In the Mood

A few Sundays ago, in an upscale restaurant in the Crossroads District, I did something that I’d never done before: I asked for a different server. It was an awkward decision, because the young man who initially waited on us had lots of redeeming qualities: He was neat, friendly, articulate. But it was immediately apparent to me and to the two friends who were dining with me that this young waiter was going to give a performance. And not just the role of friendly, personable waiter but something operatic, larger-than-life, attention-getting.

And you know what? I didn’t have the energy for it. As a former waiter, I realize that all servers are essentially performers, and every table requires a different show. If a situation or a particularly demanding customer required that I play a certain role — groveling masochist, perky helper, Invisible Man, doting family retainer, campy queen, attentive Boy Scout — I picked up the vibe right away and snapped into character. Kind of like that old Fats Waller song: Find out what they like/And how they like it/And let ’em have it just that way.

We made a subtle request to the manager and got a different server; the first one looked wounded, and I felt guilty. But I was in the mood that night for service that was low-key and unobtrusive; he was determined to pull out the stops and give our table all the razzle-dazzle he had to give. One of us had to go. I decided it would be him.

I strongly believe that in any restaurant, good service is just as important as good food. But two academic surveys on whether the food or the service was more important to the overall dining experience had interesting conclusions. Both determined that service carries more weight than good food.

The surveys were described in a recent Restaurant Business magazine. The first was a 2003 study by British professor John S.A. Edwards, who found that customers preferred poor food and friendly waiters to “a stuffy place with brilliant food.” The second survey was by Alex Susskind of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, who polled restaurant customers and discovered that service complaints outnumbered food complaints by a great margin. Customers might forgive second-rate food, but service problems, Susskind said, leave a lasting impression.

But lasting impressions are in the eye of the beholder. A friend of mine absolutely adores the server who rubbed me the wrong way. “You have to be in the mood for him,” he says. “But he’s the reason I keep going back to that joint. Not the food.”

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