Getting Advice from Waiters
- Jim Leff
Caitlin said, in another thread on this board:
"I appreciate Anthony Bourdain's advice to pay attention to a server's manner and body language when answering such a question, in order to tell discern true enthusiasm from a kitchen's directive to push a dish"
one prime thing to bear in mind: many waiters don't have the foggiest idea what's good. Just because they work in restaurants doesn't make them chowhounds! They may mean well and recommend something lousy that they themselves inexplicably like.
So I look in their eye to gauge whether they're passionate about what they're saying. Same as I do when I meet people on the street when traveling and ask where to eat that's "really really good". If their eyes don't come alive, I thank them and move on.
10-20% of people (and waiters) are chowhounds. If you don't have time to log on here for advice (though we'll soon be available via wireless!), you've got to find one out in the real world.
Maybe we can all wear a certain color flower on our lapel?
With waiters, your "moving on" options include busboys, managers, maitre' d's, and (if you're in the mood and the energy's right), even other customers. And the standard careful-look-at-every-single-plate-as-you-walk-to-the-bathroom.
But the trick to remember is that waiters don't necessarily posess the secret key to unlocking a kitchen's best stuff.
I almost never ask a waiter a general question like "what's good?" or "what should I have?" On the other hand, once I start asking detailed questions about how certain dishes are prepared, whether certain ingredients are fresh or frozen, etc., those waiters who really care about food usually come alive and start to talk about the menu, often offering up valuable information (like "the Copper River salmon was line-caught yesterday and just flown in from Alaska this morning"). In ethnic restaurants, once I display genuine interest in learning more about various dishes, the waiters will often eagerly share their knowledge and recommend dishes that they especially like. And you can usually tell if they have wooden palates or if you should take their advice seriously.
Once waiters learn that I'm seriously interested in food, they will often begin to talk about the local food scene. I've gotten some great tips on restaurants from conversations with waiters, bartenders, and other restaurant staff. In this respect, I was interested to read in this month's Gourmet magazine that Jonathan Gold learned about Renu Nakorn from a bartender at Campanile.
Like most Chowhounds, it doesn't take much for a conversation with me to turn to the subject of food, and I've learned a lot from these discussions, whether they are with a waiter, a sales clerk in an art gallery, or a carpenter. Fellow Chowhounds are everywhere if you look for them.
My guy often asks the waiter on the QT when I've gone to the washroom, quietly as if it were a secret or an inside tip or sometimes jokingly with me there as a funny/amusement.
What would you order to impress or better still, seduce a lady who really loves food? (He often smiles at me then and or winks at the staffer.) So what tastes really good or what would you order for yourself?
Body language and/or enthusiasm/attitude of the reaction and response always come into play.
Other things I've been known to say;
"This is my first time here, and I'd really like to try some dishes that you make that I can't find easily at other places."