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Shut up and serve 

A plea for kinder, gentler wait staff

I am familiar with the concept of the laid-back, casual-style grubshack. I am also familiar with the concept of a down-home, jeans-and-T-shirt locals' bar. There's hot music (usually blues or classic rock), ice-cold beer, pretzels or peanut shells everywhere, and a general all-around "relaxed" quality that includes (at least one, without fail) friendly waiters and waitresses not afraid to speak their mind ... whenever the spirit strikes them. And in great detail. And at high volume.

Recently, some friends of mine settled in for a Saturday night dinner at a small local establishment, which consisted of seven or so tables inside surrounding a small, oval-shaped bar, a glassed-in patio seating area, and an "upstairs" dining area, which, on the night we visited, was closed due to the cold weather. "Intimate Dining," they described it as. They weren't kidding.

And as such, like 'Til Tuesday sang, voices carried throughout our entire meal. One waitress -- she wasn't even our waitress -- took the volume to a whole new level. Full of verve, this one was. First came a long diatribe about a woman who ate 11 oysters out of a dozen before saying she didn't like them. Of course, I (and anyone with a modicum of common sense) agreed that the oyster-diner was out of line -- one doesn't finish an entire plate before complaining about their comestibles. However, this five-minute conversation (which could have been condensed into five seconds) consisted almost solely of an ever-loudening (and lengthening) refrain of "SHE ATE ELEVEN OYSTERS! AND THEN ASKED FOR HER MONEY BACK!" We also learned over the course of the evening that waitress (again, not ours) had BEEN KICKED OUT OF APPLEBEES TWICE, that the police may be targeting her (a joke, I think), that she'd been pulled over for allowing her dog to drive (?) (!!!), and that she has a family member fond of drinking her DAMN WINE OUT OF THE FRIDGE. We heard her talk about FORREST GUMP (who was on the TV) and the LEGLESS LIEUTENANT DAN. There were also at least two references to puking, and one about a TV program on how easy it is to pull one of your own hairs out and put it in your food so you don't have to pay.

I should say here that this was one person, talking to a quasi-regular. It's a credit to the food that we didn't mind all that much. (That said, we did bring a hearty appetite along with three pretty strong stomachs, further fortified with few strong drinks).

But one thing I heard this server say riled the shad out of me. It was a line I'd heard uttered before, always in restaurants, and usually after some server has effed something up. It's usually muttered under the speaker's breath, but loud enough where the customer might hear it: "Everybody should have to wait tables for a year before they complain at a restaurant!"

To which I say: Oh, really? Should I have to build cars for a year before I complain when my electric windows stall halfway up? Should I have to work in cable television to complain when I'm charged for half a year for a channel that I have documented evidence I dropped a year ago?

And to which I'd add: Did anyone command you to take this job? Was this the only job available to you? If so, was it because you maybe had some priors on your record? Because you didn't have to take a drug test? Because you can't control yourself on the odd chance you happen to see Gary Sinise crab-ass his way through his breakout role as Lieutenant Dan on the bar TV?

Mind you, I know a ton of people who work waiting tables, and I respect the hell out of them. It's far from an easy job -- it's arduous, even. But it can pay rather well, especially if you get on at a good restaurant. And besides, if you even attempt to carry yourself with respect and a little tact and work hard, people are willing to overlook a hell of a lot.

The weird thing is, some people seem to get off on such service. There are places like the ubër-popular (and utterly confounding) chain Dick's Last Resort, where people will line up outside the door to be insulted by waiters, wear hats that say things like "retired stripper," and get napkins thrown at their table. There are places like the café/pancake house Bad Waitress in Minneapolis, Minn., where diners must write their own orders on a pad, present it to the cook, bus their own tables, and pour their own coffee and tea. What's more, they're expected to tip!

Call me old fashioned, but the only thing I think I might tip at such an establishment is all the tables off their legs. Think Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces:

Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken?

Jack: I want you to hold it between your knees.

Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor with Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, the Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site www.egullet.com.

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