For a long time while we were dating, my husband couldn't understand why I was a successful, tip-earning waitress. He knew I could multitask like a CEO, describe food as lovingly as an Italian mama, and grab plates that had been under the heat lamp as long as some of his fraternity brothers had been in college, with bare hands. But I was so shy back then that he often wondered how I ever got up the nerve to approach a table of strangers, who just might be waiting to berate me, when even the act of calling for a taxi was a paralyzing venture.
I had a one-word answer for him: persona. For every new party, I would briefly become the sort of culinary cheerleader that I wasn't -- bouncy with enthusiasm and willing to a) listen to a stranger's life story over a hot fudge sundae, or b) answer a bunch of intensely personal questions the customers had no real right to ask. In my hands I held imaginary broccoli pom-poms. In my apron, I kept the correspondingly real tips.
Over the years, I've observed plenty of servers who also employ this particular tactic to get them through a nightmare shift. A good one can make you believe the persona is the real thing, which of course it almost never is -- it's akin to the polite, social face we show to distant cousins and misdemeanor judges.
Problem is, most of today's waiters can't maintain the façade of fervent servility long enough for the customer to be taken; any little confrontation or mishap tends to result in a drop of face as abrupt and revealing as a drag queen's batting eyes after the false-eyelash glue has worn off. Others allow certain characteristics -- persona traits -- to overwhelm the performance. It's like hand-wringing method acting. One second you're being waited on by Jane Fonda; the next, Fran Drescher.
An overused mannerism played a big part in a recent debacle of a lunch at Brasero's, a dismal example of a Latin steak house in Weston. Every time we had some form of interaction with our waiter, he winked at us. If it was a communication with my husband, he winked with his right eye. If I was the one making a request or receiving a plate, the left eye closed in a jaunty squint. For a while we watched him to make sure that his winking wasn't a form of Tourette's, but he only seemed to employ the gesture when he was talking to patrons. "How would you like your steak cooked?" Wink. "Can I get you a refill of iced tea?" Wink. On the way out, speaking to both of us at the same time, he even got in an impressive double set. "Thanks for coming in" -- wink right, wink left.
Verbal tics can be equally annoying, not to mention communicable. I once sat through a meal trying not to laugh at the waitress, who replied, "Right on!" to everything we asked. And, it seems, I'm not the only one. Technical writer Kathy Dolbow Doran, who owns a small business in Miami called WORDrunner, Inc., says, "I've experienced the 'right-on' phenomenon [while I] was out west on a vacation. A real 'hipster' was waiting on us. An older guy with a tie-dyed headband, round John Lennon granny glasses.... He was nice, but his 'right-ons' bordered on the excessive." Versions of "right on" seem to, these days, include the much-overused, new-fab, "That's fantastic," adds former Miami resident Julian Cohen.
Sometimes a catch phrase or gesture is corporate policy. At the Ritz-Carlton hotels, for instance, employees are required to smile at any and every guest and to say, "Welcome to the Ritz-Carlton." Once you're well inside the hotel, on your way perhaps to the restroom from the restaurant, this is muted somewhat into a polite nod-smile-"welcome" combo. And if you're a regular, the traditional greeting is modified into, "Welcome back to the Ritz-Carlton." Somehow, despite my ability to detect minute amounts of insincerity, I have yet to find any in these incessant greetings. In fact they make me feel A-list in a way that even a pair of vintage Gucci pumps can't provide. But others have told me how irritating they find this constant refrain.
Ditto for the Four Seasons when it first opened in Nevis, Miami-based travel writer and photographer Susan Pierres reports. The local staff, not at that point very experienced with tourism, had been trained to respond to any request, she says, with a "Most certainly!" and a smile. "It became rather painfully obvious that this had been pounded into them, as no matter what one asked, the response was inevitably the same: 'Could I have a large pot of tea, please?'
"'Most certainly.' A small cup would arrive.
"'Would you ask whether my main course will be arriving soon?'
"'Most certainly.' It didn't.
"'Could you chill the red wine just a tad?'
"'Most certainly.' It would arrive room temperature -- 94 degrees."
Still "the smile, for the most part, came naturally," Pierres recalls. "And because they were so sweet and hospitable, all the early kinks were forgiven."
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Diana Abu-Jaber, a novelist and newly arrived professor at the University of Miami, had a similar experience when out of the country with an overly eager-to-please waiter. "They generally only drink hot tea in Jordan, so when I visited Amman last summer during a scorcher, I was aching for some iced tea. A nice waiter agreed to try and make it for me -- brewed a whole pot, sweetened it, poured it over ice, added sprigs of mint. It really turned out nicely. But he kept refilling my glass every time I finished, so when I barely sipped at the fourth glass, he followed me out of the restaurant, holding up the full glass of tea, and kept shouting -- over and over -- across the crowded lobby: 'Aren't you going to finish your tea?'"
This kind of thing, of course, brings to mind the ambitious busboy who never lets the water drop below the lip of the glass, but who somehow manages to touch, as Doran notes, "the rim of our glasses when they refill them. It's really unsanitary and annoying and I cringe every time I see them coming. My first thought is 'I knew we should have gotten that hepatitis vaccine!'" Or the waiter who, says Elizabeth Smith, associate publisher of The Wine News, "continuously, ad nauseam, asks if everything's all right, to the point where you want to say, 'It would be if you would only let me eat.'"
In the end, though, I'd rather have an ultra-keen server with the propensity to be as competent as he is annoying than the one a friend recently had on vacation in Aspen. The waiter's shtick -- to bumble orders, then offer complimentary shots of Sambuca on the house and include one for himself -- borders on scam. But the real crime just might be the stupidity exhibited by the completely deluded fellow who waited on Morgan Vaughn-Johnson, the public relations assistant for the Ritz-Carlton Hotels of Miami. Apparently, with every item he set down on the table for Vaughn-Johnson and her boyfriend, the server would say dramatically, "Bon soir!" It took them a few courses to figure out that he actually meant to be saying, "Bon appétit!"
To which their reply should have been, of course -- say it with me -- "Right on." Wink, wink.