No matter how elegant the setting, swoonworthy the food, or extensive the wine list, the staff’s service can make or break a restaurant visit. A well-executed dinner service plays out in an almost theatrical way: perfect timing, subtly choreographed presentation, and a clear introduction, middle, and end to the meal. Water and wine glasses continually refilled from the right side of the guest, plates smoothly pulled from the left, and anticipatory silverware delivered without excessive interruptions between courses. The attentive server remains professional, upbeat, and presumably non-judgmental. Even, say, when assisting a party of twelve featuring a vegan, a wine snob, a toddler up waaaay past their bedtime, a person who can’t eat nightshade vegetables, someone who changes their order three times after seeing what’s delivered to other tables, and a guest who ordered their duck well done with a side of ketchup. These guests leave the restaurant with a little afterglow, having been cared for in such a gracious and attentive manner, happy to leave a 25%+ in cash tip in the bill folder.
But like shitty theatre seats where you can see into the wings--stage crew picking at their cuticles and actors snarling at one another--sub-par service leaves guests feeling inevitably let down by the experience. Disappointed. In some truly egregious instances, justifiably pissed off and later Yelping a scathing complaint. On the flip side of the coin, a guest's oblivious or entitled behavior can make a server’s night complete hell, and even jeopardize their almost entirely tip-dependent livelihood. Nobody likes a supercilious asshole at the table who's inclined to make impossible requests and threaten social media blackmail in order to get free meals. We’d like to believe that this shit rarely goes down. It creates bad vibes all the way around, and nobody’s got time for that. Best-case scenario when glitches arise: a few calm words resolve most of the confusion, miscommunication, or errors on the spot, making for a lovely time all around. Worst case? What guest wants to revisit a restaurant where they feel completely ignored, or cowed into worry that two requests for a replacement fork or sending a steak back may have resulted in retaliatory saliva-additive to the drinks? Let’s take a step or two back, shall we? Be kind to each other. Deep breathe.
Although we COLLECTIVELY adore glass house living on principle (hello! Designers here!), we’ll be the last ones to cast metaphorical stones when getting all wound up about wanting to see more great service in the Beehive State and beyond. We LOVE to applaud great service when we see it happen, and we'll happily spread that good buzz all over when we’ve had a terrific night (you’ll recognize some of ours and your favorites in the field, below). Having a crew at our fingertips who’ve worked coast-to-coast on the serving end of things--from neighborhood bistros, to running slope-side brews and burgers, to Michelin-starred luxury--we recently sat down to parley on the highs and lows of waiting tables. Like most instances of “using your manners,” restaurant etiquette’s essentially based upon the human courtesies of self-awareness, empathy, and common sense, no matter whether you’re sitting at or serving the table. Now places, everyone. And, cue the orchestra...
Set the stage. Our founder, Cody Derrick, knows a thing or two about restaurant design, with award-winning spaces like Pallet Bistro and Finca to his credit. His obsession with design carries through the public spaces of the entire dining experience--from the host stand to the restrooms--with consistent lighting, architectural details, and music on point. Great restaurant staffs reflect their spot’s energy, whether it’s cool and sophisticated, edgy and street, or a warm snug spot on a dreary afternoon. Cody says, “nothing should jar you from the experience of a space,” like the disconnect of staff rushing through the dining room, being rude to co-workers, or appearing visibly frazzled. Want an example of super-professional attention done right but not uptight? Meet Juve at Copper Onion. ON POINT, his service. Even when that joint is jumping like crazy, he’s upbeat, calm, and makes us glad we chose to go there amongst many options in our fair city. Our favorite haunts start with a prompt and warm greeting by the host(ess), well-organized menus that aren’t the size of a Trapper Keeper, and a punctual tableside visit by our server who introduces themselves as the person who’ll take care of us today, or remembers us with a “welcome back.” Yes to water (and not everyone wants ice), and bread would be lovely. And drinks. We like to put in our drink order right away, thankyouverymuch.
Read the Playbill. Great servers have their bar and food menus down cold, and are ready to give the CliffsNotes on daily specials. Experienced pros protect their own time via thorough product knowledge and efficient use of trips to the kitchen. Cody’s fave server at Grappa in Park City, Bailey, is a master of gauging what guests’ need before they even ask and making everyone feel welcome and valued. That said, unless someone is hiding a legitimate superpower, we don't know any truly psychic servers. So, heads up, gang: if you have a food allergy or need to get out the door within the hour, you've got to let your server know. They can point to dishes that don’t need extensive prep time, or propose options not requiring an Epi-Pen, but only if you've given them the heads-up. Good time to say something? It’s right after he or she greets you and takes your drink order. Then, they can check in at the kitchen, know how to pace things, and accommodate guest’s food needs with some sense of preparedness. Pro tip: get the gelato, not a soufflé, if you need to get your sweet fix before you scurry.
Raise the curtain. We’re all about high praise and hallelujahs for staff that treat everyone like a VIP, whether we’re a weekly regular or first time walk-in. Like Dave, who seemingly effortlessly makes a meal at Pago a special occasion for us every damn time, whether we’re stopping in for boozy coffee and dessert for two, or meeting a dozen girlfriends on the patio for a multicourse wine-drenched reunion. In contrast to this ideal, lotsa folks seem to have nailed the market on narcissism. Paraphrasing the scriptwriters of Justified, “you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you're the asshole.” Practice some self-awareness, then repeat after me: “Please. Thank you. Excuse me.” These words are golden. Share that shit liberally, wherever you may be. That said, there’s such a thing as over-familiarity. The people in the seats don’t need to know about the stuff going on behind the scenes, because if you’ve ever worked in the restaurant industry you know there’s always shit going down behind the swinging doors. The dishwasher’s broken. The sous chef walked out in the middle of service. Your boyfriend (the bartender) dumped you in the walk-in ten minutes ago. Ouch. But we, your guests, do not want or need to know about any of this drama. We just want all of the table’s plates to be delivered at the same time so nobody’s sitting there with a lonely blank space in front of them, embarrassedly motioning for everyone else to eat (“It’s okay. Go ahead. Really.”). Respectfully provide a seamless and calm experience, no excuses, and there’s very high likelihood that we’ll probably (and generously) fund your post-shift small-batch bourbon upgrade at another bar. You deserve it after a shitty night like that. Sorry, dude.
