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May 20, 2008 05:52 AM

Professional waiter/waitress- a dying breed?

My wife and I had a great anniversary dinner last Friday evening at Sage. The food, as expected, was excellent. We chose Sage because we've been fans of the restaurant since Anthony was cooking in North End, in the smallest space east of Ten Tables. We hadn't yet been to the new location ( Umbra's former space ) in the South End and thought it was about time we checked it out. What really made the evening special, was a wonderful waiter. He was probably in his early 50's, polite, intelligent, amusing, and he knew his food. Even though it was a rather busy Friday night, he kept an eye on all of his tables/customers. The service was transparent: items were served in a timely fashion, dirty plates/silverware cleared, wine glasses refilled, etc. It got us to thinking about all of the meals ( 75-100 ) we've eaten at restaurants in the past year or so. We can easily count on the fingers of two hands, all of the excellent waiters/waitresses we've encountered. We find this a sad state of affairs.

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  1. I do think there are fewer and fewer people who make a career out of this. If you go to New York, of course, you can still find this -- it's mostly men. But I don't know where you would in Boston. Durgin-Park still has the career waitresses, but of course that's not the fine service you are talking about.

    1. I find that middle-aged (or even older) servers are by far the best.

      The Austrian guy at The Oak Room is my fav waiter ever. He's probably close to 70.

      As Hyman Roth said, "This is the profession we have chosen."

      As opposed to: "this is the professon I have to deal with until I can pass my boards and get a grad school scholarship."

      1. Our favorite waiter ever was in Portugal at a small restaurant in Lisbon. We communicated via our (his and mine) rudimentary French. Every time we would say what we wanted to order, he'd shake his head and say "poulet". We finally gave up and went with the chicken -- the best darn chicken dinner I've ever had anywhere. He hd the most knowing little smile as we enthusiastically cleaned our plates. This wasn't a high end place but the dignity and professionalism of this waiter was something we experienced over and over in eateries of varying status all over Europe.

        I have a question and don't mean it to be smarmy: Can Americans in general appreciate a professional waitperson? Since we don't grow up with waitstaff being a respected profession, I don't think most people truly understand the value of a professional. It's been 20 years since I worked at a high-end restaurant in Ann Arbor. We were trained to be unobtrusive, efficient and know the menu, foods, wines, etc. It was a rarity to have a table that even recognized how good the waitstaff were and subsequently tips were the standard 10%. Do you think people are more aware now?

        4 Replies
        1. re: three of us

          I'm not surprised. Low wages, cheap customers, no health plan, no union, tipping out the tips they do get, unhappy customers, being on their feet all day, and greedy restaurant owners.

          Is this a profession to aspire to greatness in anymore? I don't think so. Why bother?

          I admire and generously reward and am grateful to the servers I've known who are friendly and attentive and wonderful. TheTrout, I imagine your server was of the old guard. The day of the diner who does unto others as they would have them do unto them seems to be long, long gone.

          1. re: three of us

            I think Americans in general have a difficult time with service personnel of all sorts, probably because most Americans weren't raised with "servants" or even the concept of professional staff in commercial establishments.
            We tend to be a do-it-yourself sort.
            Perhaps the emphasis on going to college and the value of that diploma have also added to the perception among many that these jobs are inferior. Poor person has to be a doorman, waiter, chauffeur, etc. because he doesn't have the education to get something better.
            This is often very difficult for Americans overseas where many of these jobs are treated as professions (or at least long-term occupations) with dignity and even some status.
            It's hard for us to let someone open doors, carry our things, or "wait" on us.
            It's a real shame because hospitality industry jobs can pay very well and it's a category that's growing.
            All work has value as do the people who do it, however humble the job may seem to us. Many service workers consider themselves "professionals," are excellent at what they do, and deserve our giving them the respect they give us.

            1. re: MakingSense

              I agree. I believe many really good waiters get frustrated because of the way people dine these days. It amazes me to watch a couple be seated and just order right away. They eat their meal without talking or even looking at each other. Then they get their check and leave immediately. What fun is that and think how difficult it is for a waiter to "pace" the meal with the whims of the diners. I would hate to be a waiter and try to determint the pace of my customers.
              That said, one of the best waiters I ever had was at the now defunct Joe Muer's in downtown Detroit. We never saw him until we needed something and it seemed that he was able to read our minds. He just appeared like magic. My wife would pull out a cigarette (the good old days) and, there he was out of nowhere to light it. He didn't write anything down and everything came out perfect. The other was not a waiter, but a bus. Another defunct place, the steakhouse at the Mayflower Hotel in Plymouth, Michigan, had a bus that really made the meal. Just like the above waiter, he was always there when needed, plates were never cleared too soon or too late, Ashtrays were always clean, etc. and you hardly notice the guy was there. He was a little challanged mentally and I remember his gratutide when I gave him a Christmas tip equal to our favorite wait person. We were sincere about it, too.Bob

            2. re: three of us

              My ex's neighbor always kept what I called strange hours -- wouldn't get home until after midnight every night. I once asked him what he did for a living and he replied that he was in the restaurant industry in a very uncomfortable tone -- uh, kind of a vague response. He then talked about how he was thinking about opening up his own restaurant. Well, I was dining at one of the top restaurants in NYC and found that he was the maitre'd there! I'm sure he was earning a REALLY good living, but it seemed that he was a bit embarrassed to admit that he worked in the restaurant service industry. It takes a lot of skill and knowledge to be maitre'd at a place like that, but I'm thinking he has encountered his fair share of people who think he's just "another waiter."

            3. I have been a waiter for over a quarter century now and I have seen many, many changes. I started out working nights, doing "fine dining" until I switched over to 'days" to work more normal hours. I applaud the intelligence and empathy of the replies I have discovered here. Most people seem to think being a Waiter is not a "real job" and have even remarked they "feel sorry" for me because of what I do and it's a "shame' that I am "so old" and still a Waiter. That used to piss me off and at times still does, but I know better now. People do eat at a very fast clip today, half-hour is the average ticket time. , If that's the pace then I will adjust my style and get them in and out as fast as I can, with little to no break between courses. As soon as I get your order, I will send it in and then get your soup and salad, whereas in years past is was "de riguer" (Waiters love French) to order the main course AFTER serving the starter. I try to be unobtrusive and to match the individual time of each of my tables. I try not to remove the plate too quick but that is really hard and everyday I must remind myself to "let the people eat!"A good restaurant is bigger than any one individual and I try to include you in that experience, to be a part of something great.
              Waiting tables is a challenge and at times a struggle, but that all goes away at the end of your shift when you grab your coat and head out the door, with a productive day behind you and the lure of one on the horizon. In the right place, Waiting tables can be quite addictive.