Paula’s Palate: Dishing on service

What defines great wait staff?

By Paula Johnson

Photo: The best servers know how to mirror, and assess whether casual bantering or a more formal distance fits the individual guest’s style.

“Do you want ketchup with that, hon?” versus “Would the Madame enjoy enhancing her selection with an artisanal sauce accompaniment?” The wording of these two questions speaks volumes about the range in the formality of a dining experience, yet the server is essentially doing the same job. He or she is giving you information about the food, taking your order and delivering it to you. And hopefully checking back to see if everything is satisfactory.

Plate debate

So what constitutes good service, considering the wildly divergent experiences from dining in a mom-and-pop diner to a world-renowned four-star establishment? I would submit that neither of these examples nails it. The first is just too informal. Think of the stereotypical older lady with a bouffant and cat’s eye glasses on a chain. You might like her and hence be willing to forgive and forgo mentioning problems with the food or its delivery. As for the second example, we’ve all been the victim of a server who sounds as though he’s practicing to audition for Hamlet. As he launches into a soliloquy so obviously rehearsed and theatrical you find yourself cringing at the performance—one he delivers to each and every table with the same studied pomposity. And what about a server who dives in head first with overly familiar chumminess? (I’ve actually had a server sit down and put his feet up at my table).

Benevolent sharks

Good service is not unfriendliness, nor is it boundary-crossing familiarity. It’s recognition that the experience should be focused on the diner and the dinner. It’s not about the server. Call it polished neutrality. Good servers have been compared to benevolent sharks, circling the table unseen and undetected, surfacing when you need something, appearing at just the right time. It’s anticipatory, not reactionary. The best servers know how to mirror, and assess whether casual bantering or a more formal distance fits the individual guest’s style. A good server can gauge whether the table is pressed for time, or if dinner tonight is a meandering two-hour culinary stroll.

Serving sticklers

Those points being made, defining good service can still be an elusive thing. What makes it for me might be different for someone else, but there are constants, things every server should avoid. This goes for the mom-and-pop diners to formal white tablecloth establishments. Here are a few examples:

– Handing plates to guests (once a server handed one to me with the warning “Be careful, it’s hot!”)

– Bringing out appetizers and entrées too close together

– Rushing guests—presenting the check before asking about dessert or coffee

– Not clearing before serving the next course

– Being ill informed—unable to answer questions about ingredients or preparation

– Not noticing if a table would like privacy, or is in a rush

– Neglecting to inform guests about specials or up charges

– Refilling a drink without asking

Waiting for thanks

Now that I’ve unloaded on servers, it’s time to recognize the difficulty of the profession. It’s a job that many consider as a last resort and one that requires no skill. Unlike in Europe, serving is almost never considered a career here in the U.S. “I’ll just go wait tables,” we’ve all heard people say, as though anyone can do it. Not everyone has the organizational ability and temperament to be a good server.

Serving can be a stressful and thankless job. In a lot of places servers are paid below minimum wage and are required to claim tips on their taxes they may not have even made. It’s practically universal that servers are required to show up early or stay late to do unpaid “side work” such as filling condiment bottles, prepping workstations, and cleaning. As for training, at some places this constitutes being shown where the food gets picked up in the kitchen.

Well served

What local Dayton places consistently offer good service? Two places stand out for me. The first is El Meson in West Carrollton. In business for over 35 years, caring for customers is one of the reasons they have thrived. El Meson was one of the first restaurants I visited as I was considering relocating to the area five years ago, and many of the wait staff I met then are still there. The lack of turnover, especially in service is indicative of how well an establishment is run. I asked owner Bill Castro what he thinks makes great service, and what he looks for when hiring.

His first response was, “Confidence, organization and accountability.” He went on to elaborate more on the restaurant’s serving philosophy:

“We are a team,” he says. “We are all in it together. No one has a section, we all pitch in. Our servers sometimes help with washing dishes because they understand we do what needs to be done for our guests, and for our livelihoods. It’s for this reason we pool our tips. It emphasizes how vital it is for us to care about every aspect of all of our guests’ experience.

I look for a soul and a smile. I look for integrity. That can’t be taught. We take care of the rest once you are part of our family. It’s been working for us for 37 years.”

Armed with charm

I posed the same questions to Anne Kearney, chef and owner along with husband Tom, of Centerville’s Rue Dumaine. It’s a place where the food and service are always stellar.

She says, “To begin with: We search for individuals who appear to be together in the interview: looks and smell are important, fingernails especially. You need to be clean, concise, observant, knowledgeable, attentive—and definitely charming.

“Tom and I both appreciate a seamless dining experience for our guests and that begins with a server with time management skills. We look for an individual who is well spoken and articulate enough to recite our daily features with vim and vigor. It’s paramount for us to ‘get’ what guests may need and deliver it, so a server has to be a good communicator.”

She notes, “Three of our four current servers have been with us for many years, two of them for more than seven years. All are hospitality industry veterans. This is how they make money to support their families.”

Any thoughts on good service? Dish with me—I’d love to hear!

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at

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