The Cast of Characters. Back to that “no excuses” bit for a moment: serving in Utah can be a challenging bitch-and-a-half. We get it. But lots of guests just don’t know (and probably don’t care) that drinks have a per-ounce alcohol limit, or that bussers can’t take a drink order, or that sometimes point-of-sale computer systems won’t let staff place orders for one another. And we’ve all seen it before, the “not my job” hyper-focus. So does that mean that if it’s not your table, section, or assignment, you should ignore the universal look of the guest-in-need (c’mon: eyebrows raised, neck craning, hand fluttering at the side of the plate, desperately attempting eye contact)? No. No, you should not. Take off the blinders and please help out your entire crew by pitching in. Because your guest who’s missing a fork doesn’t care if your tips are shared or not, and this is not a commentary about socialism. She wants to cut up her steak, not debate the restaurant’s service hierarchy. This is why we especially love food and drinks pros like Cynthia at Rye, who ensure we’ve got their ever-professional full attention, even when they’re multi-tasking like mad. They know their shit, and you can tell they’re looking out for their whole team, to boot.
Intermission. We love the focused energy and “no secrets” integrity of open kitchens when they’re run efficiently and well, like Chef Tyler Stokes’ tight and lively galley at Provisions, and Briar Handley’s bustling counters at Handle in Park City (story coming very soon). From their point at the helm, these chef/owners personally keep an eagle eye on every table, making sure each of their guests has top-notch plating sent straight from their hands (and equally primo service once the plates leave the pass). But even when the chef and/or owner is behind the scenes, “a great restaurant should serve equally well as a place of celebration for a large group, a romantic interlude, or a haven for someone choosing to dine alone but still be with other people” Cody believes. In other words? Treat each and erry’body with care and respect, as servers are an essential extension of the restaurant’s reputation long-term. For the singletons: remove extra place settings that are not being used when they sit down, and don’t give them the shittiest table in the joint or assume they want to belly up to the bar. Sixteen-top reservation on the books? Maybe check in advance to see if this is a 50th anniversary dinner or a bachelor party. A big cozy corner or private dining room may work better for either group, rather than right smack down the center of the dining room where everyone can overhear their raunchy toasts and outrageous smack talk (that goes for either demographic, in our experience). Value statements about guests requesting “just tap water” instead of something from a $10 artisan bottle are either patronizing or environmentally reckless, depending on your perspective. And ketchup, hot sauce, and mayonnaise are not targets for food snobbery outside of the kitchen. They’re condiments, for hell’s sake. Let it go.
Scene change. Dining Out 101: A plate with the knife and fork parallel across the middle with both handles in the 4:20 clock position indicates that you’re done with your meal. In the U.S., the fork should be closest to you with tongs pointed up, the knife with its cutting edge facing the fork’s tongs, both because Miss Manners says so, and it’s the most stable position for your silverware to rest so it doesn’t fall into your lap and spill shit all over when someone comes to clear your stuff. Now comes the tricky part for servers and guests alike: nobody relishes the sight of congealing sauce in front of them, nor do they want to be called out for eating faster than everyone else at the table by staff swooping in with the equivalent of a “Wow! You can really put it away!” kind of plate-clearing pounce. It’s a Catch 22. Diners ideally watch the pace of their tablemates, especially if you’re someone’s guest, in which case you follow their lead. Servers should err on the side of restraint, again looking for cues to clear when all of the diners are done. Service baseline? Unless your guests have specifically told you they need to be rushed out the door, never make them feel like they’re being rushed.
Standing Ovation. We’re all done. Had a fabulous meal, a little buzzed from all that vino, and are looking forward to a nice stroll back home. If we’ve had someone like Mo at Copper Common take care of us, she’s made a point to make us feel special (even outside her job, Mo always remembers her regulars. And she's a fucking great bartender, full stop). Our paragon of a server has correctly waited until after we’ve finished dessert, coffee, and refused more refills before leaving the check. Now comes time to settle the bill. Servers in Utah make as little as $2.13 an hour, relying on tips to keep above the poverty line. Anything less than 15% tip is considered insulting, and your server personally (not the kitchen, not the bar) must’ve really effed up to see that in the folder. We generally tip 20% for standard service and 25% or more if we’ve been treated exceptionally well. And just a heads-up: servers love it when you tip in cash, even if the meal total goes on a card. It’s a douchy policy, for sure, but some restaurants take a percentage of tips from credit cards off the top as a ‘service fee’ from their employees. There are lots of things the server probably has no control over: the temperature of the room, the music level, whether you hated the sauce with the chicken. However, if you really truly give a shit about any of those things and it’s detracting from your night, tell them…don't punish them. At the very least, they can check with the manager to adjust volume or request a food adjustment in the kitchen “on the fly,” meaning a replacement will come right out to you as soon as possible. Most restaurateurs we know would rather you leave their place happy, tell your friends, and become regulars than leave in a sullen pout. And we’d rather come back and request your section because you took such great care of us. Cheers all around, take a bow, and enjoy that small-batch whiskey after your shift.