My Week as a Waiter, by Frank Bruni, Jan. 25, 2006

“It’s 7:45 p.m., the East Coast Grill is going full tilt and I’m ready to throttle one of the six diners at Table M-8.

He wants me to describe the monkfish special. For the fourth time. I hoarsely oblige, but when I return yet again to my riff on the apricot lager mustard, which comes right before my oratorical ode to the maple pecan mashed sweet potatoes, his attention flags and he starts to talk to a friend.

Does he mistake me for a recorded message, paused and played with the push of a button? Doesn’t he know I have other tables to serve?

I need to go over and massage the mood at R-5, where one of the two diners has a suspiciously shallow pool of broth in her bouillabaisse, perhaps because I spilled some of it near M-2.

And I need to redeem myself with the two diners at X-9, who quizzed me about what the restaurant had on tap and received a blank stare in response. I’m supposed to remember the beers? Along with everything about the monkfish, these oddly coded table references, more than 10 wines by the glass and the provenance of the house oysters?

I had no idea.

I usually spend my nights on the other side of the table, not only asking the questions and making the demands but also judging and, I concede, taking caustic little mental notes. And it’s been 20 years since I walked in a waiter’s shoes, something I did for only six months.

But last week I traded places and swapped perspectives, a critic joining the criticized, to get a taste of what servers go through and what we put them through, of how they see and survive us. My ally was Chris Schlesinger, a well-known cook and author who owns the East Coast Grill, in Cambridge, Mass., and has no business interests in New York. So that my presence in the restaurant wouldn’t become public knowledge, he introduced me to his staff as a freelance writer named Gavin doing a behind-the-scenes article to be placed in a major publication.

In some ways this restaurant, which opened in 1985 and specializes in fresh seafood and barbecue, was an easy assignment. Its service ethic is casual, so I didn’t have to sweat many niceties. Its food is terrific, so diners don’t complain all that much.

But its pace can be frenetic, and servers have little room to maneuver among 100 or so tightly spaced seats.

From Monday through Saturday, I worked the dinner shift, showing up by 3:30 and usually staying past 11. I took care of just a few diners at first and many more as the week progressed.

And I learned that for servers in a restaurant as busy as the East Coast Grill, waiting tables isn’t a job. It’s a back-straining, brain-addling, sanity-rattling siege.

MONDAY — Pop Quiz and Chop Chop

Every day at 4 p.m., the servers take a pop quiz. This afternoon’s questions include ones on how the restaurant acquires its oysters and the color, texture and taste of mahi-mahi.

Before and after the quiz they tackle chores: moving furniture, hauling tubs of ice from the basement, folding napkins. I pitch in by chopping limes into quarters and lemons into eighths. I chop and chop. My fingers go slightly numb.

The servers range in age from their early 20’s to their late 40’s. Some go to school or hold other jobs on the side. Many would like to do less physically demanding work. All would like to earn more money.

If they put in a full schedule of four prime shifts a week, they might make $45,000 a year before taxes. Almost all of it is from tips. They wonder if diners realize that.

Bryan, a young server with whom I’m training, brings me up to speed on the crazy things diners do. They let their children run rampant, a peril to the children as well as the servers. They assume that the first table they are shown to is undesirable and insist on a different one, even if it’s demonstrably less appealing. They decline to read what’s in front of them and want to hear all their options. Servers disparagingly call this a ‘menu tour.’

I acquire a new vocabulary. To ‘verbalize the funny’ is to tell the kitchen about a special request. ‘Campers’ are people who linger forever at tables. ‘Verbal tippers’ are people who offer extravagant praise in lieu of 20 percent.

The doors open at 5:30 and soon two women are seated at L-3. They interrogate Bryan at great length about the monkfish, which, in changing preparations, will be a special all week long. He delivers a monkfish exegesis; they seem rapt.

They order the mahi-mahi and the swordfish.

‘It’s amazing,’ Bryan tells me, ‘how unadventurous people are.’

How unpredictable, too. During a later stretch, Bryan has a man and a woman at L-3 and two men at L-4. The tables are adjacent and the diners receive the same degree of attention. The men at L-4 leave $85 for a check of $72 — a tip of about 18 percent.

L-3’s check is $58, and Bryan sees the man put down a stack of bills. Then, as the man gets up from the table, the woman shakes her head and removes $5. The remaining tip is $4, or about 7 percent.

TUESDAY — Ice, Ice Baby

I’m shadowing Tina, who has worked at the East Coast Grill for decades and seen it all. She is handling the same section Bryan did. She offers a psychological profile of a woman sitting alone at L-3, who declared the chocolate torte too rich and announced, only after draining her margarita, that it had too much ice.

‘Some people are interested in having the experience of being disappointed,’ Tina says.

