Doug KellyRestaurants

Of Good and Bad Restaurant Service

By Doug Kelly

Waiting on tables involves a lot more than just delivering food and drinks. We’ve all run into servers who elevate our dining experience by being prompt, knowledgeable, attentive and friendly. We’ve also encountered horse-faced servers who display personalities matching the fish of the day.

You can always tell the presence of good management. Your top managers are the ones who train servers to make diners happy and feel special.

Average managerial skills become evident when servers treat you like just another cow in the pasture.

But the below-average managers really stick out because they don’t demand excellent service. Here’s when you know the dining service won’t be up to snuff:

  • You sit at a table for 10 minutes before being approached.
  • The server offers no greeting.
  • No recommendation is made for appetizers or later for desserts.
  • Orders aren’t written down and something’s delivered you didn’t order or an item is forgotten altogether.
  • Maybe one (or none) returns visits to see if anything else is needed.
  • Not noticing empty drink glasses.
  • A long wait for the check.
  • The only smile you get is when the check is presented.

Aside from food quality and decor, decisions about whether to return to an eatery is often based on service. How many times have you heard someone talking about a certain restaurant by saying, “The food’s pretty good, but the service is lousy.” Seldom do you instead hear, “The service is great, but the food sucks.”

What about tipping? I always tip 20% for good service and correspondingly less for average and zero for bad. I am not dissuaded if the credit card readout offers gratuity choices of 18%, 20%, 22% or Other, as I will not pay someone 18% of the check for shoddy service and therefore choose Other and leave less depending on my server experience.

One of my pet peeves is when a server leaves the table before you’re finished requesting something. Talking to someone’s back and hoping they heard you is bush. If you’re so rushed that you can’t spend a few extra seconds facing me to hear what I want, either the server doesn’t know how to apportion his or her time or the manager is giving each server too many tables. In either case, that affects my tip.

Speaking of time expenditure, no one likes to take over two hours to dine – at least by American standards. While we don’t want to be rushed, it’s nice when you get seated promptly, the server is competent and friendly, the food is good, and you leave in a reasonable amount of time. That merits return visits.

But there’s another side to this coin. Consider what impatient, rude and sometimes uncouth treatment servers often endure. Some people are simply sourpusses who project negative vibes wherever they go: Overly demanding, incapable of being satisfied, impatient and other bad manners put servers to the test. Let’s face it: Some people cannot and will not be satisfied, and servers are human beings with feelings.

Worse yet are diners who treat servers like lowly servants, ordering them around and braying like asses over the slightest inconvenience.

I take that back – maybe even worse entails sophomoric sexual comments. A girlfriend in college finally quit as a server at a sports bar after enduring endless suggestive retorts from horny customers. Although she could readily dismiss frequent requests for her phone number, some guys simply went too far. She finally quit after parrying the pervy retorts whenever she’d ask if there’s anything else they wanted. Even the mere suggestion of dessert often was met with something unoriginally graphic like, “I want YOU for dessert, baby.”

Boorish behavior aside, I’ve always found that servers usually mirror your persona. Be upbeat and friendly and you’ll get that in turn; act like a bloviating butthead and you’ll get treated like one. It’s a two-way street.

A successful restaurant, of course, has to excel in the front of the house as well as the back, and it’s always great food and excellent service that assures repeat business. There’s no other equation.


I’ve never worked as a server because I don’t possess the composure to put up with callous gripers. I’d be too tempted to pour their porridge right over their crybaby heads. Nay, let’s instead raise our glasses in a toast to the great servers who put up with our idiosyncrasies and keep right on smiling.

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