The room can be handsome, the food divine. But muck up an otherwise pleasant dinner with crappy service, and the whole damn evening goes to hell.
The quality of service is often the fulcrum on which our dining pleasure balances. In fact, a server's power -- for good or for evil -- is so vast that industry insiders have actually coined a saying for it: "Great service can make up for bad food, but even great food can't make up for bad service."
No wonder, then, that most reasonable diners do their darnedest to steer clear of a weak serving staff. Turns out, though, it's not as easy as you might expect. Bad service comes in an almost infinite array of guises, ranging from phony friendliness to outright hostility, and it can crop up in just about any setting, from a neighborhood burger joint to a four-star salon. Still, in dining as in politics, knowledge is power, and armed with enough insight, a restaurant-goer may be able to avert the most egregious examples of half-assed treatment.
Therefore, we present to you this "Field Guide to Bad Service." No need to thank us: If it saves even one fellow gourmet from running out of a restaurant with his hair on fire, that's good enough for us.
The Lonely Boy
Pity the poor waiter who has no life outside his employer's four walls. He needs a friend, and tonight he's chosen you.
His most distinguishing field mark? He is apparently incapable of flight. Sure, he has introduced himself, read off a few specials, and taken your order. But as your special friend, he feels the need for a deeper connection. Therefore, he gushes over your menu choices, praises your taste in wine, and, should you be foolish enough to ask, will gladly share his deepest personal feelings with you about food and drink.
One sighting in a local seafood restaurant led to the following exchange:
Us: "How's the salmon?"
Him: "I really couldn't say. I hate salmon. Actually, I hate all fish. I think I might be allergic, but I've never really been tested. But my doctor says if I don't like it, I shouldn't eat it. So I don't."
Us: "Ah. Well. Okay then."
Lonely Boys sometimes go as far as pulling up a chair, or sliding into your booth, for a little heart-to-heart. Once, a Lonely Boy laid his head down on our table and started to complain about how hard his college courses were and how bored he was with his job. By the time he was done, we were very thankful we were not his real parents.
If you spot a Lonely Boy early enough, you can sometimes frighten him off with some barbs of well-aimed sarcasm. But don't count on it. His solitude has a lot to do with his inability to take a hint.
The Sad Case
Some experts believe that the Sad Case is not a separate species, but is just the female form of the Lonely Boy. Distinguishing marks typically include a perpetual fluttering of the hands; this is most noticeable when she tries to refill your water glass and ends up baptizing you instead.
This is crucial: No matter how many forks she drops or how much trouble she has removing the cork from your wine bottle, do not ask her whether anything is wrong. Typically, Sad Cases lack the ability to distinguish social niceties from sincere concern, and your polite question is apt to trigger a long, morose response, filled with tragic details about her abusive ex-husband, say, or the agony of being a single mom, to which no one but her therapist, or possibly her attorney, should be privy.
The Census Taker
When a Census Taker asks if you would like more coffee, he is just taking a survey. Presumably, he will make a little tick mark on a piece of paper somewhere in the back room to record your answer; however, he most certainly will not bring you more java.
The Angel of Death
"Sanitation" is a poorly understood concept for this species of server, who can typically be spotted poking her fingers into places where they don't belong -- like all over the rim of your water glass, say, or on the business end of your fork. Other telltale characteristics include an uncanny aptitude for burying her thumb in the mashed potatoes as she presents your plate and a predilection for scratching vigorously while hovering above your tabletop. Her "song" is a distinctive ah-choo, ah-choo, often followed by a coughing sound.
Diners who believe they have spotted more than their fair share of Angels of Death are advised to avoid hiking into dining rooms during flu season.
One of the most common species of servers, the Prevaricator is never at a loss for answers to your food-related questions -- even if he has to make them up. Thus, he can often be heard declaring that a garnish of frizzled leeks is Belgian endive; that the name of the pungent, brie-type product on your cheese plate is "fromage"; or that the chef just pulled the frozen Sysco cheesecake out of the oven.
Armed with a reliable supply of salt grains, informed observers often find the Prevaricator's fanciful behavior highly amusing. However, in certain instances, this species' frivolity can turn life-threatening. Therefore, individuals with allergies to nuts, shellfish, and the like (and for whom factual info can be a matter of life and death) are strongly cautioned to carry an entire carton of Morton's with them, along with their health-insurance card, when dining out.
The Princess is most often found in wealthy suburbs, where the young chicks are raised in well-feathered nests and do not require employment in order to survive. Still, as a result of frequent flights to Sephora and Gap, many members of this species find it helpful to grab a roost in a neighborhood restaurant, where they can often be spotted -- fleetingly.
Some of our best sightings have been in Chagrin Falls, where the Princesses spend most of their work time comparing manicures and initiating mating behavior with Lonely Boys. A group of us watched in awe one night as, in one spectacular example of this species' flair for the dramatic, a disdainful, otherwise occupied Princess responded to our repeated calls for clean flatware by finally grabbing a fistful of assorted knives, forks, and spoons and dropping them, like Pick-Up Stix, in the middle of our table.
Believe me, it was a sight we'll never forget.
By far the most animated, the Entertainer is the only type of server known to habitually sing, dance, and/ or tell lame jokes, for the apparent purpose of tricking observers into believing that he is "friendly."
Subspecies include the Magician, the Raconteur, and the Contortionist. In states east of the Mississippi, Speed Talkers are usually placed in this category, too. In fact, we spotted one at a Twinsburg restaurant not too long ago, with a shtick that involved intentionally rattling off a long list of daily specials at a rate that would make a tobacco auctioneer green with envy.
In cases where a diner is not certain whether the waiter in question is really an Entertainer or just the more common Lonely Boy pumped up on amphetamines, closely note the behavior that follows the performance. If it consists of an expectant pause for applause, you can be certain you have spotted an Entertainer. In which case, we suggest you consider pulling a disappearing act of your own.