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Waiter Special's Spiels in Toronto - Love them or lump them?

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After thinking a bit more about why I felt uncomfortable at Mandarin with the overly friendly staff, I realized I hate it just as much at the high end restaurants. So am I just crabby, or are there other people like me?

Let's discuss.

Preamble, I'm not very picky. I like people, I like waiters, I'm not out to get them. I'm sure they all *LOVE* giving their spiel anyways, right? :)

So you go to a restaurant, and with the menu comes a long winded spiel about what's on the menu today. All the specials, including how it's made, what's in it, what sauce was used, and some added french words for allure.

Usually, it comes out as a fast list of words recited from memory, and I find it hard to take it all in. I generally feel like I'm not being spoken to, I'm being wooed or something. It's weird.

I try to pay attention, I do. But I lose it. And then all of the words just run together and I'm lost.

I have no idea what the specials are, let alone what berry was used in what sauce.

If I heard one of them well enough and it sounded interesting, I might ask again. This is sometimes hard for them, because it was in the middle of their list. Never easy. However with the extra thought comes a slower rendition, which is nice. Then they leave, and it's time to look at the menu. After that chances are the specials are long forgotten anyways.

It's all so weird. Why don't they just write it on the wall? If they want to be fancy they can use chalk or something. At least I can read it, when I want, compare it to the menu, and ask my wife what all those fancy words mean. When she doesn't know, I can give up or ask my waitress.

So, do you like the spiel? Do you think it's effective? Are you disappointed if you don't get one?

Are there restaurants in Toronto that do this well, or differently? Something more interesting - like uhm writing it on the wall? :)

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  1. "I have no idea what the specials are, let alone what berry was used in what sauce."

    Ha ha, I know what you mean--is the Saskatoon berry compote served with the flambeed pork snout or the pan-seared, blackened eel bellies?

    I actually don't mind the oral recitation of specials, but I often have to ask for clarification. I would prefer a daily special board or menu insert. That way, the waiter could just add details.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Yongeman

      There seems to be a price point at 'upper-level-bistro' where the board disappears and we have to depend on the harangue. This culinary exposition is often missing the price. Remember that those eel bellies had to specially imported from the Moray Firth.

      At the another point on the spectrum (let's stay Newtonian) are Chinese restaurants in one of our Chinatowns. Here the specials are written on sheets of paper that are usually green, yellow or orange - and in Chinese. Unfortunately for me, beyond a symbol for rice I am totally lost. But at least they usually have the prices in a form I can understand. Occasionally I will order one of these unseen. It is often pointless asking what they are as eel bellies will stretch most people's translation abilities. Babel's attempt is 鳗鱼腹部. How did it do?

      I've wondered in the past if is worthwhile getting a pocket translator - but I think that deserves another thread.

      1. re: Paulustrious

        Great topic Socks.
        It was so funny. I was recently having lunch at the Elliott House in Mississauga with a business associate and we listened in amazement as our waiter described the daily specials differently at each of his tables. Was he forgetful or being creative? Why do restauranteurs put their servers and customers through this unnecessary annoyance?
        And one more thing, servers can stop congratulating me for being able to give them my order.

        1. re: Paulustrious

          鳗鱼腹部 sounds like a clinical term :-) We would call it 鱔腩, totally different words. But Babelfish turns it into "Ricefield eel intestinal fat", even less appetizing!

          The problem with a Chinese-to-English pocket translator is that you first have to enter the Chinese characters as input. Without any knowledge of how the characters are broken down into components, or how they are pronounced, there is no way to do it.

          1. re: Teep

            Thanks for the translation. You're right about the translator. I need a camera with built-in OCR. A quick google and I cannot find one. You would think it would exist if just for tourism.

            Even then we would still have problems. Translating Cottage Pie or Toad in the Hole into Chinese probably wouldn't help the Chinese, and I suspect the literal translations of certain Chinese dishes into English would still leave me no better off.

      2. The proper reply, when a waiter asks if you wish to hear the specials of the day, is -- to borrow a wonderful movie line -- :"Not if you want to keep your spleen."

