In this fast food age, the person waiting on your table probably never experienced a professionally served meal and doesn't know the intricacies of fine dining. It should be up to the management to train the staff, but they may not know any better themselves. Indeed, many restaurant patrons are oblivious to the proper serving techniques that are going the way of the finger bowl. Some of these practices may seem antiquated or politically incorrect, but they are niceties that expertly trained servers carry off with finesse and style.
For instance, the waitperson should first offer menus to the female members of a dining party, and then give them to the men. The wine list should be given to the apparent host (or hostess) of the party. When it's time to order, again the women go first.
A bottle of wine should be uncorked at the table, and the server should open the bottle smoothly and effortlessly. The person who ordered the wine gets a small amount to taste, and then, if the wine is accepted, women's glasses are filled before men's.
Obviously, silverware, plates and glasses should be sparkling clean. At one restaurant I visited, every wineglass on the table was smudged and grimy. When we asked for clean crystal, the waiter went for replacement glasses and came back to tell us that there were no more left — did we want to order something besides wine to drink? A discussion with the restaurant manager got us glasses we would drink from, but that meal had lost its luster.
Friendly service is fine, but your waitress shouldn't plop herself down on your banquette to answer questions about the menu. When you do have questions, your server should know what goes into each dish and have a basic idea of how it's prepared. The answer to "How is the halibut cooked?" shouldn't be, "I don't know; I never eat that."
A good server has a system for remembering which diner gets which plate. If he comes with an armful of appetizers and asks who gets the bruschetta and who gets the salad, you can bet that something will get screwed up. By the way, the people serving your food must know how to pronounce it. It's not bru-SHET-ta, it's bru-SKET-ta, and God knows it's not EYE-talian dressing.
OK, you're done with the first course, and those plates are being cleared. It's tacky for the waiter to tell you to hang onto your fork and knife, and especially heinous for him to take them from your appetizer plate and put them back on the table to be re-used.
Your server should be attentive but not obsequious. You don't want a hoverer; you do want him to make sure you have what you need. Or don't have what you don't want. I recall having a lovely plate of pasta with a rich, thick Bolognese sauce. There happened to be a fly buzzing around; I'd shoo it away and continue eating, all under the watchful eye of the waiter. However, when the fly dive-bombed my rigatoni and got mired in the meat sauce, the waiter just sidled away, leaving the fly and me to fend for ourselves. When he cleared the plate, he pretended not to notice the added "ingredient" in the dish.
At the end of a meal, no plates should be cleared until everyone is done eating. It's not good to have the faster eaters staring over the vast expanse of a dishless tablecloth at the one person who was either slowly savoring his food or yakking too much.
My restaurant etiquette isn't impeccable. I've been known to put my elbows on the table and to sop up sauce with my bread. But having competent, professional service puts me on my best behavior. Somehow, the food tastes better, too.
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