|Is five minutes long enough? Ten?|
There was a table by the window, so my friend and I took seats and watched the waitress at the other end of the restaurant talk on her cell phone while polishing silverware with a rag. She looked over in our direction without an acknowledgment. I realized at that moment that we wouldn't be eating there.
This joint is legendary for its "casual" (read: mediocre) service, even on its best day, so I might have cut the waitress some slack. But my friend Truman -- who was a waiter for over two decades -- doesn't suffer unprofessional servers very well. He looked down at his watch. "After seven minutes, we're leaving," he said.
Seven minutes, I thought? Why not, say, 10? Or five? What is the proper wait time in this situation, when you're seated at a table, you know the server knows you're there, the restaurant isn't busy and you are hungry and getting irritable?
As a former waiter, I was trained to operate on this principle: No matter how busy you were, you had five minutes to, at the very least, acknowledge customers at a table, promising them full attention in a couple of minutes. I mean, a restaurant isn't a physician's office. It's one thing for your internist to keep you stewing in the waiting room, but restaurants are a very different situation. Hungry customers have short fuses, and waiting tables is a commission business. Contented customers are better tippers.
I looked over at the waitress, who didn't seem very motivated to get her ass out of her chair and walk toward our table. Maybe it was the end of her shift, I thought, and she was tired or over it. Clearly she had some passive-aggressive issues, not to mention a complete lack of professionalism -- even if this joint was kind of a dump.
I got my early busboy training at restaurants that weren't kind-of dumps -- they were dumps. And the waitresses -- tough as nails and total pros -- laid down the law to me in no uncertain terms: The minute a customer sits down, you bring over water. If they want coffee, you get 'em coffee. "And smile, baby," said one of the toughest birds. "Smile like you mean it."
Back on 39th Street, I realized we had stumbled into a game. The server was going to see just how long she could take before strolling over to our table -- or before we got up to leave. After seven minutes, Truman announced that the game was over and we were leaving. We got up, walked out the door and went to a different restaurant where we were greeted, seated and served beverages in less time than it took Miss Thing to put down her cell phone.
And the staff smiled like they meant it.