Hot Dog on a Stick
In a fine restaurant, service can be almost a mystical thing: glasses refilled, silver adjusted, tablecloths crumbed so subtly that it is easy to forget there is a third party involved, vague yearnings for red wine and meat instantly translated into spit-roasted wood pigeons and old Blagny, 200 tiny gestures to your personal happiness executed so deftly that in the end all you remember is the sense of well-being.
To be a great waiter requires the ability to inhabit a customer‘s skin so completely that he or she knows your bliss better than you do, whether you want to chat about the ’98 vintage in Chateauneuf-du-Pape or just want to drink something good, whether you would be charmed or put off by the liver sauce with the squab, whether you are craving good cheer or just want to be left alone. It is not a coincidence, I think, that so many good waiters go back and forth between restaurants and the theater. The skills — physical grace, a gift for pacing, the ability to intuit character from a few physical clues, the ability to mediate between artist and audience — are very much the same. Bad service, in fact, is less often about incompetence — spilling soup on your new linen suit, interpreting your order for a medium-rare steak as a call for medium-well — than it is about any of a thousand tiny infuriations, the same infractions that doom an actor: clumsy pacing, inconsistent assumptions about character, faulty memory. It may be less than tragic when a waiter clears our salads before we are finished with them, assumes that we wouldn‘t like the cold spiced pork kidneys, or serves us pork chops instead of the crab. But it matters: For a diner, it is somehow less insulting to be on the wrong end of a badly poured bottle of wine than it is to be misunderstood.
There are probably as many styles of great service as there are of cuisine. At Chez Panisse in Berkeley, where every guest is served the same dishes on any given night, where an individual customer has as much influence on her meal as a Dodger Stadium patron might in deciding whether Kevin Brown’s next pitch should be a fastball or a slider, the service staff function almost as university lecturers, translating the complexities of the kitchen through their informed, nuanced graciousness. Spago waiters glide their customers through many choices on an intricate menu while negotiating that tricky Beverly Hills dance of jocular intimacy and respectful deference. Campanile waiters are peerless at making you crave $52 bottles of wine from Italian regions so obscure that even its natives aren‘t quite sure where they are. Michael’s waiters are talented young agents representing the cuisine. Valentino‘s captains are peerless at making you believe that they have designed a special meal just for you, even if it is more or less the same special meal everybody else in the restaurant seems to be eating too. At Vida, the waiters include you in the party. At Pie ’n Burger, it‘s about remembering your name the fifth time you come in, registering your preference for grilled onions, and whisking you the fries the second they emerge from bubbling oil.
The writer John Gardner once claimed that the novelist’s first responsibility was to maintain the seamlessness of the dream, and so it is with a great waiter: the ability to make us feel that we are being cared for, that we matter. We may tell ourselves that we are going to Lucques for the bluefish or to Josie for the elk. What brings us back is that dream.