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Guest Writer

Enough about you
Annoyed and surly
by Rachel Mendez

y favorite line ever from a waitperson came one evening in a dark tavern in Portland's Pearl District. After Zack and I had been sitting for 15 minutes with empty beer glasses, our waitperson asked, "You guys don't want any more beer, do you?"

To say she asked this is incorrect. The line was a casual dismissal, as she strolled by, on her way back to where her coworker stood, ready to continue their important conversation. The, "You guys don't want any more beer," was a foregone conclusion. The "... do you?" was added so that we could agree with her, so that we would let her off the hook.

We weren't being cut off – we'd only had one beer each with our dinner. We would have, if offered, ordered a second round, adding another seven dollars to the bill and raising the tip accordingly. Instead, per her suggestion, we paid up and walked out. And haven't returned since. And probably won't ever.

My next favorite line came last week, at a favorite place in close-in Southeast Portland, nestled among the warehouses. Our regular waitress wasn't there; someone new was working instead. She brought water to the three-top next to us. There were three other occupied tables in the place and a few people sitting at the bar, chatting with the bartender.

The waitperson came back and took the food order from the people sitting next to us. We still had no water or menus, which was fine. We didn't want menus, we were just getting a beer. The waitperson seemed too busy to wait on us, which was fine, although she should have said, "I'm busy but I'll be right with you." To hurry things along, I went up to the bar get our beers.

The bartender saw me coming and walked away. The waitperson, standing at the bar, filling a pitcher with Sprite, talked to me: "We don't really do restaurant-style service, but I can bring you menus in a while."

This made no sense. We had eaten at this place 20 times and the drill was always the same: come in, sit down, get a menu, order stuff. I had no idea what she was trying to say. And why did the bartender walk away? (And why, if she was so busy, wasn't he filling the pitcher with Sprite, like a team member, so she could come bring us menus and water?)

Either you do table service or you don't, right? Or sometimes you do, but when you are busy, the bartender could get me a beer, right?

Having been shamed back to the table, I consulted with Zack. We decided to leave. The waitperson saw the door closing behind us, decided that now was the time to act, dropped what she was doing, and sprinted outside. She caught up with us on the wet sidewalk and pleaded desperately, "I'm sorry I'm so busy. It just got really busy and I'm sorry I didn't get to you sooner. If you come back in, I'll give you menus ..."

And that's how, after waiting so long and hearing some weird story about bad restaurant service, I ended up feeling guilty for abandoning her.

Maybe I'm picky about service because I was a server for years and, when I was, I did a good job. I was friendly, brought menus and took orders quickly – and apologized when there was a mistake or the kitchen was slow.

I know that it's hard work. People can be demanding and rude. A woman once waved me over, held up her cup and, in a sarcastic voice, said, "Is this hot chocolate supposed to be served lukewarm?" I was tempted to simply say "yes" and walk away. Instead, I was good and brought her a fresh cup and a humble apology.

It's been 15 years since I wore an apron with a pad and pen in the pocket, but I still have nightmares of working in a restaurant where the tables are full and I am screwing up. As the dream progresses, more of my customers get irate, more are ignored and, when I finally bring an order to a table, I have it all wrong. I wake up from these dreams sweating and anxious, with a sour taste in my mouth and an odd nostalgia for waiting tables.

From my years of experience, I know there are a few basic rules for good service. If these rules are followed, most customers will be happy, most waitstaff will make more tips and most restaurants will sell more product:

1. If you are busy, let the customers know. Don't leave them at a table, ignored, no matter how busy you are. Stop by and tell them you are busy. Don't make them guess.

2. If you or the kitchen make a mistake, apologize (but not too much), rectify, and give a discount on the bill.

3. If you see glasses less than a third full, be sure to ask if another round is appropriate. You will be bound to increase your sales exponentially. More sales generally means more tips.

This fall, I had family in from out of town. We went out for papusas and margaritas for my birthday. After we ordered, we watched four different tables arrive, get seated, order their food, eat, pay and leave.

We sat, ate chips, drank water, asked for more chips, drank more water. An hour after we ordered, my stepfather's entree arrived. Twenty minutes later, my sister and mother got their food. Then Zack and my son. When all were served except for me, the waiter finally told me that the kitchen was out of the vegetarian tamales I'd ordered. I told him I'd take anything. I was hungry and embarrassed and wanted everyone else at the table to eat, instead of all offering me portions of their meals. I didn't want their meals! I wanted my meal! Another 15 minutes passed before my quesadilla arrived, complete with burnt black beans.

The waitperson screwed up. He didn't apologize earlier for the late meal. He didn't tell us what was going on. He did right, however, by not charging us for our food, only for our drinks. That gesture partially salvaged the evening.

A week later, we tried again. For my follow-up birthday dinner we drove way out to outer Southeast for my favorite food: sushi. I felt an eerie déjà vu as parties around us were seated and fed while my table drank green tea and folded origami paper, waiting for our meal. Again, the others in my party were fed, and I was left with a malformed paper crane and an empty water glass.

This time, there was no apology and we even had to track down our waitperson to get the bill.

It doesn't necessarily take a big misadventure to turn me off a place's service. The place around the corner from us is fun. It's dark and kitschy, with black velvet paintings of big-eyed children on the walls. There's a pool table and vegetarian food, liquor, wine and beer. A sweet, little, local joint. Occasionally, Zack and I go there and shoot pool, or plan a road trip, or catch up with each other at the end of a long day.

At first, we were happy that the service was surly and that we were never recognized no matter how often we went. Anonymity can be a nice feeling in this tiny town where too many places are infected with former friends, lovers or coworkers. But the novelty wears off around the third time you're ignored for 30 minutes. We started placing bets as to when we'd get served. One night we decided to pick a spot on the clock. If the big hand got there and no one had spoken to us, we'd leave. Twenty minutes later, we left.

One day, Zack left his wallet there. He called them the next day and was told there was no found wallet. The person on the phone didn't even pause and pretend to look for a wallet. Later, after work, Zack stopped by to check again if his wallet was found. Again, the person working didn't bother to look for a lost wallet, but said, with disinterest, that there was no wallet.

A month went by, and he replaced his ID, insurance card and other bits and pieces. The day he got his new debit card, we stopped by the place. Miraculously, a waitperson remembered us and said, "Hey, we have your wallet. It's been here for weeks." She brought it to us, complete with every cent of the 30-odd dollars it had been left with.

For a while, we kept going there, despite the bad service. We had fun analyzing the place, wondering why, a place with 20 tables, four servers and a water boy couldn't see us sitting at a table – first hopeful, then expectant, then distressed, then alone in all the world: the two of us at a table in a cold and lonely universe.

Often, when the invisibility potion wore off, a tattooed hipster waitperson would come by and actually stare at the wall above our heads while she took our order before prancing off as if I'd just insulted her mother. This particular waitperson had a penchant for self-tipping: when we'd pay for our drinks – say, a 10-dollar bill for a $7.50 order – she'd keep the change, rather than let us choose an appropriate tip. I guess that's one way to rectify bad tips for bad service.

Eventually we migrated to the dive across the street, an old, dingy place where college students and aging bikers mingle easily. The music is typically an entire Jonathan Richman CD playing over the stereo. There, even on a Saturday night, one gets quick service from the only server on duty. She even smiles and it doesn't matter to me if it's sincere or not.

Recently, we tried going back to our old favorite. It wasn't busy. We sat at a table and waited, nobody came, we waited some more, we looked at the clock.

"We leave," I said, "when the big hand reaches the six." And we did.

Find more from Rachel in our archives.

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