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Service- What makes it excellent? Merely good? Or bad?

My husband and I had dinner last night at one of our favorite restaurants. The service there has always been excellent, friendly, efficient, and competent. But last night, oh dear, bad bad bad clouds floated in our midst, and the place seemed to have gone southbound. I used to be a server, so I am more tolerant than most when I know the server is slammed or "in the weeds," but when the service is just plain lazy, stupid, and moronic, my feathers get ruffled.

The hostess sat us outdoors (without asking if that was okay). I was cold, and the patio was uneven, thus making the table and chairs wobbly. We POLITELY asked to be moved indoors because I was cold. So Dolly Dingle moved us to a table NEXT TO THE DOOR. The silverware was in a napkin "roll-up," which was a new presentation for this establishment. I find this extremely tacky and cheap. The server asked me to keep my fork when she cleared the appetizer plate. We asked her to bring appropriate wine choices for our entrees, which turned out to be a colossal mistake, as her choice was two glasses of (the same) very flat red wine.

I was so frustrated at the lack of finesse, simple refinement, and creativity throughout this whole meal, that I started thinking, well, what MAKES the dining experience? We love all levels of dining, from the hole in the wall local joint to white tablecloth. We savor them.

The most basic elements of Service:

The greeting. So simple, yet so often botched. A solid, confident, "Good Evening," is simple, easy to teach, and sets the tone for the guest.

The seating arrangement. There are good tables and crappy tables. If there is a good table available, the guest should be seated at that table. A cold, rickety, metal, uneven table with an uneven chair, on an uneven surface is annoying. The guest has the right to expect the dining experience will be enjoyable, not an annoyance. (Last night, I noticed several open tables in a warmer, more intimate section of the restaurant, they remained open for the duration of our meal).

The service. This silverware should be laid out in a proper fashion. The server should replace the silverware. If the guest requests the server make a choice, that server might want to ask them about their likes and dislikes.

I realize this is a bit of a rant.

What do the Chowhounds require for service to be considered excellent? What makes service bad?

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  1. Edit: "Hole" in the wall.

    1. WOW! did this favorite restaurant changed management? It wasn't just the server but also the hostess, the silverware, the flat wine.

      1 Reply
      1. re: PBSF

        Good question, it's possible.

      2. Sometimes, in restaurants, "when it rains it pours." Your experience was horrendous. Now, perhaps the place thinks that their tottering tables on the patio are "charming" -- but tottering tables aren't professional.

        And that's the operative word: "professional." Your server used not one bit of common sense when you were seated near a door -- after informing them you're cold! Common sense is absent in restaurant personnel who're just doing it for a job.

        The best service happens when you're served by a professional who enjoys his/her career in the hospitality industry -- and who's backed-up by a staff that's equally as committed to their craft. Common sense has a lot to do with it.

        I tell my servers over and over to put themselves in the diners' place. I am still astounded when my people bring food to a table -- and the silverware's been cleared *and not replaced!* Also, in a perfect world, I'd make them all go without beverages for an entire shift - so they'd never again forget to fill that water glass.

        Ain't it nice when your experience at a restaurant is improved by a server who seems genuinely committed to making that experience perfect? Servers aren't paid much so these peak experiences are few and far between.

        Finally, in defense of the restaurant: a lot of local Health Departments, especially when there's outdoor dining and open doors/windows, require that restaurants do the silverware "wrap" thing. It's tacky, but it's sanitary.

        1. Kind of like good sex. A multitude of factors at play that only work if people don't seem to by trying too hard; and you know when its good without being able to pin down exactly why.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

            Ha! Your response just nailed it on the head......I mean.....oh wait, it's a food website.

            Seriously though, many moons ago, the first waiter who trained me said, "The best service is the service that is neither seen nor heard." Not to say the staff should behave like cowering minions, but rather "create" the dining experience for the guest, and recognize their movements; ie, the regulars who know their favorite server's daughter's birthday, or the single diner who sinks into a book, a great meal, and a glass of wine.

            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

              Great analogy. There's a spectrum with both, with the vast majority of experiences falling somewhere between awful and transcendental. Competent but boring, enthusiastic but clueless, or interesting but distracted seem to be the order of the day.

              It would be great if every encounter was memorable (in a good way). But given at least some interest in the proceedings, it's easy to overlook myriad subjective or objective transgressions. What's intolerable is when somebody clearly just doesn't care about what's going on.