        1. It depends on the manner in which the spiel is delivered and why I'm at that particular restaurant. If I have been to a restaurant prior and know the chef has a wonderful touch with daily specials, or I hear "venison/quail/pheasant/duck," I generally want more information. I'll patiently (contentedly) wait for them to finish their monologue and then ask for them to repeat the information regarding that single item. If nothing catches my attention, or I've not dined at the restaurant prior, I'll feign attention and order our predinner cocktails. SWMBO often orders from the daily specials so really pays attention and, in those few instances where the waiter rushed through his recitation, she asked him to do it over so she could actually listen. :)

          A good waiter pays attention and paces everything about that meal. A poor waiter gets dinged at the end.

          1. I prefer the specials written on the board or on an insert. I like to bounce around a couple of ideas before deciding and trying to remember what the waiter said (especially if it was really descriptive) makes that hard to do. Usually I politely listen, dismiss what they offer and go back to reviewing my options on the menu. I'm also attracted to key words (depending on the day I could be in the mood for anything "braised" or "deep fried" or "fennel"!) so if I don't hear those exact words I'm just not interested.

            1. The problem with the spoken menu versus the written menu is three-fold

              1 - jfood cannot hear in one ear and he always has the good ear to the table to participate in conversation. Therefore the bad one is to the server. Try listening to a quick recite with a deaf ear. Likewise accents cause considerable angst amongst many customers. Jfood was in a restaurant when the heavily accented server went through the specials. Literally noone (6-top) could understand any of them.
              2 - Jfood likes to match courses. Much like many on these boards enjoy pairing the wine with the food jfood pairs the app with the entree. Almost impossible without the visual aides.
              3 - The price - yes it is your money, yes you can always ask, yes it gives the impression you cannot afford it if you ask, yes it breaks the rhythm of the presentation, etc. So unless the server can perform like judges at a skating event with visual numbers during the spiel, there is no answer that everyone likes.

              Bottom line, please print the specials and give them to the table. It is not that hard to type and print. Totally unacceptable business practice in jfood's opinion.

              2 Replies
              1. re: jfood

                I think the problem when you type out the specials (depending on the place) is that you're in a bind if you run out of the specials and are handing out a sloppy looking printout with an item or two crossed out. At least with a special board, you can easily erase an item when it's no longer available.

                1. re: queencru

                  No different fromthe real menu..."I am sorry but we are out of the pig's brains."

              2. I sort of like the server special ramble. I generally ask questions and chat for a bit and often get a good feel for what the vibe is. That being said I understand it's not the most efficent means to the end - but when I'm out I'm often not about efficency.

                1. Well, you can be like my sister and, if there's more than one special, say to this effect: I'm sorry, but I have severe ADHD and cannot process so much information aurally - if you have the specials in writing, I would be happy to review them on my own, otherwise we'll just have to forego the specials....

                  1. Interesting topic Socks... I know this is almost a year since the post was added but I feel i must defend my fellow restaurant people!

                    The reason to me why restaurant management has staff give the spiel is it gives an opportunity for the guest and the restaurant to make a connection with each other. A good connection means ultimately better service for the guest and more tips for the servers. If we didn't have this connection then why tip? Being a server is very much like customer service. Its and art. if it were just a simple transaction then thats all it would be... you bring the food... i eat it and i pay for it, thats that. But where servers earn their money is in the tips. The art comes in when they are able to use the tools that management gives them and provide something more for the customer. More than just a normal transaction. Hence wanting you to give more of a tip hopefully.

                    Now I must agree with you that a robotic spiel is terrible. but if done properly I feel that it ALWAYS serves a purpose.

                    13 Replies
                    1. re: mac247ca

                      Another thing that came to mind, the chefs/cooks that usually come up with these specials do it with extremely short notice, there just isn't time sometimes to have people go write things on chalkboard or to have it printed out (besides, the restaurant has neither chalkboards or inserts to put little sheets of paper in anyways)

                      1. re: mac247ca

                        A good waiter can always connect with the patron, even in restaurants that don't have daily specials (yes, they exist).

                        If the specials are written out on a board or insert, the waiter's spiel can supplement the writing - he or she can reprise the specials verbally. This is the practice at one of my favorite Italian restaurants - there's a board with the specials on it AND the server goes over them briefly, answers any questions, etc. Works just fine, and works just as well with menu inserts. Given the low cost of printing/copying tech these days, there's absolutely no reason not to provide inserts if boards are deemed unsuitable due to size, spatial configuration, or ambience concerns.

                        In fact, it's my opinion that having the specials written out one way or another (WITH prices, but that's another subject), and then having the server briefly reprise them (perhaps highlighting the chef's recommendation), makes for a better relationship/connection.

