I wasn't the only one to dread the counter. The management usually only asked the most experienced waitresses to handle that area of the restaurant. The counter comprised about fifteen seats, and because it attracted mostly solo diners who wanted to eat quickly and leave, it was the equivalent of handling fifteen separate tables that constantly turned over -- simultaneously. By the time I was on the tenth round of I'll have a pizza burger, hold the cheese, substitute onion rings for French fries, no make that a baked potato with sour cream, and you might as well put the cheese back on the burger, actually hold the sour cream in that case and give me butter instead unless you have margarine, and I'll want skim milk in my coffee but if you don't have that I'll take two percent, but you better not give me half-and-half because I'm on a very strict diet, I was in tears. The kind you try so hard to hold back that your nose runs as if the tears want to come out of your nostrils and you hiccup and make strange, asthmatic noises in your chest. So much more obvious than if you had simply let loose a sob or two in the first place in the kitchen or somewhere else equally discreet.
Counters -- and one less reason for waitresses to sport puffy eyelids -- have largely gone the way of Woolworth's. A few types of restaurants, like diners and old-fashioned Cuban eateries such as Puerto Sagua and David's Café, still routinely construct them as a place for single diners and the smaller parties who would rather not wait for a table. But for the most part, counters have been replaced by those design elements that result in much higher revenue for the restaurateur: bars. Accordingly, diners who would normally have gravitated toward a counter now often wish to consume a meal at the bar, where people who pity them for eating alone can stare at their impervious, martini-stiffened backs. And the job requirements for "bartender" now include "serve from the left, remove from the right. And don't forget the skim milk. But if you don't have that I'll take two percent."
Needless to say, some bartenders rightly feel that their jobs have gotten harder. In the past they had to pour wine, open beer, mix cocktails, blend frozen concoctions, and brew cappuccinos and other specialty coffee drinks for their customers (and, if there's no service bartender, those of the waitstaff as well), a complicated enough multitasking system. Now, in addition, they have to set cutlery and napkins, deal with grumpy line cooks, refill water, deliver dinner, fetch condiments, fulfill special requests, correct cooking errors, offer dessert, and clear dishes. In short they have to do everything a regular server does in addition to their own job duties, which often include washing glasses and stocking liquor, many times without the singular benefit of a barback or busboy.
In fact if you want to make a bartender shed a few water-weight pounds of frustration, order an appetizer, too. And then forget to tip on the food.
Many restaurants, however, are encouraging the burgeoning trend by scripting complete guidelines for bartenders. At Joe Allen in Miami Beach, the bartenders are required to automatically ask drinkers whether they would also appreciate a menu. Many do -- manager Patricia Ferraro tells me that on a busy night, the bar seats could turn over three or four times. "We could do upwards of 50 dinners," she says, and that's not including the folks who just want a plate of fried calamari with a glass of wine.
And for the most part, the bartenders themselves like a customer with an appetite for a three-course meal. Alyse Goldberg, manager at the venerable Tobacco Road, confirms that the bar has always served meals for its entire 90 years of existence. Indeed, she adds, she hasn't seen the volume of bar-diners decrease "in the ten years since I've been here. Some people prefer the bar. And our bartenders prefer it, too -- it's better check average, rather than just serving a drink." That's the case even though, in addition to service responsibilities, bartenders at Tobacco Road rank higher on the food chain. "When there's no manager, the bartender takes over," Goldberg says. "They're considered in charge. They also have to answer all the phones and we rely on them to help sell the concerts. It's a very hard job. That's why we only hire [bartenders] from within. Most of our bartenders have already been waitresses or barbacks. Then they apply to become bartenders."