This is the restaurant era, and we love to eat out. We also love to complain about eating out.
In a survey of 500 people conducted last year, Fodor’s Travel Publications found a surprising variety of culinary cavils, from objections about the hand driers in restaurant rest rooms to the service being given at the next table.
The paranoid diner. One of the biggest complaints revealed in the survey was especially eye-catching. Eleven percent of the population said they were annoyed by what they perceived as their waiter’s preferential treatment of other guests.
Think about it: At restaurant tables across the land, paranoid diners are eyeing the next table of eaters. We’ll call the complainers Table A and the other group Table B. The diners at Table A are sure that the waiter is taking the orders from Table B first, even though Table A arrived earlier. The waiter is refilling water glasses faster, offering the most choice tidbits, smiling more - all at Table B.
Is it possible that all the while Table A is collectively grinding its teeth in envy, those at Table B are surreptitiously keeping track of the goings-on at Table A? Table B is sure, each and every one of them, that the waiter is being much more solicitous of the needs, the wants, and even the unexpressed desires of those at Table A.
In fact, many restaurants might be full of diners, all sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that every other diner is better treated than they.
It’s dizzying. But then, the same survey found that the most complaints of those canvassed weren’t about food or even service. Thirteen percent were really miffed about air hand driers in the restaurant bathrooms.
We do love to complain.
While I’m at it, I might as well throw in a few of my own.
The missing notepad. Once upon a time, the customer announced to a waiter or waitress what he or she wanted to eat, and the choice was jotted down on a notepad. This was especially true when there were six or so diners at the table. Sometimes the waitperson even consulted the notepad and checked back to make sure the order had been taken correctly.
Then the food arrived, and the dishes were put down in front of each diner. If you ordered salmon, you got salmon; if you ordered beef, that’s what was delivered.
When was the last time you saw a waiter or waitress use a notepad? When did they go out of style, so completely that wait staffs obviously are trained and told not to take notes?
Now, many restaurant staff are very good at remembering orders. In fact, most of the time they do an amazing job of memorizing drink orders, six appetizer orders, and six entree choices, keeping straight who asked for the foie gras with Granny Smith apple puree and who the special baby back ribs with dark maple glaze, not to mention the triple chocolate cake with white chocolate sauce.
But there’s almost always a hitch - these paragons of memory know that the table ordered a salmon, a beef, a foie gras, and so forth. Who ordered what, though, is usually completely forgotten.
So the waitperson, or sometimes a food runner who doesn’t take the original order but delivers the dishes, stands at the table and calls out: “Who had the salmon with the dill sauce and the puff potatoes, who had the beef with horseradish mashed turnips?” And so on and so on.
And the diners, suddenly thrown into the role of assistant waiters, pipe up obediently, calling out their dinner choices.
Maybe it would be more expedient for diners to begin bringing notepads to restaurants. Then when the time came for delivering the food, the lead eater could rattle off the table’s dishes, saving all that trouble for the wait staff.
The interactive meal. Which brings me to an annoying trendlet, one that’s been pointed out to me for years and that I’ve been noticing more and more lately.
You and your friends have eaten the appetizers and are deep in conversation, having a great time. Suddenly the waiter looms above the table, bearing your entrees. You notice that his hands and arms are lined with plates.
He looks down, a shadow of pique crossing his face. The appetizer plates are strewn across the table because he or another member of the staff neglected to clear them away. There’s no room for him to put down the entrees.
First he clears his throat, then he begins his chant: “Who had the striped bass with mango chutney?” He looks pointedly at one diner and then the next.
Suddenly, you get it (this dawns on women much more quickly than on men). You, the diner, were supposed to have gathered up those appetizer plates and taken them back to the kitchen, or perhaps zapped them into thin air, so the waiter would have had a clear table on which to array the next course.
The women at the table begin the age-old female shuffle - tidying up, stacking plates, making room, assuring the waiter that he can put down those plates before his arms get tired. But the rebellious thought does cross telepathically from one diner to the next: Why are we paying to eat out, for the service as well as the food, and then doing the cleaning up as well?