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Jun 13, 2007 12:08 PM

Am I just an ugly American?

After our recent trip to French Polynesia, I am having some trouble pinning down exactly how I feel about the service we received at several high end establishments.

For the most part, the resort restaurants we patronized (from breakfast buffet to "fine dining,") were staffed by young, French speaking servers, some Polynesian, some French. My French is not perfect by any means, but my accent is good, and my rendition of "L'addition, s'il vous plait," is certainly understandable. Yet we encoutered, time and time again, being plain old ignored by our servers. They would forget second drinks we had ordered. They would take questions about ingredients and say they would ask the chef, but would never offer an answer. They would nod to the aforementioned "L'addition," question, and not print out our bill. They would not pre-bus, or bus the table at all (and there certainly was no bus person dedicated to this task). They put fingers in our taro mash. They forgot to fire our deserts. They pulled the lightest, wateriest single espresso I have ever had.

These were USD 300 + meals, mind you, not some regular, every day brasseries.

This got me to thinking about what I am used to as an American.

When I was trained for my first front of house job, as a waitress in a Bennigans (read: TGI Fridays), I learned about the windows of service. That the drink order should be taken within 5 minutes of seating. That there needs to be a checkback after each course is dropped for drinks, condiments, or possible problems with the order. If I did not follow these rules, chances were I would not make my 15-20% (which at a Bennigans is about $6-$8) tip. At subsequent jobs, and better venues, I learned about upselling water and drinks. It was in my best interest to sell as much food and drink as possible to the customer, not just to boost my restaurant’s profits, but to ensure I could make a living off of a percentage of that gross in the form of tips. I also needed to do as much business as possible and turn over as many times as I could. So if the food was not out yet, I went to the kitchen to find it before my customers had time to miss it. If something wasn’t on the table I went and got it myself, especially if I noticed my runner was weeded.

Since the service is included at those French Polynesian establishments, it made me wonder. Is French service more socialist and American service capitalist?

Granted, the corporatization of American restaurants is distasteful sometimes- hearing the same stock company script over and over to point where “it’s my pleasure to serve you,” loses its meaning. (Really, if I had wanted fries with that I would have asked for them. Fries are not something I need help remembering.)

But the hustle and elbow grease that I’ve come to expect for my 20% seems to be a special thing.

Or is it?

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  1. hmm. I had fantastic service throughout Paris in a variety of settings-

    2 Replies
    1. re: nummanumma

      Dude, you DO realize that French Polynesia is NOT IN FRANCE, don't you?

      1. re: pgym

        um, yes. I was referring to the original title of this thread which compared European service to American service...and the fact that the poster continuously refers to 'the french' as one big group.
        "Is French service more socialist and American service capitalist?"

    2. A rule of thumb I have distilled from my experiences: The closer I get to the equator, the worse the service gets. Live with it, make the time for it, laugh about it. And remember the lyric from Mark Knopfler "We're a long way from home - let's just pay the man and go".

      2 Replies
      1. re: Veggo

        I could absolutely understand that sentiment if it were a less expensive meal, but at the prices the OP mentioned I'd expect more.

        1. re: Veggo

          I can't say I expected that lyric to pop up in a discussion here, but it is apt.

        2. I was in Bora Bora in 2004, and the service I got at restaurants could be best described as "lay back." I don't think the servers' approach to customers has anything to do with you being an American. It may sound un-PC, but Veggo's point about service in the tropics, specifically in the non-industrial areas, certainly rings true. Does it bother me? Not really.

          1 Reply
          1. re: dty

            re: service on vacation, french vs american style

            At the Sofitel in Santo Domingo I had the BEST service ever encountered at a hotel. What a dissapointment when we went to the Hilton by the beach. disgusting. I love Sofitels, in general I think they have the best service of hotel chains in their price range.
            Food at a Sofitel in Morocco was better prepared and "cleaner" tasting than anything we had in Morocco (sorry, but I have only found home made Moroccan or Moroccan in american restaurants to be really excellent, oh with the exception of the most expensive restaurant in casablanca which was good)
            Funny story, we drove way out of our way to get to the "Sofitel" in Petra, as advertised in the town's brochure. The hotel was definitely no longer 5star, I think they weren't getting enough people, and the "Sofitel" name was nowhere to be found. all of the rooms had been built from mock clay and rocks, and there were few windows. the hotel was built to look like the caves of petra, sort of. it was huge, and it was possible to get lost on the "streets" of the hotel. there were also shops in "business" and an empty restaurant serving dinner, even though there were clearly less than a handful of people staying there. it was like a ghost town hotel - I think Sofitel pulled out due to lack of business. so we settled for a very ugly Marriott room and bypassed the marriott's "italian" buffet where english and chinese tourists sat eating very unhappily in favor of a local schwarma place the waiter recommended.

          2. Global eating is an experience unto itself. From the food to the prices to the service to the on and on.

            jfood spent the last two years around the world and the one thing he learned was enjoy the experience that most can only imagine. sushi in tokyo, followed the next night by spicy crabs in singapore. does jfood remember the service, nah, he remembers enjoying the experience of eating with locals, in local, prepared by locals and dining with locals. as tiring and draining these trips were (around the world in 6 days) the greatest memories were these meals. breakfast in dubai eating whatever, grilled fish in israel, unbelievable. top experiences and jfood still smiles at the memories.

            so when traveling, enjoy the surrounds, take the USA-DNA out of the brain, kick it back, enjoy, and remember. if your blood pressure rises in these circumstances, go back to the hotel and tell the person in the mirror to chill and ejoy.

            1 Reply
            1. re: jfood

              i have to echo jfood's comments. i spend time in asia and europe every year. lived in both. i just try to fit in. my typical m.o. is to hit the hawker stalls, street vendors, whatever and get the lay of the land. i hit the low key ex-pat places when needed. seldom visit the high-end places. not because i have issues, just because i haven't explored all the other stuff yet.

            2. That's the way it is in French Polynesia - I'm not surprised.

              1 Reply
              1. re: torta basilica

                sailing the exumas (bahamas) and the ec is a hoot. islands accessible only by sailboat have a quality that must be experienced. the more remote the better. pacific resorts in french polynesia sound like they should be avoided.