by Pia K. Hansen

I was having dinner at the Italian Kitchen a couple of months ago with a friend of mine. Not being really familiar with the menu, and trying to make a good impression, I went with the lasagna. I love lasagna -- I mean, what's more perfect than a food consisting mainly of meat, pasta and cheese? If you ask me, nothing.

The lasagna arrived, looking just as delicious as I had hoped for, golden baked, brimming with tart tomato sauce and crumbled sausage, dripping with creamy cheese, and there, right in the middle of everything, was a bright green layer of spinach. Aw, shucks -- what did they have to do that for?

The thing is I'm allergic to spinach. I always carefully read the menu to avoid any rogue vegetables. Still, over the years, I've had to send back many a meal, and this is where the question of good or bad service comes in: As I run down the list of common vegetables that I can't eat, a handful of waiters have rolled their eyes as if a woman refusing leafy greens is like committing a felony.

Our waiter at the Italian Kitchen, however, didn't miss a beat. Not only did he apologize on behalf of the offending vegetable, he immediately suggested a few dishes sans spinach that could be ready instantaneously, so my friend didn't have to sit around and wait for my dinner to arrive.

The waiter made me feel comfortable, and that's exactly the point of good service.

I read a quote in a magazine once, that said, 'You can have mediocre atmosphere and mediocre food and still get away with running a restaurant, but you can't have mediocre service,'" says Shelly Whitmore, a server at the Davenport's Palm Court. "I have been doing this for 30 years -- it's a passion. You have to love what you do -- believe me, people can tell right away if you don't. I'm not putting myself through school being a waiter; this is what I do for a living. I love it."

Being a good waiter often seems to be something you are born with. Where table manners and etiquette can be taught and memorized, it's the personal touch, the special twist, the little thing that makes or breaks the dining out experience just right.

"There are a lot of skills we can't teach. For instance, we can't train hospitality," says Tom Sciortino, general manager at Clinkerdagger Restaurant, a perennial Spokane favorite located in the Flour Mill. "When I'm hiring wait staff, I'm looking for someone who really connects with me; I look for eye contact, someone who enjoys what they are doing and can connect with people. I'll take someone with a little less experience if I feel like I make that emotional connection."

A good waiter knows what the guest wants -- even before the guest.

"He is there with the lemon for your water, when all you have is that look in your eye, that you like lemon in your water," says Julie Litzenberger, the instructor who teaches front of the house management in Spokane Community College's culinary arts program. "We teach people to anticipate guests' needs, and to be organized. Being a waiter is a career, and it can be a darn good one. It's a tough job, and I admire people who can do it well. If you're not organized, you wear yourself out."

Or as Sciortino puts it, "the business will chew you up and spit you out."

Restaurants have several checkpoints at which they assess the experience diners are having: Did everyone get seated right? Were drinks and appetizer orders taken right away? Do diners look like they enjoy what they ordered? The list is almost endless.

"We can put down a service sequence from greet to goodbye, but the difficult thing is that you have to be able to alter that sequence to please everyone who walks through the door," says Sciortino.

Figuring out exactly how much attention is the right amount depends on the waiter's intuition as much as training.

"Again, your mission is to anticipate what the guests need before they do," says Chris Mueller, general manager at Beverly's, the restaurant at the Coeur d'Alene Resort. "That can reduce the interaction [the waiter has with guests] as well. Business people who are in the middle of serious discussions don't want you to hover over them and ask, 'Can I do this? Can I do that?' They want you to do your job and get out of the way. Yet some people want to be pampered, because to them it's part of the dining out experience."

At smaller establishments, the quality of service can be magnified even more. "We are so small it's only me and one other person on the floor," says Heather Wilhelm, co-owner of Solstice in Liberty Lake. "What we do is fine dining, but it's not stuffy. A good waiter here can't act like they know everything. We have a lot of local regulars and they want to feel relaxed and welcome."

Honesty is another big deal with Wilhelm, who runs Solstice with chef James Malone. "If there's no honesty or trust, it's not going to work. We are a small business and even the little things can really hurt us," says Wilhelm. "You have to be honest with the customer."

Though it quite obviously is difficult to define the perfect waiter or waitress, the list of mortal sins is long. "Oh, there must be hundreds of them," says Mueller. "I'd say the worst offense I can imagine is if a server ever mentioned to the customer that their gratuity wasn't adequate. That's bye-bye right there."

Not making an effort is high on the list, too.

"You will spill the coffee, the kitchen will burn the steak, it's part of business," says Sciortino. "But if you don't tell [the manager] about it, then we have a real problem. I can come to the table, and I have a huge bag of tricks that can fix almost anything. My biggest fear is that people just leave and I don't know what went bad. They will never come back."

And the age-old saying that the customer always is right still applies.

"People in our program are chef wanna-bes -- they want to be in the kitchen. They don't want to be in front of customers and sometimes I think that's good," says SCC's Litzenberger. "You simply don't question the customer: He or she is always right. Don't argue with them. No request is too large or too strange or too off the wall. I always say, 'The answer is yes, now what was the question?' "

Publication date: 04/15/04

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