17 Service Slip-Ups That Can Ruin a Meal

Bad service comes in many forms, none of them conducive to great dining.


 Ruin a Meal

Great service from a well-trained staff is one of the delights of dining out. But this story has nothing to do with that.

This is about bad service, those little and not-so-little things that drive us crazy. A restaurant may have sublime food and designer décor, but somehow all that disappears when a server pours a plate of oil in your lap (don’t laugh, it happened to me). It’s the little things that turn a pleasant evening into a grumbling session, and once you experience the slip-ups described here, an otherwise wonderful dining experience can go south pretty quickly: 

›› The “Seinfeld” treatment Why did we rush to make a 7 p.m. reservation when a table won’t be ready until 7:30? In the words of Jerry Seinfeld: You know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation.

›› The pointless question When I hear a waiter ask, “Have you been here before?” I immediately think: “What possible difference could that make?” Just assume I haven’t. But if there’s something special about your restaurant that needs to be explained, such as the chef cooks with plutonium, please do so as briefly as possible so I can make a fast exit.

›› Bad timing, part 1. The Aquarian water-bearers filling your glass while it’s just leaving your lips. Or the glass that never gets filled. Plates that are cleared quickly. Plates that sit until everyone is done. And no, I do not want my dessert while my date is still eating a steak.

›› Bad timing, part 2. After reading a menu the size of War and Peace and finally deciding who will order what, I look up to see that the waiter has just shown up to recite the specials.

›› Bad timing, part 3. I need to find the school that teaches waiters to ask diners “How’s the food?” just as everyone has their mouths full. Is spitting out food allowed, or is that just done in the movies?

›› The BFF. Touching is not good. A server can tell me his name, which I will forget, no offense, but if he’s going to ask for my name I want something in return, like a free dessert. And the biggest complaint I hear from people is when waiters sit down at the table and make nice with the customers. Any waiter who sits at my table owes me two free desserts.

›› The Mom.
As bad as the BFF waiter is the Mom. You know, the server who kneels down next to you like you’re a 5-year-old and reinforces your entrée selection with a resounding “Good choice!” There are New York deli waitresses who refuse to bring dessert if you don’t eat your vegetables, and they’re not joking.
It’s not very comforting when you know more about the food than your waiter. In the days before “mahi mahi” was adopted, a waitress at the now-defunct Shell’s in Orlando once explained the day’s special to me as “Dolphin, but it’s not the mammal half, so that’s okay.”

›› Fleeting memories. Unless your restaurant is called The Mentalist Café, please, write down the order. If I can forget what I ordered (and I will), so can you.

›› Guys aren’t girls. Waiters, if you want to see what an evil eye looks like, walk up to a table full of women and ask, “How you guys doing tonight?” Or hand a man the receipt when a woman proffered her credit card.

›› Server blindness. Apparently, if you can’t catch a server’s eye you aren’t actually in the room. Waving or doing anything short of dropping a plate won’t help. All we want is to be acknowledged, and not with a Pavlovian shout of “Welcome to Moe’s!”

›› Questionable behavior.
“How we doing? How’s everything? How’s everything now? How about now? You guys ready for dessert? No problem!” Sheesh!

›› Personal space, part 1. The sudden appearance of an overenthusiastic, grinder-wielding Pepper Steward is enough to make me jump out of my seat. And the same goes for his friend, the Grated Cheese Slinger.

›› Personal space, part 2.
“Don’t touch my napkin,” chef and national restaurant owner Tom Colicchio, as if speaking to an offending waiter, complained in an interview with The New York Times. “I do not want the server to pick up the napkin and put it on my lap. I know it belongs there; maybe I don’t choose to put it there.”

Why is an empty water glass taken as a sign of the Apocalypse, but an untouched steak is viewed simply as a lack of appetite? One evening at a celebrity chef’s establishment in Orlando, amid a tornado of order takers, glass fillers and plate clearers, I was served a salad, complete with an edible flower, and a bug. Granted, it was a fresh flower, and a tiny bug. These things happen. But there was no apology, no visit from a manager, no suggestion that the salad be taken off the bill (until I requested it). I should have checked the menu—maybe the bug was a special.

›› The bum’s rush.
It’s called “turn and burn” in the trade, but unless there’s one of those chess timers on the table, it’s yours while you’re sitting down and eating,

›› Self-service. The sight of me attempting to slide a half-eaten plate of lasagna into a clamshell container might be amusing, but it won’t be pretty. Please, box up my leftovers for me.


5 Ways Diners Ruin a Server’s Shift

Waiting tables is hard work. That’s one reason that most of us don’t do it. And dealing with patrons is the hardest part. The problem is, when you open the doors to the public, the public comes in, and they can be:

›› Just plain rude. We may never know what came first, the vacant waiter or the snarling customer. But rudeness is the biggest complaint from servers. Often, the reason a waiter will tell you his name is to keep you from snapping your fingers at him—although bellowing “Hey, Bob!” across the room isn’t much better. And when the waiter is standing next to your table, pad in hand, ignoring him is just as bad as him ignoring you.

›› Table hoggers. You’ve finished your leisurely meal, the dishes are cleared and the bill is paid. Can you see the line of potential diners glaring at you from the hostess station? That table you’re hogging is valuable real estate, so unless you’re nursing a fine port, go home!

›› Water tormenters. Michelle Chreptak has been working Orlando restaurants for years, from black tie to theme park. She has a thing about water. “It really annoys me when somebody orders water for the whole table, and then nobody drinks it. Or one person wants water, and when I come back, then the rest of them ask.”

›› Too tight-lipped. If you have an allergy or a special diet, speak up immediately. Don’t wait until your food arrives to start raising questions about whether it contains peanuts. (On the other hand, if you don’t say something immediately, please do say something before you actually eat. The last thing a restaurant wants is for you to get sick.) And if you don’t say you have a gluten allergy, you’ll miss out on the special gluten-free bread.

›› Too friendly, too. I worked at a black tie restaurant,” Chreptak told me, “where the people insisted I sit down and have a drink with them. I lost my job over that one.”  So, to sum up, waiters shouldn’t sit with customers, and customers shouldn’t ask waiters to have a drink with them. Sounds reasonable.