            2. "Excellent" is when it all just happens without you really noticing that it has. Someone takes your order. Food arrives at a reasonable pace and is put in front of the correct person. Drinks are left where you can get hold of them. Crockery is cleared. More food comes and goes. Eventually someone puts a bill in front of you. You pay and say "goodbye". Perfect.

              "Bad" is pretty much the opposite. There are constant inordinate delays (not just down to the kitchen). Drinks are held by the servers so you have to ask for a top-up of the wine. Server has to ask "who is having the halibut". Server comes back to ask "is everything OK". You wait for ages for the bill after you've had coffee - even though you've asked three people for it.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Harters

                You consider it bad service if the waiter checks that you're enjoying your dinner?

                1. re: invinotheresverde

                  I think it is bad service if the waiter checks time and again if everything is ok. If it is obviously a business meeting, romantic dinner etc I do NOT want to be bugged every 5 minutes. I also can't stand 'are you still working on that' when it is obvious that we are still eating apart from that I can't stand that question.

                  1. re: smartie

                    There's a big difference between a discreet query of enjoyment and virtual harassment.

              2. Excellent Service........I order and my food comes out to me.

                Bad Service........I order and my food does not come out to me.

                1. Good service - simply making me feel welcome, answering questions, providing necessaries, not hovering but not disappearing.

                  Bad service - server ignoring me, flirting openly with dinner companion.

                  Karma - I was paying that night. Tip certainly reflected service. And she knew it.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: elfcook

                    The "flirting" comment made me feel like you have a story that's begging to be told : )

                    1. re: hyacinthgirl

                      it was years ago, but I took my then-boyfriend out for a nice meal. Our (female) server was quite taken with him. She was rude to me, all but ignoring me, and fawned all over him. (In her defense, he was cute!). She chatted with him, made suggestions, and all but sat in his lap. When she put the check in front of him, I picked it up, and her face fell. I sweetly told her that she might want to attend to ALL diners at the table, since she could never be sure who was paying.

                      1. re: elfcook

                        At least you got the story out of it.
                        A friend was just telling me last night that a waitress recently fed the patron's husband a piece of food.... Always funny to me when someone thinks they're going to accomplish anything flirting with one party in a couple when the SO is right there.

                    2. since this is one of your favorite restaurants you came with certain expectations. Seems like it was not a server you knew, and maybe there was a change in management. I have no idea of what the price range was, but since you talk about "courses" and different wines, seems safe to assume it was high end. You deserved much better.

                      On the other hand, many many people would prefer a seat by the window, she probably figured since you were not comfortable outside, she could at least provide you with a view. She obviously should have asked "will this table be better?" or words to that effect in which case you could have expressed your preference. Same with the wine. In both cases you turned control over to someone in whom you already had a reason to distrust their abilities.

                      I sure would have expected a place of this caliber to bring new flatware, and when asked to keep my fork, I would have replied that I would prefer a fresh one. A better or excellent restaurant should provide that. On the other hand, I have found that almost universally if the flatware is rolled up in the napkin, you better keep track of it, because that is all you are gonna get.

                      Hope the food was still good, even if you have to accept more "homestyle" service. And not to point out the obvious, yeah.. it was a bit of a rant, but one based on past experience. If you made those comments about a typical nice but not fine dining restaurant that you had never been to, all your comments would take on a different appearance.

                      1. Time for a change of venue, maybe missing you will get them thinking. For me, service depends on the style of est. (dive, casual, up scale etc), I don't expect miracles from a dive, I usually just want good basic food and beer at a reasonable price. For casual or up scale, service begins with a warm greeting and seating at the best available table followed by offering suggestions about the menu, specials, wines etc. and follows through to the last bite or sip.

