How Waiters Read Your Table

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on the increasing trend of restaurants training their waiters to read the tables they serve:

Reading a table happens within seconds of a waiter coming to a table. By asking for a cocktail menu or smiling and making strong eye contact, “they are saying ‘hey, I want to engage with you and I want you to make me feel really important,’ ” says Mark Maynard-Parisi, managing partner of Blue Smoke, a pair of barbecue restaurants in New York, owned by Union Square Hospitality Group. If people seem shy, “you want to put them at ease, say, ‘take your time, look at the menu.’ “

Blue Smoke does seven days of training with new waiters, five days of trailing an experienced waiter and two days of being trailed by the experienced waiter. Each day includes a quiz and a focus such as greeting guests.

With parties of four or more, “the most important thing is to read the dynamic between the group,” Mr. Maynard-Parisi says. Alcohol (who is ordering more or less) is a potential point of contention. He reads eye contact and body language to see if a group is friendly (looking at each other) or less secure, like an uncomfortable work meeting (glancing around the room, fidgeting). “Am I approaching the table to rescue them or am I interrupting them?”

At Cheesecake Factory, employees are taught to look every guest in the eye when moving through the dining room, watching for people looking up from their meal, pushing food around their plate, or removing ingredients from their dish—all signs they might not like their meal. Even if it’s not their assigned table, they are trained to ask if anything is wrong and try to fix problems.

The WSJ then breaks down the signals that the waiter senses (or should sense):

If you’re chatty… A waiter is more likely to assume a friendly, chatty table is there to party. Get ready for more offers of drinks, dessert and a talkative waiter.

If you act moody… You may get better service. Several waiters said they are more careful to get every detail right when they believe a table is already in a bad mood (a couple fighting or a tense business meal perhaps).

If you say ‘It’s OK’… To attentive waiters, saying food is ‘OK’ is a red flag that you aren’t happy with your meal. The waiter or manager might dig for more information to fix the problem.

If you ask about the menu… Food questions are a sign that you either like learning about everything you might eat or you feel lost and need guidance. One menu question could lead to a long, full menu description. If you seem overwhelmed, the waiter might try to steer you toward a particular order.

If you grab the wine list first… Expect the waiter to focus wine explanations and questions about refills to you.

If you’re early and fancy… Diners who are dressed up and have an early dinner reservation may lead waiters to suspect they have another event that night and serve them at a fast clip.

If you’re wearing a suit at lunch… Diners who look like they just stepped away from their cubicle, whether in a suit or business casual, are bound to get speedier service. The exception: If the waiter realizes the boss or valued client wants to set a slower pace by asking for more time before ordering or pulling out papers for a sales pitch.

If you act like the ring leader… 
A waiter will try to determine who is in charge at the table through body language, clues in conversation or by who made the reservation, and defer to the wants of that diner.

If there’s no obvious leader… 
If no take-charge person emerges at the table, the waiter may struggle to figure out whether to be chatty or invisible and whether to make the service quicker or more leisurely.

Something not mentioned and that is a big pet peeve of mine: when I am dining with a group and the waiter doesn’t ask whether the group wants to receive a single bill or separate checks. I realize that splitting a check may be more work for the waiter, but I think getting this wrong at the end of the meal may (and often does) lead to a lower tip for the waiter.

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