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Don't Eat While I'm Talking To You

by Jennifer Rosen

We interrupt our regular wine column to bring you an irritating restaurant trend. Normal, cheerful wine attitude will return next week.

The problem is over-eager servers, constantly interrupting to find out if everything’s OK, which it would be except for their interruptions to find out if everything’s OK. It’s like waking you up to ask how you’re sleeping.

When did waiters start barging into conversations? They stride right over your punch line in order to introduce themselves and describe dishes already explained in the menu. They loom at your shoulder with a great phallic cylinder, asking if you wouldn’t like freshly ground pepper or cheese, as if the rest of your dish came out of a can. May they light your candle? Are you enjoying your appetizer? Your entrée? Your wine? Would you like to see the dessert menu? (Might as well yell, “Fat slob alert!!” Just bring the damn thing.) And on they fuss, too busy attending to your needs to notice you don’t have any. Except, perhaps, the need to resurrect the thread and mood of a besieged conversation.

They fight you for your plate before you’re finished. “Are you still working on that?” Eventually you yield, beaten and too shamed to chew. The spread-knife-and-fork symbol used to keep them at bay, but evidently this new breed of super-waiters is immune to its power.

They announce their personal favorite dishes, like you care, and then say “Good choice!” when you make one, leaving other diners to wonder what the hell they picked: the salmonella surprise?

I don’t want a waiter with tastes. I don’t want a waiter with personality and a name and a shoe size. I want a server: efficient, invisible, unobtrusive, mum until I deign to acknowledge him, then gliding occasionally by to make eye contact, just in case.

(Note to the posse of irate waiters who e-mailed me about that last paragraph after it ran in the newspaper:
1. If your chattiness is dictated by management, please forward my complaint on up.
2. I have waited tables, and I am neither a snob nor a low-tipper, although those of you who called me an unfeeling jerk might be on to something.)

I pay a masseuse so I don’t have to rub back. I don’t take my doctor’s temperature. At restaurants I don’t do the dishes, the cooking, or the clearing up, and I pay for the exquisite illusion that, for this hour, at least, my needs are all that matter. Then I go back to real life where my job doesn’t care if I broke a tooth or got depressed or lost my laptop – only that I deliver by deadline.

As long as I’ve worked up this head of steam, and considering this is a wine column, I’ll take a swipe at some all-too-common problems with wine service. Like bringing a different vintage from the one on the list, a frequent bait-and-switch maneuver. I catch it just enough to know how often I probably miss it.

Lukewarm reds – room temperature if you happen to live in a sweat lodge - are about as refreshing as Kaopectate and make you wonder what changes life above the stove has wrought. Over-chilled whites are rarer and you can always cuddle the glass to warm them, but with your own hands, let’s hope. More and more servers pick your glass up when they pour, sometimes by the bowl, leaving smudgy forensics between you and your vino.
Others angle for a re-order by emptying an entire bottle at once into three or four glasses. Rim-high wine gets the pouring business over with quickly, but makes smelling impossible and spilling inevitable.

Hoarding the crystal is a false economy and comes off as hostile. I break enough at home to understand saving the Riedels for customers who care. But that doesn’t include only buyers of expensive wine. Anyone who asks for a glass upgrade should get it.

If wine is corked, oxidized or otherwise ruined, you shouldn’t need a court order to send it back. Servers who haven’t learned to recognize these faults should at least be told they exist. My toughest wrangle was in a restaurant in the heart of Beaune, in Burgundy, where, to the horror of my French dining companion, I got in an argument with the native waiter over whether our wine was cooked. Finally, snootily, as only the French can snoot, the waiter brought us a fresh bottle, drawing upon an extraordinarily broad repertoire of smirks while uncorking it. Later in the meal, though, he came back and if he had had a tail it would have been between his legs as he told us the chef was in agreement with the folle Américaine. I’ve got to give the guy credit, though: after that he made himself scarce. And never, once, did he tell us that his name was Gaston and he would be our waiter this evening.

© Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Jennifer Rosen - Jennifer Rosen, award-winning wine writer, educator and author of Waiter, There’s a Horse in My Wine, and The Cork Jester’s Guide to Wine, writes the weekly wine column for the Rocky Mountain News and articles for magazines around the world. Jennifer speaks French and Italian, mangles German, Spanish and Arabic, and works off the job perks with belly dance, tightrope and trapeze. Read her columns and sign up for her weekly newsletter at:

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