Crouching Waiter, Hidden Chef

By Kathryn Robinson December 13, 2008 Published in the November 2008 issue of Seattle Met

RESTAURANT CRITICS DINE OUT SO often, we’ve seen it all. There was the buser who bobbled a wine glass, then silenced the restaurant with his F-bomb. (Really, it was loud.) The waiter who baptized my husband in oyster stew, achieving a near-perfect top-to-bottom flavoring of his suit. But service is more often made of subtler stuff—tiny moments which, spun together, create the fine web diners take away in the hazy form of a mood memory. “Yeah, I’ve been there before… I don’t know, there’s just something about that place,” the diner may say. He may not even remember exactly what soured him or delighted him about the place; it may have happened over the course of a single moment.

Single moments like the following, all of which I either experienced or witnessed over the last year.

1. Offense taken.

Dining at Earth and Ocean, I asked my waiter (as I routinely do) for his recommendation on the menu’s standouts. His face went blank, as he paused, then sputtered, affronted, “Our chef is a professional! 
It’s all good!”

2. Sauced and abandoned.

At Trellis, a bar server asked what piri piri was replied that it was the sauce the mussels were served in. Oh, okay. Thanks.

3. In waiter we trust.

Undecided at La Rustica, I asked our server to weigh the relative merits of this dish or that. “Oh, get that dish,” she replied, firmly and unequivocally. “This dish is, well…let’s just say it’s not our kitchen at its finest.” Whatever conclusion I might have drawn about the uneven kitchen was far outweighed by my complete trust in the service.

4. Say wa?

Is “steak, frites and blue salad” a salad of steak, frites, and blue cheese? Or is it steak frites with an accompanying salad? And would most diners understand that “grapefruit smoked paprika ‘caviar’” is actually a clever name for Israeli couscous? These questions and others like them haunted me at Taste, where I was reminded that good service begins with a clear menu.

5. Licked clean.

Two middle-aged women were finishing dinner at Toscano in Bellevue when the waiter came to take their plates. “Wow!” he gasped to one of them, clearly impressed. “You really cleaned that plate!”

6. Fire and ice queen.

An alert server at Joule noticed that a diner’s wine list had caught fire from her table’s votive candle and, without the diner noticing, she discreetly removed it. “Someone has walked off with my wine list,” complained the annoyed diner later. “It was,” replied the waiter with masterful restraint, “in flames.”

7. Hot Tamales! Swedish Fish!

Overheard from the perky waiter trying to break the ice at the communal table at the $230-a-person Herbfarm : “All right, now! Everyone name their favorite candy!”

8. Shame old shame old.

The elderly couple next to me at Quinn’s pub ordered a burger, only to have their condescending young waiter chide them for not ordering one of the more intriguing items on the menu. To their credit they stuck with the burger—but apologized for doing so. (I ordered one, too—and did not.)

9. That old chopped liver feeling.

Ever feel like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense? That was me, standing in the foyer of The Capital Grille , a thousand industrious employees buzzing everywhere but toward me with a greeting. Would a “Someone will be right with you!” have killed them?

10. Burn before eating.

After the Juno kitchen burned one side of an aptly named tarte flambé, the chagrined chef immediately asked her if she’d like to nibble on the good side of the ratatouille tarte while the kitchen was redoing the dish. “We won’t charge you,” he said expansively. By the time the good tarte arrived, she’d picked her way around the blackened edges of the offending one. When the check came the diner had indeed been charged for the tarte. The burnt one was free evidently—but not the late one. Hmmmm.

11. Very happy meals.

When a fifth-grade girls’ soccer team and their loud families descended on Tommy’s Café in Renton for pancakes—kids at one long table, adults at the next—the server sized up the party of 21 and gamely asked the parents if each family would like separate checks. “After I take your order, just tell me which children are yours and we’ll make this work,” said the waitress with a can-do brand of pluck one rarely sees in far pricier restaurants.

12. Aren’t you forgetting something?

At Ponti , not one but two otherwise capable waiters described the Copper River king salmon special in cinematic detail—leaving out only the part about its $45 price tag.

13. Out of the blue.

When the blue-cheese burger at Zayda Buddy’s Pizza arrived with no discernible blue cheese, our server brought the complaint to the kitchen, then came back to us, sweetly incredulous, to report, “You know, the kitchen couldn’t find any in there either!” No replacement offer, no apology—and the only time we saw a blue-cheese burger there was later. On our bill.

Filed under