Some people are worse. Arthur, a young server who is fairly new to the restaurant, recalls a man who walked in and announced that he had a reservation, a statement Arthur distrusted. The East Coast Grill doesn’t take reservations.

Arthur tried to finesse the situation by saying he was unaware of the reservation but hadn’t worked over the previous three days.

‘You haven’t worked in three days?’ the man said, according to Arthur’s recollection. ‘You’re going to go far in life!’

At about 9:30, a half-hour before the kitchen stops accepting orders, I take my first table, two women and a man. I ask them if they want to know about the half-dozen specials.

‘We want to know everything,’ the man says.

The statement is like a death knell. I mention the monkfish, but forget to say that it comes with a sweet shrimp and mango salsa. I mention the fried scallops, and I’m supposed to say they’re from New Bedford, Mass. But that detail eludes me, so I stammer, ‘Um, they’re not heavily breaded or anything.’ They seem puzzled by my vagueness and poised to hear more. I’ve got nothing left.

What unnerves me most is trying to gauge their mood. Sometimes they smile when I circle back to check on them. Sometimes they glare.

In addition to dexterity, poise and a good memory, a server apparently needs to be able to read minds.

WEDNESDAY — Who Really Needs a Drink?

I’m under Jess’s wing. She’s young, funny and generous with her encouragement. That final quality turns out to be crucial, because after I greet four diners at M-7, I’m informed that one of them has an affiliation with the Culinary Institute of America.

As I walk toward them with a bowl of house pickles, which is the East Coast Grill’s equivalent of a bread basket, my hand shakes and several pickles roll under their table. I can’t tell if they notice.

But I can tell they don’t trust me. I’m tentative as I recite the specials, and I ask one of them if he wants another Diet Coke. He’s drinking beer. They all look at me as if I’m a moron.

Jess tells me that enthusiasm is more important than definitive knowledge, that many diners simply want a server to help them get excited about something.

‘You’ve got to fake it until you make it,’ she says.

I take her pep talk to heart, perhaps too much so. I handle three men at M-6, one of whom asks, ‘Between the pulled pork platter and the pork spareribs, which would you do?’

I tell him I’d change course and head toward the pork chop.

‘It’s that good?’ he says.

‘It’s amazing,’ I say. I’ve never had it, but I’ve seen it. It’s big, and so is he.

He later tells me, ‘Dude, you so steered me right on that pork chop.’

I serve four young women at M-9. They order, among other dishes, the ‘wings of mass destruction.’ Per the restaurant’s script, I warn them away from it, pronouncing it too hot to handle. They press on and survive.

One of them later wonders aloud whether to have the superhot “martini from hell,” made with peppered Absolut. I didn’t even know it was on the menu before she mentioned it.

‘Why worry?’ I say. ‘With those wings, you climbed Everest. The martini’s like a bunny slope.’

She orders it and drinks it and she and her friends leave a 22 percent tip (which, like all the tips I receive, will be given to the other servers). The three men at M-6 leave 20 percent.

Have I become a service God?

THURSDAY — I’m Really Allergic to Tips

Divinity must wait.

It’s on this night that I spill bouillabaisse, confront my limited beer knowledge and silently curse Mr. Monkfish at M-8. I move up to an evening-long total of eight tables comprising 20 diners; on Wednesday I served five tables and 17 diners.

I encounter firsthand an annoyance that other servers have told me about: the diner who claims an allergy that doesn’t really exist. A woman at X-10, which is a table for two, or a ‘two top,’ repeatedly sends me to the kitchen for information on the sugar content of various rubs, relishes and sauces.

But when I ask her whether her allergy is to refined sugar only or to natural sugars as well, she hems, haws and downgrades her condition to a blood sugar concern, which apparently doesn’t extend to the sparkling wine she is drinking.

She orders the sirloin skewers, requesting that their marginally sweet accouterments be put on a separate plate, away from her beef but available to her boyfriend. He rolls his eyes.

Pinging from table to table, I repeatedly forget to ask diners whether they want their tuna rare or medium and whether they want their margaritas up or on the rocks. I occasionally forget to put all the relevant information — prices, special requests, time of submission — on my ordering tickets.

At least everyone at M-8, including Mr. Monkfish, seems content. As I talk to one of the women in the group, another server noisily drops a plate bound for a nearby table. A rib-eye steak special skids to a halt at the woman’s feet.

‘Is that the cowboy?’ she says, using the special’s advertised name. ‘That looks really good!’

About an hour later M-8’s spirits aren’t so high. They’re motioning for me, and it’s a scary kind of motioning. The two credit cards I’ve returned to them aren’t the ones they gave me.