                        1. For me, great service is invisible. I wouldn't remember what the server looked like the next day. I don't need warmth or friendliness, just courtesy and efficiency.
                          Recommendations should be kept to a minimum. If there is something truly special available that night, or if the server thinks, based on my own past dining habits or my requests, that I would enjoy the special, please mention it. Please don't tell me your favorites, or recommend at random out of some misguided corporate policy. If I ask for advice, be honest and concise. Good advice:
                          The syrah is a big wine with great fruit flavor and a nice spiciness. It is a bit rustic - do you enjoy that or would you prefer something a bit more polished?
                          Bad advice:
                          The syrah is great! you'll love it!
                          I don't expect my server to be my friend, to entertain me, to make me feel better, just to bring the food and drinks I request and to answer questions related to the meal.
                          Why is it so difficult to find this service? My experience as a diner and a server leads me to believe that I am in a small minority in my opinion of good service. Most people seem to expect their server to fulfill a range of personal needs not directly related to the meal. Many guests expect their server to fill in as a conversation partner, to provide advice on a wide range of topics, to entertain their children, to generally be their friend. This being the case, servers who are very personable tend to be much more successful than servers who are professional, to the extent that a poor server - one who is inefficient and lacks knowledge - will be more successful than an excellent server who does not smile as often.
                          There are, of course, a few excellent servers who can deliver professional, efficient service, and also project an intangible warmth and positivity, and when I'm lucky enough to be served by one I certainly do appreciate it. But given a choice between enthusiasm and efficiency, friendliness and competence, warmth and wine knowledge, I'll take the latter in each case.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: juantanamera

                            "...or recommend at random out of some misguided corporate policy." Oh my, I LAUGHED when I read this.

                            I can just hear the words "up-sell" reverberating in my head. "Hey howya doin folks, can I getcha started on some fried calamari?"

                            1. re: juantanamera

                              Ditto and I sure hope we're not in the minority (but the lousy service in my town is proof that you may be correct). I find that there is a very delicate balance to being professional and efficient without coming across as cool, aloof, or worse, arrogant. That's why if the server behaves as a skilled professional, I willingly, and generously, part with my money for them!

                            2. I have to add a bad service note here that bugs the heck out of me:
                              When the server clears the plate of whoever is finished, rather than waiting for all of the guests at the table to finish the course. It makes me feel rushed if I'm still eating, uncomfortable if I was finished first, and I just think it's bad form.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: pcdarnell

                                there are some very long threads on this subject someplace. old style formal manners were that all plates were cleared at once. for various reasons (real or imagined) that no longer seems to be the standard, even in higher end places. i really don't mind too much except when they take it while i am still gnawing away at the bone of my lamb chop. Ok, last week it was a pickle. I felt rather awkward, sitting there with half a pickle in my hand and no place to put it down. I rarely use a knife and fork to eat a pickle at a burger joint. Maybe the old ways have some merit after all.

                              2. Bad Service
                                1. Referring to my 80 year old parents as “You guys”
                                2. Not knowing what the specials, or catch-of-the-day, etc are
                                3. Take the order, bring the food, bring the check, goodbye
                                4. Hanging out at the bar

                                Good Service
                                1. Knowing what Sriracha is and bringing it upon request
                                2. Being knowledgeable about the food and menu
                                3. Being focused on us, while we know full well they have other tables
                                4. Making a special request work with no hemming and hawing

                                Incidently, one of my favorite waitresses is kind of a klunky, fumbly, anti-hip girl at a local eatery. She may not be the best, but she has some invisible quality that I really like, so that makes up for it.

                                1. Andrew Todhunter's excellent book about Taillevent, A Meal Observed, describes the experience of eating at Taillevent in Paris under M. Vrinat's ownership, where service was at its finest imaginable. We were fortunate to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary there. Everything was perfect: the greeting was cordial and put us immediately at ease (not something all top-class restaurants have mastered, especially in dealing with complete unknowns). Gougeres appeard with our aperitifs and were picked up from our table and passed to us several times. I had a wild bass entrée and had almost finished the exquisite fresh tomato and basil sauce with it when the waiter noted there was more fish than sauce left to put on it, so provided another sauceboat of it without my even having to ask. The waiter was very charming, and after finding out it was a celebration, put a bottle of their Cognac on the table with two glasses and told us to enjoy as much as we wanted (and we were of course not charged for it). It was the single best restaurant experience of our lives. They anticipated every possible need and answered it, it was like conjuring.

                                  1. One thing that really bothers me is servers who ask what you want to drink before you even have your AIS (ass in seat.)

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: James Cristinian

                                      Conversely, I appreciate it when I'm asked about cocktails immediately. Let me get my buzz on whilst I ruminate on wine and food choices. Diff'rent strokes... When I was a server, I'd always ask "would you like a cocktail or apperitif now, or shall i give you some time to settle in?" 8 out of 10 times, they'd want their cocktail "now"! adam

                                      1. re: adamshoe

                                        it is one thing to ask while you are in the middle of getting seated, fumbling around with the chair, coats, bags etc. it is quite another to ask just as one is ready to reach for the menu. no harm done if you still aren't ready, you may not know yet what you want that will be the proper start for your meal.

