Looking for Love, Tableside
Philly’s kitchens run like well-oiled machines—but some servers are the wrench in the works
As Philly’s kitchens continue to woo me with stellar cooking, the service too often proves to be the heartbreaker. Perhaps because of the scant supply of experienced servers to meet growing demand, it seems something has gone awry with the critical relationship between server and patron.
We still need each other, but we don’t seem to speak the same language. Every time I sit down at a table, I’m reminded that first dates are never easy.
A typical encounter begins with the server approaching with a killer smile. So far, so good. Then he opens his mouth, and he may as well have taken nails to the chalkboard (menu) with this overused line: “Hi, I’m Josh and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.”
Although I’m glad to know your name, I understand where this thing is headed and don’t require further edification. Because unless you’re planning to offer a back rub, do my laundry or pick up the check, you’re really not taking care of me.
This false start would seem a minor quibble, if the Joshes of the restaurant world lived up to their promise. But the more I hear my server say he will be “taking care of me,” the less it turns out to be true.
Timing isn’t quite right
Once we get past the awkwardness of the first encounter, I’m ever hopeful we can build a beautiful meal together. I remember a time when most restaurants served food as discrete courses: appetizer, entrée, dessert. Unless you opted for dim sum or went to an actual (Spanish) tapas restaurant, you knew the sum and breadth of the experience.
The small-plates trend has led to the widespread use of a dreaded disclaimer: As Josh takes the order, he announces the kitchen will prepare the food as it sees fit. It will come out when it (not you) is ready, he says. So tough luck if you want your salad first or the biggest dish served last.
In this case, I can’t fully blame the messenger. It’s the kitchen that’s driving a wedge between us. Too often I have witnessed a server try to do right by separating items into courses on the order pad, only to have the food arrive willy-nilly or worse yet—all at once. So I will give Josh a pass and a chance to make amends as the meal continues.
The stranger at the table
After saying all the right things, Josh—like that online dating prospect who seemed so appealing in the virtual world—usually disappears. He hasn’t left the building exactly, but has focused his attention on new tables. In his stead is a different face who hasn’t even bothered to introduce himself—the food runner.
The latter literally does the heavy lifting, yet doesn’t realize we need share plates for our two entrées or that we were told the steak would be prepared medium when it arrives rare. Invariably, the runner will approach the table hesitantly, survey the scene with a puzzled expression and blurt out: “Who got the chicken?” Sigh. You don’t know me.
Or the more confident runner will try to wow with his culinary mojo, producing the dish with a flourish and listing every one of its ingredients. It’s as if I suffered sudden memory loss since ordering, and have no idea what I’m about to eat. At this point, Josh is likely to make an appearance, to check on how everything is going. Too little, too late.
Three’s a crowd
Even if we have managed to navigate the ordering process successfully, a second date is not a sure thing. What looks good on paper doesn’t always add up at the table. Our party clearly has four guests, while the spring roll appetizer comes as three pieces. Or there are two grilled scallops in an appetizer that three of us will be sharing. I once tried to split a chicken thigh among six people—talk about awkward! If Josh had taken the time to convey this information about each dish, I would have been happy to pay for an extra portion. But he was too busy with that big table from out of town for us to even flag him down to ask.
Since we have managed to steal so little quality time together, I look forward to Josh’s return after dessert. There he is, reassuring me that the meal was a success. “Do you need anything else?” Regretfully, no.
Like every operator laying the groundwork for an easy breakup, he’s got the check prepared. Then he tries to soften the rejection with another classic: “Take your time, there’s no rush.”
Nice try, Josh. But I’m already thinking about starting over at another restaurant tomorrow night.
In case you’re wondering, it’s definitely you.