Self-confessed ‘world’s worst waitress’ turned one of Australia’s most respected food critics, Larissa Dubecki, has spent two decades serving and being served. She knows exactly what diners don’t like. And now she’s telling.
1. Have you dined with us before?
I was once asked this three days after the restaurant opened. (What to say? ‘Yes. I’m a regular. I come here all the time.’)
I don’t need to know how the restaurant ‘works’ or the ‘concept’ behind it. Even that Japanese soldier in the Borneo jungle unaware the war has ended probably doesn’t need share plates ever explained again.
Restaurants shouldn’t need explanation. Any restaurant that does need explanation is a bad, over-thought, overwrought restaurant from which you should run away at speed. Just once I’d like a waiter to say ‘Have you dined with us before?’ and if someone at the table says ‘No’, hit them with: ‘This is a restaurant. We serve food. You eat it.’
2. 'Not a problem'.
The ‘not a problem’ waiter is one step up from the ‘Hi, I’ll be your waiter today’ waiter or the table-croucher who thinks getting down to the customer’s eye level will increase intimacy instead of making them feel they’re getting a pep talk from Coach ahead of a really important Little Athletics meet.
Why is everything not a problem? Why, indeed, should it be a problem when you’re just doing your job? Do you think saying three words instead of one perfectly serviceable ‘yes’ will show you’re working harder, or that you deserve a bigger tip? Or is it simply that if you say ‘not a problem’ enough, the entire restaurant will be appraised of the fact that you do not, in fact, have a problem?
3. Don't know the answer? Just make it up!
In some ways this is an unpleasant by-product of a bigger issue, in the way of pink slime in the meat industry, permeate in the milk industry, or travel allowance scandals in the political industry. Namely: chefs who make waiters too scared to ask questions.
Alternatively, telling diners barramundi is a Japanese freshwater fish, cilantro is a smoked chilli, and avruga is premium caviar, could be a symptom of a waiter who just doesn’t give a crap.
4. What's good? Everything?
It’s a big menu, you want to order well, how about a little bit of insider knowledge? Please, please, offer something. Anything. Even pointing to the big-ticket items involving foie gras and truffle would be preferable to the bland cop-out of ‘Everything’s good!’— although don’t point me to the prawn gumbo on the specials list, which is a transparent way to get rid of last Friday’s seafood.
5. The memory challenge.
Wow. How impressive. You don’t need a notepad to write down our order, you can do it all with the power of your mind.
Honestly, we don’t mind being interrupted another five times if you want to ‘just check’ a few minor facts such as whether there were three steaks or four. On second thoughts, how about you just buy a notepad? No one’s going to think badly of you, and your memory game is making us a bit jumpy that our triple-cooked chips have already been forgotten.
6. The storyteller.
I’m just going to get your drinks, then I’ll come back and take your order. I’m just going to set your table now. I’m just going to set another table then I’ll see how far off your mains are. I’m just going to clear your table. I’m giving you way too much running commentary when I should just shut the hell up and get on with doing my job as unobtrusively as possible.
7. The over-sharer.
So you used to be married and you’re studying to be a vet and you’re really excited about your trip to Bali next month. Awesome. Let’s keep the veil of mystery up, thanks all the same.
8. The waiter who says 'Bon Appetit'.
Are we in a restaurant in France or any French-speaking part of the world? No? Then please fuck off (Veuillez foutre le camp).
9. The 'how is everything?' waiter.
How is everything? Well, you’ve just asked a fairly intangible question and it will take some time to formulate a reasoned and considered answer - if I was in a position to answer, which I’m not, considering I’m currently chewing a mouthful of food, and come to think of it I would prefer to eat my meal than engage in chit-chat with someone who simply requires me to say ‘good, thanks’ and would not know how to react should there be an actual complaint.
10. The snob waiter.
Why so superior? I’ve come to eat in a hip pizzeria, you work in a hip pizzeria. We’re in this together. So what if I occasionally like to get down and dirty with a bit of Hawaiian action? It’s my culinary bit of rough, and I’m normally only a little bit ashamed, but then you go and say ‘We don’t do Hawaiian’ with a little trill of a laugh, one of those fake operatic la-la-la’s clinically proven to reduce the receiver’s height by a foot and a half. ‘But we do,’ you say, brightening visibly, ‘have a Queenslander.’
‘A Queenslander? Why, what’s that?’
‘It has pineapple. And speck.’
11. The wine waiter.
And finally we arrive at the wine waiter. Somewhere in the distant past, the evolutionary tree split off and created the great apes, humans, and a separate species known as the sommelier. A lot of people think sommeliers are scary but they’re not - they’re really super-fun guys and the most important person in any restaurant. Just ask them.
Okay, okay. It’s a cheap shot to pick on the somm. Fish in a barrel and all that. It’s not their fault that the average person treats dealing with the somm on a par with going to the dentist: delicate and expensive, but necessary if you want to keep eating at fancy restaurants.
It’s a lonely job. Most people just want to get out of the transaction as quickly as possible with their dignity and credit card intact. A quick wham-bam, second-cheapest-bottle-of-wine-ma’am kind of thing. I find it a bit sad that someone can study for years and years only to have people recoil when all they want to do is share the glad tidings of a cheeky Argentinian Torrontes that has the wicked snap of knicker elastic.
Sommeliers aren’t sneery anymore. Some of them get more excited about those trendy low-intervention Orange wines with their sock-drawer musty strangeness than anyone reasonably ought, but they took the pole out of the backside some time ago. It’s just taking the news a while to filter through. Diners remain on high alert. It’s as if they suspect that if they relax too much the sommelier is going to reach over and start rummaging through their wallet.
But a somm stumbling across someone who loves wine as much as they do will be overcome with joy. One of us! Someone they can talk to in their wine-speak mother tongue, all silky gamay this and fleshy shiraz that. God they love that shit.
They’ll keep sidling back to the wine-appreciating table like a dog that’s been kicked too many times and just wants a ruffle behind the ears. Fair enough, too. Most of the time the job must feel a bit like looking down at lobsters dangling over a pot of boiling water, if lobsters could look panicked, instead of just lobstery.
Wine service is one of the most profoundly uncomfortable experiences a person can go through (see also: public speaking, death). It’s a little bit like taking a car to the mechanic. You don’t really want to know that the carburettor had to be cleaned and the throttle shaft replaced. You just want to know that the bloody thing was fixed, and that you weren’t too badly ripped off in the process. Same goes for wine. Florid wine-speak just makes people squirm. They’re feeling vulnerable. It’s a performance for which they don’t know the lines or the cue marks. They don’t want to be laughed at for dabbling around the shallow end. They want to be affirmed that Sir or Madam has an eye for quality at a reasonable price.
Gosh, it’s awkward. But it needn’t be. There’s a story about the actress Cameron Diaz visiting St Kilda restaurant Circa, when she interrupted the sommelier’s wordy introduction to an expensive French red with the immortal line ‘Just give me the juice, baby’.