Service With A Scream

On March 13, 2007, in Food and Drink, by peterb

Travelling to Europe ruined me in several ways. One, of course, is that I’m compelled to constantly demonstrate what an insufferable poseur I am by placedropping (“Oh, yes, there’s this little bar in Madrid just north of the Gran Via that specializes in Vermouth. They serve anchovies and olives as tapas — you really should go, dahling…”). The other is that I can’t enjoy a meal at a restaurant any more, because I can’t stand being interrupted while I eat.

The intra-prandial checkup seems to be a thoroughly American phenomenon. It’s one that you don’t even notice until you’ve eaten somewhere that doesn’t do it. Try this: the next time you’re out eating with a friend, keep track of the number of times a waiter or waitress comes over and interrupts your conversation to ask “Hi! Everything OK here?” This typically happens to me at least 3 times when eating dinner out.

I want to be clear that my ire isn’t addressed at the servers, who are just doing their job and meeting cultural expectations. Rather, I’m bemoaning that this has become our cultural standard. When I first started travelling abroad it actually made me nervous, on a subconcious level, that the waiters weren’t checking up on us. Were they ignoring me? Well, yes, but only because that’s part of what it means to be polite in Rome: you don’t interrupt someone’s meal without a really good reason (note that “bringing more food” is one of the good reasons). Eventually, I not only got used to it, but started to enjoy it. To eat out is not a big deal, but to eat out and actually feel unrushed and unhurried is a true luxury. In the US it almost feels like the service expectations of fast food have leaked into the standard restaurant culture. Hi! Welcome! Please sit down. What would you like? Everything OK? Everything OK? Everything OK? Please leave now.


Welcome to America

I don’t see any real hope for changing the practice here. Our tipping culture encourages wait staff to be more attentive rather than laid back, and restaurants, as businesses, want to turn tables over more quickly to get high volume. I do find it somehow amusing that our coffee culture is also the inverse of the Italian coffee culture, specifically, with Starbucks encouraging you to sit and relax with your espresso, which is a drink that God clearly intended you to gulp down at the bar in 10 seconds shortly before striding out of the door of the bar stuffing a cornetto in your face on the way to work.

I don’t want to make the situation seem more bleak than it really is. There is great food culture in the US, even in Pittsburgh. It’s just not the norm. You have to work to find it. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

And, in the worst case, I guess I can just look at this as another excuse to go back to Rome. See, I know this little bakery hidden away on Via di San Teodoro! They’re only open 2 hours a day, and…


7 Responses to “Service With A Scream”

  1. psu says:

    The food service is the same way in France, of course. It’s also the case that a meal out in France will always take at least an hour and a half to two hours. Even lunch. You might as well just accept it. It’s always a hard adjustment coming back here and getting back into a 3 courses in 45 minutes kind of routine.

    They also never give you your check in France. You have to ask for it. You can sit for hours over coffee and never pay and the place will just go about its merry way.

    The funniest restaurant incident we ever witnessed in Paris was this French Canadian woman going completely apeshit over not getting the check fast enough in this little 6 table Provencal restaurant right on the river. Man, that place had a really great oil-cured salmon appetizer…

  2. ChrisC says:

    Good service: you sit down at the table, and the only time you notice the waiter/waitress is when you order your food. After that, food just arrives, and appears in front of you so unobtrusively you don’t even notice (other than to delight in the yummy things in front of you). A good waitperson*is seldom noticed during the meal, because if you notice them _they are doing something wrong_. They are able to tell from looking at you whether you are happy or not, and do not need to ask you to find out.

    You would think that there is not much cultural difference between Canada and the US. This is one of the differences I noticed shortly after moving to the US. So us foreigners notice it when we visit the US just as much as you notice it when you travel abroad.

    * bah, political correctness

  3. Having recently moved here (England) I am acutely aware of the differences in service. It took us quite a while realize that we were expected to ask for the a check. Once restaurant had an advert touting their “Bullet Lunches” promising to have you out the door in only an hour.

  4. Stan says:

    Proper serving technique is to present oneself for inquiry when the water glass is less than half full, so that a lady or a gentleman may signal for service by drinking water. This raises the question of protocol when the diners are masticating during their water refil. In that case, the server may pose a simple inquiry. If the response is negative, they are expected to stay or return very soon and inquire further.

  5. Mom says:

    What I’d really like to see on your blog, or elsewhere is a piece about the annoying practice of your server rattling off the evening’s specials without “sharing” the prices. When you inquire about the price, they look at you with an icy stare meant to intimidate and indicate that you really shouldn’t be dining there if you have to ask. Maybe if more people complained this annoying practice could be abolished!
    Then there are those rare (thankfully) establishments that don’t even bother to print their prices next to menu items.

  6. Dr. Click says:

    Mentioning Union Grill in Pittsburgh is tangentially related here, so I’ll slip my favorite rant in here.

    Does Union Grill still exist? Does it still have that obnoxious footer on their menu that asks patrons to eat up in under an hour and a half to keep their prices low?

    If Union Grill exists, I implore you all to spit on its threshold. Not only is it the height of incivility to badger patrons in such a manner, but the prices are not, in fact, low by any reasonable Pittsburgh standard.

    A restaurants whose mere existence is an insult to restaurants everywhere.

  7. psu says:

    Union Grill still exists, and it still kind of sucks.