Were I a sketch comedy writer, I would pitch a restaurant scene where a dining party is in the midst of a deep conversation and at every least opportune moment, a server pops in not just with the latest course or to discreetly refill a glass of water, but to verbally, exuberantly announce themselves. He just wants to “check in” to “see how things are going.” She wants “to make sure everything is good” or “still good” or to ensure that everyone is “happy” with the food that no one has had a chance to taste.
I may not write sketches, but my experience with unpardoned dining interruptions has been vast. Like when my friend shared that the assortment of Eastern and spiritually centered healing treatments was proven by her Western-medicine oncology team to have rid her body of the inoperable cancer, or when another friend, a new father, was coming round to the idea that his wife’s postpartum experiences were a new normal in their fragile household. Or during the crescendo of the Best Reenactment of a Thwarted Hookup Ever when en route to a Grindr date, a buddy was unexpectedly spotted by colleagues, and shall we say, he was dressed for the occasion. The disruptions happen in the quiet, pensive spaces: like when you suddenly realize you deeply dislike a dear friend’s life partner, or when the single mom you’re rooting for beyond words you love her so much, admits she’s finally declaring bankruptcy and both of you know that even that might not make a difference.
“Everything still tasting great over here?”
“Can I clear this plate or are we still working?”
“I guess you hated that dish, I’ve never seen a plate licked so clean!”
“Just passing by! It’s me! Again!”
At any given table on any given night, a host of Life Moments are happening. It’s not a server’s responsibility to perform dinner therapy, but then why do so many feature themselves as the main attraction if the diner or dinner experience doesn’t require it? Note, I’m not referring to tasting menus here, where you are absolutely signing up for a minor dissertation for every one of your eight to twelve courses, plus beverage pairings. And for the price of those meals, you ought to want to know how the egg was prepared to be reinterpreted as foam, how long the meat was aged and its provenance, and exactly how to pronounce Assyrtiko as you sip your Grecian-adjacent wine. The most recent restaurant meal I really, truly loved was at Northern China Eatery in Atlanta some weeks back. We were a party of three on a late Sunday morning and we dove into fried and steamed dumplings, lamb rib stew, deep bowls of hot soy milk with twisted crullers on the side. We had lovely, real, human-to-human exchanges with the staff but those moments were at our choosing. Throughout the meal, tea pots went refilled, rice bowls replaced, next courses brought out without fanfare, grand pronouncements, or anyone concerning themselves with our feelings. And somehow, we still ate well; one of the staffers teased us at one point. It all felt genuine and easy.
This is the part where I hear from folks (or wait for it, some random white man on Twitter) who want to defend staff for just doing their job. They accuse me of expecting human beings to disappear behind the veil of service. That might be what some people will hear, but that’s not what I’m saying. Small talk isn’t actually friendliness; it’s just words bopping around in air. One-sided inquiries into the framework of a restaurant meal comprise a distinctly American tapestry of fruitless, surface exchanges. Good service should aid the experience diners seek to have, not detract from it with some composite of what a floor manager assumes every customer wants.
I’ve had attentive, even warm, restaurant service where no one ever smiled at me. Waitstaff can create the opportunity to be summoned by regularly presenting themselves within the section where they have tables, which should not be as revolutionary as that sounds. I have noticed that restaurants who practice this approach are often run by immigrants who tend to be from countries where culturally, toothy grins don’t act as (often vapid) forms of social currency. Contrarily, I’ve been treated with icy coolness at restaurants where I’ve prepaid my reservation and gratuity in advance of even being in the city where the meal will be located. Many of those restaurants feature white men executive chefs whose websites show them posing with their arms crossed in portrait photos. Recently, I visited a celebrated Italian American restaurant beloved for creative riffs on pasta. Before the antipasti appeared we had been checked on so many times by three different staffers that I began to avoid making eye contact to signal in a non-combative way that there was a helluva lot of unnecessary check-ins going on. The restaurant responded by simply ignoring our table. An empty bottle of sparkling water sat precariously on the edge of our tiny two-top for about fifteen minutes; the food runner plopped down our mid course in the wrong seating position then scurried off, and later, when I was handed a plate of black squid ink spaghetti I waited considerably for someone to walk by so I could ask for a spoon to assist with serving rather than drag the lengthy noodles from here to kingdom come. It didn’t occur to anyone working that night that they could swing by without announcing themselves like Aladdin’s genie, that every single dish doesn’t require a first-bite verbal review from every person at the table, or that the swift disappearance of food from a plate tends to imply people liked eating it.
I have seen how engaged service of a certain kind can result in being treated to a top tier dining production, and gotdamn, that is a show. In those places, I crave not just the delightful food from the kitchen, but also the rhythmic recitation of the night’s specials, or the server’s witty response to a perfectly teed-up question. But those moments cannot be forced. Valuing the experience of a meal with tablemates does not have to mean devaluing the presence or humanity of the people who make that small theatre possible. That impact is felt in other ways and customers respond to it by coming back again and again. Glance across the dining room some evening and you’ll see: that table over there where a mother savors what will be among the last in-public snuggles from her growing boy; another one where two friends make gleeful eeeeeee! sounds and grip each other’s hands in an Oprah-Gayle level show of affection; still another where a fatigued couple is trying to love each other through the deluge of life’s nearly met expectations. Yes, yes, yes—everything is fine.
“Counter Service” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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