What do servers at fine dining restaurants know that we don’t? Plenty. It’s their job to ensure we have the best possible experience when we dine out. But servers are only part of the equation. Receiving flawless service also depends on the guest. We turned the tables to hear from some top servers to learn how to the get most out of every meal. Read on for server secrets.
When it comes to fine dining, your server is a pro. You might be surprised to know how much training goes into the job. Mickey Bakst is the general manager at Charleston Grill in Charleston, South Carolina. He says no one who works at Charleston Grill has waited tables for less than five years, and all worked their way up. His servers put in years of training and they get together weekly to discuss wines. Even on their nights off, they go out to eat and drink, in order to keep an eye on what’s going on at other establishments.
Communication is key, but there’s a right way and a wrong way. Should a guest ask “what’s good” on the menu? According to Keegan Cin a server at Mélisse in Santa Monica, California, probably not. He says it’s a hard question to answer since it all depends on taste and preference. And more importantly, especially at a fine dining restaurant, all the dishes on the menu should be good.
Sam Hylton a server at Michael Mina in San Francisco, California, believes it’s better to ask which dishes would work well together or which ones are richer versus lighter. Also, ask what’s new and what might be seasonal versus available on the menu more consistently.
Michael O’Heir, the captain at The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, prizes communication and encourages diners to ask questions. Inquire as to what’s popular; servers are more than happy to answer that. Keep in mind that a lot of restaurants go to great lengths to use special ingredients, and the server knows a lot about what’s on the menu so you should always ask about an unfamiliar ingredient. And, if you’re not completely happy with your options or selection? O’Heir says, “We’re always happy to make adjustments. We’ll bend over backward. It’s better to communicate sooner rather than later.”
Some communication is non-verbal. The best way to let your server know you’re ready to order? According to Hylton, “Closed menus will get my attention quickly. There’s really no better way to communicate to your server that you’re ready.” Michael Procopio a server at Kokkari Estiatorio in San Francisco states, “If you keep your nose buried in the menu, I will assume you haven’t yet decided.” More non-verbal communication? Notes Procopio, “Don’t even try to snap your fingers at me— you won’t like what happens to you as a result.”
Your server wields the power to make your dining meal as good as it can be — but only if you let them. Patty Holladay, a server at John Ash & Co in Santa Rosa, California, advises, “Don’t be hesitant to speak up when the server comes to check on you after you have taken a few bites of your dinner; if you are not enjoying it we have a whole kitchen full of other options. We want you to leave happy and satisfied.”
Most communication is best done as early as possible, especially if you have special requests or allergies. In fact, some requests are better shared before you even get to the restaurant. Hylton says that allergies should be communicated as soon as possible since there are many hidden components to the dishes at Michael Mina. Calling ahead is greatly appreciated to confirm if any special request can be met.
Another time to call ahead? When you want something truly out of the ordinary, for example, if you are planning a proposal. The Inn at Little Washington is a particularly romantic restaurant and they pull out all the stops for proposals. Says O’Heir, “As soon as they let us know, we do an arrangement with roses and set the ring in a spun sugar dome. We can present that at any time. If they let us know, we can make it pretty spectacular.” Want to go above and beyond? That’s no problem. O’Heir says he’s seen the restaurant go so far as to hide proposal teasers on a custom menu, some based on song lyrics.
Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, blogger, and cookbook author. She is the publisher of the food blog Cooking with Amy. She currently contributes to numerous online publications including Food Network, Fodor’s and Refinery 29 and never says no to a warm donut. Follow her @cookingwithamy.