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May 13, 2008 07:07 PM

Service in the post-empire world [moved from Manhattan boards]

I'd like to see some talk about the quality of service in decent restaurants these days. Outside a few stellar places where the staffs still learn how to be attentive and invisible, most of the high end good food places are either personable or pushy, and the bus-staffs are pushy though invisible or pushy and obvious. Clearly they're told what they should do — take the "dirty" plates away, refill the bread dish and so on. They hover, polite as could be but predators on your dishes, distractors from the business at hand or your company. It's easy to understand: few places outside France and Japan have a tradition of honorable service in restaurants. Certainly not here, where "friendly" is the currency and efficiency the aim: get 'em in and get 'em out, quick. Most of the bus-staff I've seen are from places where I doubt there is any tradition of service in restuarants at all. I doubt if the men who are doing this work here are used to the kind of work waiting tables is. I've had meals at the otherwise estimable Telepan which brought me to tears, ruined by over-zealous bus-staff; and I've had touching service at Daniel and nearly every Japanese place I can think of, including my local. The fault, as near as I can figure, is not with the bus-people themselves, who are hardworking if a little out of their depth, but with the people who run the restaurants, for not conveying the art of abetting a fine meal. .

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  1. It takes two to tango.

    Pre- or post- empire dinners always have two components: the ones at the table, the ones around it. And experience ( my experience, at least ) shows, each side reacts to what the other side is doing at any given moment.

    "France and Japan have a tradition of honorable service in restaurants."

    On that vein, I'd formulate this theorem: if the patron has a tradition of honorable service, the patron will get a honorable service.

    And viceversa ( and I won't elaborate on that one ).

    1. Before I make my typically wordy and inconclusive comment, might I ask what is meant by 'post-empire'? This is a curious term.

      If you mean that which post-dates colonialism, we can look at the late 1940s through the 1960s for most decolonisation efforts. Also, global movement has been with us a while (along with labour who've been disenfranchised in these movements).

      I agree with jolivore that the individual restaurateur is responsible for training all staff in proper management (don't be so handsy with people's dishes if you're not sure they're done; don't hold glasses by the lip, etc.)

      I'm not sure that the patron who expects or enjoys honourable service (a term that could also use some unpacking for me) necessarily receives it, though. If that were the case, would the Not About Food boards really be so clogged with outrage and debates over what constitutes good service?

      1 Reply
      1. re: Lizard

        Still looking forward to the definition, but wanted to add that I can think of a number of different communities across the globe who might doubt that the US days of empire are over.

      2. Not sure how to answer this one. Our empire came to an end in the 1950s and 60s and I'm not old enough to recall service in those times.

        However, post-empire, I don't think I really see much of change in standards in mid to upscale places. It's usually friendly, knowledgable and efficient. I don't need or want anymore.

        I think the likely differences will be related to the conditions of employment. If I go almost anywhere in Spain or to "decent" places at home, I'm usually going to be served by a fulltime salaried employee whose value is respected by their employer. That shows in the service.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Harters

          I'm beginning to think my heading was glib and ill-considered. I am seeing this place in its declining decadent phase, and the smart money (and no-money) swarming in to get what they can before the ship sinks. But I'm focussing on the crummy, literal service I see by earnest servers who are told, keep the water glasses filled and take the plates off the table, etc., without any feel for the rhythm or rhyme of a meal. Sorry to muddy the waters so — it's a post about service, with a wider range, maybe, but a food issue nonetheless (so it doesn't belong here.)

        2. It's funny - I just posted a review in which I compared two equally priced Michelin ** restaurants in Champagne and NYC - the service in Champagne was otherworldly; the service in NYC professional (but for a couple of bumps) but hardly awe-insipring.

          But I have had plenty of very good restaurant expeirnces in the US. Part of it seems to be a difference in the style of what is expected. French society in general is a bit more formal, and that can be quite pleasant. (The best servers we had in France had a "tableside" manner much akin to a good doctor's.) But I think in the U.S. for whatever reason, many people are put off by that level of formality.

          I can enjoy either, as long as they fulfill (ideally, anticipate!) my needs.

          p.s. Aren't the folks in France and Japan living in a post-empire world?