Dine: Hold the attitude -- and other service beefs

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As I have dined around Pittsburgh over the past few months, I have generally seen an improvement in restaurant service.

I attribute it to two factors:

More restaurants mean more competition. When there are five new restaurants Downtown with similar menus, prices and outdoor access, it's just as easy for customers to go to one with better service.

And as restaurateurs look to other markets for ideas, they're inspired by service in very good restaurants from New York to New Orleans.

The most over-the-top example of exemplary service is Eleven Madison Park, the New York restaurant whose staff Googles the names of folks on the reservation list in search of birthdays, hometowns and other details to personalize service, according to New York Magazine.

No restaurant here has a policy of Googling guests that I'm aware of, yet they are becoming more attentive to detail nonetheless. Even coffee service and wine etiquette have improved.

"Do you mind the Sicilian wine glass?" a server asked at Alla Famiglia in Allentown. That's a great question, since the table preferred glasses with a wide bowl for Barolo.

Even as service tightens up, diners are often frustrated, as they have conveyed to me in calls, email and on Twitter. Here are the latest gripes.

"Have you dined with us before?"

Pity the poor servers who have been trained to open with this greeting, which goes over about as well as a bad pickup line. Has there ever been a scenario in which a diner was flummoxed as to what to do at a restaurant? Even if there were, the question is more often abrasive than helpful. I like that the idea behind a prompt is to encourage back-and-forth between diners and servers, but it's better when it's sincere.

Know the menu beyond the list.

Diners often have questions about what they're ordering, a default of the spare or seemingly clever menu-writing style at just about every restaurant that has opened in the past five years. The lack of clear description can come off as precious and I wish it would pass.

Here's an example. In the case of an item such as "Cured trout: panzanella, chorizo, lovage," customers may wonder how cured trout panzanella is served, or what lovage is. (It's an herb that tastes somewhere between parsley and celery.)

Servers should anticipate the questions, but too often they don't. The result is the awkward I-don't-know or let-me-check-response -- or worse, a made-up response that's straight-up wrong. The latter happens all the time.

Don't oversell the upsell.

"This is the best water you'll have in a restaurant," a server said to me last night about the sparkling water. She went on about how it is distilled and why I should like it more than tap. (If only that restaurant were so fastidious with every detail.)

Here's the rule. If a diner asks, the explanation is warranted.

Even without the push, restaurants passively educate diners about new products, sourcing and the like with every meal. But dining out should not feel like going to class.

Please don't call grown women "girls."

I recently went to a fine dining place and sat at the bar for a glass of wine before the rest of my table arrived. "Hi, girls," said the "boy" who worked behind the bar. (He did not say, "Hey, girl!" another context that would have been just as awkward.)

When I visit an old-school hotel bar or even a dive, when a bartender calls women "girls," it's less jarring, though it's still not ingratiating.

When an employee at a fine-dining or even a tailored casual restaurant calls women "girls," it kicks off the evening with a glaring lack of polish.

Also, it affects sales. Do I trust wine suggestions from a bartender who does it? Probably not.

Please don't add the tip.

A reader recently told me she dined solo and was charged 18 percent tip on a bill. She confronted the server about it. "I would have tipped you 20 percent, but I'm so upset, I'll tip you what's on the bill," she said. The server shrugged his shoulders and said it was policy.

People have a lot to say about fair tipping. But to finish a meal with a suggestion that a diner is cheap doesn't help the cause.

Wine is one thing. Shots are another.

Whether servers, bartenders or managers should drink during service is a case-by-case scenario in Pittsburgh. I'm surprised I'm even writing about drinking on the job, but I've seen staff doing shots so often when the dining room is full that I'm addressing it.

Sipping wine during service can be fine, depending on the restaurant. I've seen regulars buy a pour for a server and it can be a lovely moment. It's a sommelier's job to taste before the pour. And it's also part of the gig for bartenders, who sip from the stirrer to check a cocktail before serving.

Shots are another story. Heavy drinking in the dining room creates an environment that's alienating, to say the least.

I see you have an attitude.

This is the No. 1 issue people have been writing to me about lately. I find this hard to believe, considering that, just a year ago, I wrote about the city's shaky service and warm hospitality.

Turns out, most of the complaints are coming from diners trying new and always crowded restaurants.

One diner mentioned how the rest of the staff was teasing an especially earnest server doing her job well. "The rest of them were too cool for school," she said.

Another wrote to tell me about abrasive service at a North Side restaurant. A lackadaisical attitude transferred between servers and a manager, who told a diner he didn't have time to deal with her.

Instead of taking her case to Yelp, she told the story on Facebook, which inevitably shaped the perceptions of her many friends. The scenario worked to the detriment of the restaurant, regardless of who was in the right. How many friends of hers are customers who will boycott the restaurant?

"I'm glad we were welcomed somewhere else," she wrote.


Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.

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