One of my last tables is a couple at X-1. They take a bossy tone with me, so when the woman asks if it’s possible to get the coconut shrimp in the pu pu platter á la carte, I automatically apologize and say that it’s not.

It turns out that I’m right. (I guiltily check a few minutes later.) It also turns out that servers make such independent decisions and proclamations, based on the way diners have treated them, all the time.

FRIDAY — Do Not Jump the Shark

Apparently everything up to now has been child’s play. Business will double tonight. People will stand three deep at the bar, closing lanes of traffic between the kitchen and some of the tables.

‘Like a shark,’ Chris Schlesinger tells us, ‘you’ve got to keep moving or you die.’

My chaperone is Christa, who’s as down to earth and supportive as Jess. She’s supposed to watch and inevitably rescue me as I try to tackle an entire section of five tables, each of which will have at least two seatings, or ‘turns.’

By 7:30, all of these tables are occupied, and all have different needs at the same time. One man wants to know his tequila choices. I just learned the beers that afternoon.

Another man wants directions to a jazz club. Someone else wants me to instruct the kitchen to take the tuna in one dish and prepare it like the mahi-mahi in another. That’s a funny I’ll have to verbalize, a few extra seconds I can’t spare.

I’ve developed a cough. It threatens to erupt as I talk to three diners at M-6. Big problem. I obviously can’t cough into my hand, which touches their plates, but I can’t cough into the air either. I press my lips together as my chest heaves. I feel as if I’m suffocating.

The kitchen accepts orders at least until 10:30 on Fridays and Saturdays. I’m dealing with diners until 11. By then I’ve been on my feet for more than six hours.

Over the course of the night I have surrendered only two tables and six diners to Christa. I have taken care of 11 tables and 32 diners myself. Except I haven’t, not really. When my tables needed more water, Christa often got it. When they needed new silverware, she fetched it, because I never noticed.

Truth be told, I wasn’t so good about napkin replacement either.

SATURDAY — Feeding the Hordes

My last chance. My last test. The restaurant ended up serving 267 diners on Friday night. It will serve 346 tonight.

Between 5:30 and 5:50, I get five tables, each of which needs to be given water, pickles, a recitation of the specials and whatever coddling I can muster.

The couple at one table want a prolonged menu tour. I’m toast.

Once again I try to tackle an entire section, seven tables in all. Dave is my minder. He tells me to make clear to diners that they need to be patient.

‘If you don’t control the dynamic, they will,’ he says.

I don’t control the dynamic. Around 6:30 I ask him to take over a table I’ve started. As some diners leave and new ones take their places, I ask him to take over a few more tables.

I deliver a second vodka on the rocks with a splash of Kahlúa to a woman at L-9. Before I can even put it down, she barks, ‘There’s too much Kahlúa in that!’ Nice to know you, too, ma’am.

I do some things right. I point a couple at L-6 toward the tuna taco, because by now I’ve tasted it and I know it’s fantastic. They love it and tell me they love me, a verbal tip supplemented by 17 percent. The next couple at L-6 barely talk to me, seek and receive much less care and leave a tip of over 50 percent. Go figure.

I do many things wrong. I fail to wipe away crumbs. I don’t write the time on one ticket. I write M-12 instead of L-12 on another, creating a table that doesn’t exist.

Around 8:45, my shirt damp with perspiration, I hide for five minutes in a service corridor, where I dip into the staff’s stash of chocolate bars. Then I suck on a wedge of lemon, a little trick I learned from Bryan, to freshen my breath.

By the end of the night I’ve served a total of 15 tables comprising 38 people. Some of these people were delightful, and most tipped well, keeping my weeklong average — for a comparatively light load of tables — at about 18 percent.

Some weren’t so great. They supported an observation that Dave made about restaurants being an unflattering prism for human behavior.

‘People are hungry, and then they’re drinking,’ he noted. ‘Two of the worst states that people can be in.’

I recall a young woman at a six-top who bounced in her seat as she said, in a loud singsong voice: ‘Where’s our sangria? Where’s our sangria?’ Her sangria was on the way, although she didn’t seem to need it, and the bouncing wasn’t going to make it come any faster.

Around 11:30 all the servers are treated to a shot of tequila. I drink mine instantly. I’m exhausted. I’ll still feel worn out two days later, when I chat briefly on the telephone with Jess, Christa and Dave, who by that point know the full truth about me.

‘I think you got a good sense,’ Dave says.

I think so, too, if he’s talking about trying to be fluent in the menu and the food, calm in the face of chaos, patient in the presence of rudeness, available when diners want that, invisible when they don’t.

It’s a lot, and I should remember that. But I’d still like frequent water refills. And a martini from hell. Straight up.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of The New York Times, Critics Notebook, “My Week as a Waiter,” by Frank Bruni, Jan. 25, 2006

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