try to take their dish away before they're done, they get annoyed. This is something you may have to get a feel for as it's hard to tell, but you're looking for a balance of being polite without being neglectful. If it's been ages since they took a bite and you're not sure if they're done or not, you can approach and without inturrupting, kind of gesture towards the dish and when there is a break in the conversation, say quietly "Can I take this for you?".

Never inturrupt people. You only inturrupt things to set down the hot food. When you check back to see if everything is okay, you walk up to the table and wait for a break in the conversation to ask. If they've been talking for ages and it's probably time that they give their order, you slightly approach the table (not go straight up to it, but stand a foot or two away) and when there's a break in the conversation, you can ask if they've had a chance to look at the menu and would like to order.

Some people will always be dissatisfied no matter what you do. Seriously, there are people out there who are real assholes to waitstaff. You will encounter them. Don't take this personally, just carry on doing your job.

Don't treat people well if they loudly proclaim that they're a great tipper. You should be treating people well anyway and people who feel the need to tell everyone they're a great tipper will usually just leave normal tips.

This is all I can think of right now but it's not an exact science. You need to be able to read the tables individually and respond in kind. Some things just take some experience. The thing that helped me was watching the people I admired and imitating what they did. You'll get the hang of it eventually.

One more thing:

There's not much that can turn off my instinct to tip well -- but one thing that does turn me off is a server who always addresses the guy rather than me when I'm one of a guy-girl pair, then puts the check down in front of the guy. I'd say give equal attention if there's a male-female pair and always leave the check halfway between them.

This has happened to me before. I have always been nice to servers but I've had waitresses who have openly flirted with the man I'm with and paid me no attention. Fuck. That. Treat all people at your table equally. You do not know who is paying.
posted by triggerfinger at 3:52 AM on December 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

Please don't say "does everything taste okay?". Every single time I hear that from a waiter, I think "why, what have you heard?", and it makes me think of the episodes of "Fawlty Towers" with the Japo-Scandinavian mock veal, the bug in the salad, and the rat named Basil. By all means check and see if we're happy with our meals, but don't say that. And please please please, when you stop by to make sure we like what we ordered, do so BETWEEN mouthfuls, I swear sometimes that waiters have a secret radar that tells them when I've just taken a bite.

Definitely don't squat, as others have said.

I waitressed for a while, and I found that I got the biggest tips when I read my customers well: some people want to joke and chat, others want you to take their order, keep their glasses full, be there when they need something, and otherwise just leave them alone. And definitely know your menu, and be honest (if I ask you if the soup is good, I want to know if the soup is good, don't just try and sell it to me).
posted by biscotti at 6:16 AM on December 21, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice, everybody. It's generally pretty obvious to me when a table wants me to chat or make a lot of corny jokes, and this thread has definitely reinforced the notion that unless people make it clear that they want to be entertained as well as served, unobtrusive is the way to go. While I'm still totally baffled by folks in the 'write it all down' school of thought, from the number of responses I reckon it might be good policy to whip out a pen and pad even if I'm not going to actually use it (for the record, I always feel like my recall as to who ordered what is much better if I make the mental effort to remember when I take the order, but I can see how that might be unnerving, especially with a big party).
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:35 AM on December 21, 2007

The one thing that annoys me that hasn't been emphasized above is to remove empty glasses when refilling with new ones. I drink 4-5 sodas at a meal and some waiters just let them accumulate as I watch the table space disappear.
posted by underwater at 4:37 PM on December 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Can't believe this hasn't been covered. My number one pet peeve is the waiter not arranging ahead of time how the bill should be structured (i.e. one check or seperate, etc.).
posted by mmascolino at 5:54 PM on December 22, 2007

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