                        1. re: mac247ca

                          "The art comes in when they are able to use the tools that management gives them"

                          What jfood does not understand is why a server does not want the customer to have all of the information, i.e. the specials and the prices. In the first case the customer having the ingredients of the specials in hand reinforces the "special" nature of the dish. And the price avoids any surprises at the end if the special price is 50-100% higher than the other entrees.

                          1. re: jfood

                            That is a perfectly sensible and incontrovertible statement jfood. Well done!

                            1. re: jfood

                              When I last worked as a waiter, many, many moons ago, our restaurant would have three daily specials: the daily soup, the daily fish, and an entree from whatever caught our chef's eye at the market that morning. I didn't find it at all hard to tell people what the specials were, without it being "canned".

                              And I didn't embellish the descriptions either; the meat was 'served with' whatever sauce, not "flavoured with sesame seeds whipped into a fondue and garnished with lark's vomit". I agree with an above poster - I thought it gave us a few extra moments where I could judge the table's mood. Some people come out for dinner for the "show"; some come out for a romantic dinner for two. With the former, I did my best to make the dinner fun; with the latter, I did my best to be unobtrusive. That half a minute reciting the specials was easily the best way to sense which way to go.

                              1. re: FrankD

                                Great. As the customer jfood always appreciates the professional server who can read the table and understand which method best suits it. But then either leave a piece of paper with the specials and prices, have them already in the menu or have them on a chalkboard.

                                Jfood has NEVER seen a reasonable answer on why the specials can only be in the netherland other than a gotcha on the price.

                                1. re: FrankD

                                  I think that you must have been a great waiter, FrankD.

                                  1. re: FrankD

                                    When I waited tables a while back, we also were required to memorize and recite the specials. While this wasn't a problem for me, I did feel it was a waste of the waitstaff's time, and would've preferred to have the specials written down. That way people can peruse them at their own leisure, and know the prices without money being a topic of conversation between the waiter and the customer.

                                    I always liked talking with customers about the food and the preparations, and I was good at deciphering what sort of interaction and service a given table preferred. But having to recite specials forces the waiter to "give a spiel" even to those customers who clearly wish to be left alone. For people who wanted a lot of interaction with me, I was happy to provide it in a more personalized manner, i.e. discussing with them what dishes I thought they might enjoy given their tastes; providing suggestions as to what looked best that night; or even non-food related chatting and joking, which regulars often expected.

                                    1. re: visciole

                                      I don't view the spiel as such as the server's fault, but the establishment's fault (though a server who does it in such a way as to make it hard to digest well, or who resists giving the prices by pretending not to have them (I've seen that one), will suffer in the tip dept). It's a single star demerit (that is, the review drops from 3 to 2 stars) for an establishment to do this chronically - I give a pass to places that don't always have specials and then only one (there are some places that are like that - where specials are really unusual).

                                      1. re: Karl S

                                        You should know that some restaurants (the one where I worked included) tell their servers NOT to mention the specials' prices. I would never have pretended not to know the price if someone specifically asked, but we were not supposed to say them in "the spiel." In the case of that restaurant it didn't matter since the specials were always priced exactly in line with the regular menu, so I didn't feel bad about it, but I do think it's better to have everything written down so that the customer never has to suffer any doubt or embarrassment about prices.

                                        1. re: visciole

                                          I know that policy of some restaurants. I abhor that policy. Again, I don't blame the server, but the restaurant, unless the server screws around as I previously noted. The policy automatically demotes a restaurant in my eyes - and in the eyes of many - because it is a hallmark of an inhospitable attitude at odds with the restaurant's mission in the customers' eyes.

                                          And I always ask servers, when they recite and fail to mention the price, to provide the price. Always.

                                        2. re: Karl S

                                          Jfood was eating a few years ago in a high end Phillyplace as a single. Ordered his food and as he was eating the next table received there's. A great looking entree. Jfood asked the server what it was. It was a special. Why he did he not mention the special..."You were dining alone." Thump.

                                          guess what the tip was?

                                          1. re: jfood

                                            BAD waiter! Often people dining alone appreciate more attention, not less. Again, it's a feel thing. Being a waiter requires sensitivity. But, in any case he could certainly have handled it better by simply apologizing and telling you he forgot to give you the specials.