Art of Service

Being a waiter or waitress is a challenging job

Some of my best friends are and have been waitrons. That's a term my friend Michael Cameron coined at least 20 years ago for waiters and waitresses when he was one himself. I have a soft spot for 'em--not simply because it was one of my favorite jobs or because my first serious boyfriend was one, or even because I know they are among the best Scrabble players around. It's because they have a tough job; they must be intelligent, organized and informative, thoughtful and courteous, on their feet and constantly in the present, willing to deal with a new boss each time one of "us" walks in the door ... and--on top of everything else--read our minds.

Now, I know that some of you are taking a deep breath and beginning to mutter about the last time you waited 20 minutes for a menu, received the wrong entrée or got something under- or overcooked. Perhaps your waitress wasn't prepared to be your best friend and seemed distracted, or the waiter gave you just a little too much information about himself when all you wanted to get was get a drink.

We've all had those experiences. Chill, bro, as the Enlightened Godson R.D. would say.

I remember being in a fave restaurant one night (loved for its food, if not always its service, I must say), in line at the desk behind someone, now deceased, who was loudly declaiming his importance as chief of staff in what seemed at the time to be the regularly changing office of Arizona governor. He was demanding a table for his party, and access to a phone. He was advised to wait for the table and referred to the pay phone outside the restaurant. I immediately decided the service was better than I'd ever credited it as being. There were things I simply--as a customer--didn't understand.

Let's fast-forward to a time and restaurant I am crazy about. My friend Bill Sklar recommended Tavolino to me, and I am in his debt for that. Tavolino is in the shopping center on the southeast corner of Ina and Oracle roads. Owned and operated by Deborah and Massimo Tenino, it has but 15 tables, which seat a max of 50 people at a time. On a great night, they turn all those tables over between 5:30 and 9 p.m. I can promise that you would be fortunate to occupy one of those seats in that 3 1/2-hour period. The food is superb and interesting, the atmosphere intimate. Later this month, Tavolino will celebrate its first anniversary.

At least as important as its kitchen--and, OK, I am jaded--is its front-of-the-house service. The first time Andrew and I went to Tavolino, we were warmly greeted, seated and almost immediately advised of a "must-have" special. When we ordered an antipasti, our waiter thoughtfully suggested a different one, promising it would be one of the best things we'd ever eaten. He was right. He was also gently insistent and absolutely on-target about the wine. What particularly caught me about all this was not simply that it was great service in a terrific restaurant, but that it was his first night as a waiter at Tavolino. Throughout our meal, different servers and staff members came over to refresh our water, pour more wine, present and clear plates--all of it in an uncloying and entirely gracious manner. And all of it in a team-like fashion.

Earlier this week, I sat down with a big part of that team--including some rookies in their first week of work there--to chat about what they do and why they do it so well. Dominique Stoller, Marianne Job and Melissa Colosimo--all in their 20s--not only went to the same high school, but have shared a house. Those experiences, they agree, have made it much easier to work almost seamlessly together. They share a similar outlook on the work.

"What I love about this work is the interaction with people, with the clients ... getting to know them, their likes and dislikes, being able to anticipate what they want," said Colosimo, who has worked in several restaurants since she was 15. "When you can make someone happy, it's great. When someone is rude to you, it's a challenge." And how does she handle that? "I decide to kill them with kindness," she laughed.

"It's like a family," added Stoller. "We know most of our customers, and we enjoy working together. We're all friends. ... After this summer, people would bring in photos of their trips ... we have postcards in the back that customers sent us while they were away on vacation."

"One of the criteria we had when we started," said Deborah Tenino, "was that we wanted the people who work here to remember names and faces; we wanted this to be a 'neighborhood' restaurant. It's something we focused on when we were doing interviews."

Another key question for prospective hires: Did they themselves enjoy going out to dinner? Did they do it often? Remembering people, liking the dynamics of interaction, enjoying dining experiences--these maybe not the most conventional interview questions for just any job, but certainly dead-on requirements for making memorable experiences for "us," their customers. It separates the OK from the great.

Speaking of "us," what's the worst we can do, in their eyes? You probably think the answer has something to do with tipping, and while that's of common-sense importance, it's really not the biggest thing. It's all about our willingness to interact, to ask questions, be attentive and take advantage of the professionalism and knowledge we're offered. Not entering in to the relationship, so to speak, is the deal-breaker. And importantly, says the indomitable Claudia at FioRito's, be willing to experiment and try something new: "Don't always order the spaghetti."

Trust your server, because most of the time, they are smarter than you--about a lot of things. Last week, I found myself at La Paloma with family at the very formal Tucson Symphony Cotillion, where my niece, Shelby, was being presented. Being a good uncle and an engaging table partner, I poured a half-glass of wine for Charlie, my nephew, 15, and another for Shelby's escort, who is maybe a couple of years older. I then excused myself for a few minutes to talk with friends at another table. When I got back to the table, the boys' glasses had vanished. "Drink them so fast?" I asked Charlie. "No," he said, turning to look at a banquet server working nearby. "She took them away." I looked up at her and she looked at me and half-smiled, and went back to her work.

A few days later, I talked with Cynthia Clare, who has been in the food biz for 23 years, a decade of them at La Paloma. While "'Yes' is the answer" is the Westin slogan, "no" is the correct response for thinking a public space is the same as a private home when offering alcohol to minors. And Cynthia Clare said "no" in the nicest, most-unobtrusive way--she simply did her job without making a fuss about it. This must be one of the reasons Clare has received the Wings of the Dove for service excellence in each of the past eight years. "It's important to give people the best you can," she said to me the other day.

Seems simple, hey?

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