Friday, October 21, 2011

Still Life With Robin: Wait, Wait, And Tell Me (If That's My Order)

by Peggy Robin

My complaint of the week is a fairly low level thing (not that that’s ever ever stopped me before from reporting on something I don’t like!)

It’s a situation that occurs at certain restaurants: You place your order with your waiter, but when the food is ready, it’s brought out by someone entirely different who has never seen you before. This food server usually has no idea who ordered what, and starts to put the plates down randomly, trusting that the members of the party can correctly identify their dishes. That’s not always possible, however, if two dishes look similar, or if someone at the table had a different expectation of what the dish would be like.

We’ve actually had one family member start in on what she assumed was her eggplant parmigian, only to discover that it was someone else’s meat lasagna. Actually, she was multiple bites into the meal before commenting: “This eggplant tastes weird. It doesn’t taste like any eggplant ever I’ve had before.” It didn’t help that the lighting in the restaurant was so dim that none of us could actually see the food clearly. The other party to the switch was slow to get started on his meal, and taken just a single bite of the supposed lasagna, when it dawned on each of them that the lasagna was the eggplant and vice versa. If the mix-up had not been among family members but had occurred among friends of a more fastidious nature, I’m sure we would have sent both dishes back, to have fresh, untasted ones brought out, while the other two diners (who each received the right order) would have had a choice to let their food go cold, or start (and very likely finish) eating before the first two even got started.

To prevent just such a scenario, some restaurants that follow this waiter/server split scheme make sure that the server receives detailed notes from the waiter. Still, the potential for trouble is avoided altogether if the waiter is the one to serve the food to the diners who ordered it. That way, too, the waiter can find out directly if the diners are pleased by what they have received. And if by chance someone should receive a bowl of soup, for example, without a soup spoon, the waiter will be right there to correct the mistake. (The food server always disappears immediately after the dishes are set down, as he’s not generally authorized to make sure that everything is okay.) So that’s another built-in problem that comes from waiter/server split: Once your order is taken, who knows when you will see your waiter again?

Another problem that comes from not having the waiter deliver the food: When too much time passes without seeing your waiter, you can forget what he (or she) looks like. This is a problem for anyone with a poor memory for faces. I used to be a lot better at recognizing waiters, but I find it’s a skill that diminishes with each passing year. So all too often, I end up scanning the room for a long period of time, wondering if any of the passing waiters is the one to call upon for help.

Now we come to the ethical dilemma at the end of this complaint. When the meal has been messed up this way, due mainly to hierarchy of service put in place by the management, rather than the fault of the individual workers who take/deliver the meals, do you register your dissatisfaction in the form of a lower tip? I haven’t been willing to take it out on the waiters. I suppose the right thing to do is to take this complaint directly to the management. But that is to put more of my time and energy into the question than I am willing to commit. (Of course, I did take the time to write this whole column!)

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