                                      2. re: James Cristinian

                                        I'm with adamshoe. We often ask for cocktails on the way to the table...LOL. My husband often will tell a server "Bring us our wine and we will be happy."

                                      3. For me great service is anticipation, as in they know when you're ready to order because you've closed your menu, they notice if you have an near-empty drink and ask if you want another one, if you're looking around they come to see what you need, if you are having a heavy duty business meeting they don't bug you every few minutes..

                                        Re. your issues, I guess it depends on the type of establishment, but at a mid-range and higher one:

                                        If I don't have a reservation I don't mind getting a crappy table, I assume the better ones are reserved. If I do have a reservation and I see an empty one that seats the same number of people as mine and I prefer it, I'm not shy to ask.

                                        I don't have a problem with "roll-up" cutlery, I actually prefer it because I feel it's more sanitary. I agree if you leave the silverware on the plate they should clear it without taking the silverware off, and bring new ones for your next course. If you took the silverware off your plate yourself I don't think they need to clear it and bring you new ones.

                                        I think if you're going to be fussy about wine you shouldn't ask the server to select for you. I never do, I just ask about the relative characteristics of their list if I'm not familiar with the selections. BTW what do you mean by a "flat" red wine? I'm assuming you didn't think it should be sparkling.

                                        1. Dear American eater: when,culturally, you are willing to pay the prices associated with true service, and your restaurants are willing to pay an appropriate wage (not the 'living wage' so many seem to think is sufficient) you will receive actual service.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. Excellent service is observant, subtle, effortless, precise, sensitive, and gracious, and can only be delivered when the server realizes that he will never be a successful actor.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: haggisdragon

                                              Good point. Professional waiters seem practically extinct. Oh for the days of Swiss hotel school training.

                                              1. re: buttertart

                                                Sooo sad but true. The best service I have ever had in one city, across the board, was in Washington DC.

                                                1. re: Dagney

                                                  That is a good town for restaurant service, Kinkead's for example strikes the right notes.

                                            2. I'm happy with the service if I order water and they don't roll their eyes! :-) OK, OK, let's see...

                                              When I come in and the hostess and friends aren't busy with the restaurant work, I would appreciate eye contact and, "good evening." I've been to snooty places where they talk among themselves and then glare at me like I'm intruding. Then lead me to my table, gently place the menu down, and say "enjoy your meal." We've had people show us to your table, plop the menu down, and walk away.

                                              If there are several empty tables, I'd like to be seated with a table in between us. I realize that the other table will be occupied within minutes but let me feel like I have my own private space for those few minutes.

                                              I'd like to open my menu and pretend to find the "beverage" section before being asked what I want to drink, so I don't have to ask, "ummm, what drinks do you have?" If there are specials, please tell me... although I hardly ever order the specials, I hate hearing the specials told to other diners but not to me. Am I underdressed?

                                              Know what I ordered. If you have a food runner, that person should know. Ensure my drink is not empty. I usually strategically put it near the edge when I need a refill, so you can see it when you walk by me. If my cold drink doesn't have ice and your pitcher has no ice... it'd be best if you put some ice in it before refilling my cup. It'll cost your restaurant less too since it's filled with ice.

                                              I'm skipping to the end. When I ask for the bill... I mean NOW, not 10 minutes later. Which means when I quickly zip out my card, I'd like to see the receipt come back to me quickly too... not another 10 minutes later. For a while, I would ask for the bill whenever 1 of us was almost done so that by the time we're done, we've finally paid and can relax, talk, and nurse our drink before leaving. Otherwise, we have to do all that and then wait 20 minutes before we can go.

                                              1. We had dinner the other night at a restaurant in Ct. It is a pretty restaurant' right on the water, always packed, sort of touristy. We had never been. We ate at the bar and the young girl that waited on us was fine. I ordered a salad and a seafood pasta, my husband ordered a shrimp app. and a scallop salad for dinner. What went wrong was, everything came at once! I am a slow eater! By the time I would finish my salad my pasta would be a cold lump. Anyway, point is, timing is so important in service.