From the moment you walk into a restaurant, the waitstaff is evaluating you and your party. They want to figure out your mood, your intentions for the experience, and what you do or don’t like. Throughout the meal, they’ll be looking for visual clues, listening for verbal cues, and watching your body language. Their goal is to make the meal as enjoyable as possible (which, of course, they hope will lead to you tipping well and returning for another meal). But what signals are you unconsciously and consciously sending, and how do servers react?
To find out how waitstaff read a table to give you the best service, we spoke with two seasoned servers, Ike Jackson Jr. of Red Fish Grill in New Orleans, Louisiana, who has been in the business for 13 years, and Julian Rojas, a 15-year veteran who has been at Bourbon Steak Washington, D.C., for the past eight years. Read on and watch how great servers watch you the next time you dine at a restaurant on OpenTable.
Giving instant attention
The first rule for a server is to immediately introduce themselves and interact with the guests — that way they can get an initial read of the table and begin to plot out how the meal should unfold. “As soon as they sit down, I try to be Johnny-on-the-spot,” says Jackson. “If you’re late to the table, they’re ticked off from the start and you’re working from a minority position.”
It’s all about determining whether guests want to be finished quickly or plan on lingering so the server can pace the meal properly and tailor their service accordingly. To figure it out, the server will look at how people are dressed, listen to what they’re discussing, and gauge who’s in the party. “If it’s a business meal, it’ll be fast and they don’t want us to interrupt,” says Rojas. “If it’s friends or family, they’re often willing to have an experience with us, so we spend more time talking with them, interacting, and entertaining.”
Assessing the occasion
Though many guests will leave a note in their OpenTable reservation to inform the restaurant that their meal is marking a special occasion, it doesn’t always happen. So, if guests are dressed up or look like they’re in party mode, the server will always ask if they’re celebrating something. “If they are, we treat them extra well,” says Rojas, “because you want them to have a good experience and you don’t want to ruin their special event.” [Ed. Note: Save your server a step, and use those notes, folks.]
Analyzing facial cues
As a guest reads over the menu, servers will watch their expressions and head movements. If there are frowns, furrowed brows, or small shakes of the head, it probably means they don’t see anything they like or are otherwise unenthusiastic. “Sometimes you’ve got to encourage them,” says Jackson. “I like to bust the menu wide open and tell them about everything we’ve got. After finding out what they like, I try to point them in the right direction.”
Watching for slow sipping
Not sipping your drink that much? A good server will take note. “I’ll go and ask if they’re all right with it,” says Rojas. “If they only say it’s good, that’s not good enough. I want to hear great. If they don’t like it, I’ll ask a few questions to see what they prefer and then change it without hesitation.”
Noticing untouched food
If someone isn’t eating their dish or is pushing the food around, that’s a cue for a server to ask if the guest is enjoying it. If they don’t, the server will offer to exchange it immediately. “We’re always happy to make you happy,” says Rojas, “because sometimes a steak isn’t cooked the way you wanted it or a dish doesn’t taste as you imagined it would.”
Listening for hesitation
Sometimes a guest will eat a dish they’re not truly liking. “If I ask a guest if they’re enjoying the food and they hesitate, I know something is going on,” says Jackson. “Then I need to find out what it is. I want to give them the confidence to tell me. I want them to know it’s easy for us to change a dish or give them other options. I don’t want them to feel bad, so I tell them we do it all the time.”
Looking out for looking up
The number one thing a server watches for over the course of the meal from start to finish is a guest looking up or peering around the dining room because it probably means they need service. “That’s why servers have to be where the guest can see them,” says Jackson. “If you look my way, I’m going to come over.”
Have you ever been a server? Let us know how you read tables to give better service here or over on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter. And, remember to snap + share your #dishpics with us on Instagram for a chance to win in our weekly giveaway.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.