Last Saturday I volunteered as a server and wine steward at the Matthews Estate Valentine’s dinner in Woodinville. It was an opportunity to keep my server and customer service skills sharp. As a journalist covering the restaurant industry, it’s my job’s version of continuing education.
I worked under the direction of Eric Swikard and Jenna Barnett, who are engaged to each other, appropriate for the Valentine’s dinner. Swikard, the brand ambassador for Matthews' sister winery Tenor, was in charge of the wines. Barnett was the chef for the night. Together they are Ken and Barbie but with substance and a refined palate to boot.
Swikard leaned over during dinner service to rhetorically ask, “Isn’t she the most beautiful chef?”
Saturday’s dinner was a reminder of proper dining etiquette. It is also a reminder of the rigors of the restaurant industry. Timing and teamwork are of the essence. Patience and pressure tug at each other all night. Anticipation of guests’ needs as well as sensing their apprehensions is critical to successful service.
It’s humbling to experience dining from the producer’s perspective. And I only had to pour wine and clear plates for 24 guests. My hat’s off to restaurant professionals around the world.
And that’s the first dining etiquette observation and a personal pet peeve; please remove your hat when you sit down to dinner. I get it, you think you look cool in your hipster knit cap or period fedora. You don’t. And it’s rude. Hats were created to protect men and women from the elements. Don’t bring the elements tableside. The attention it brings to your table is unbecoming.
Also unbecoming is waving arms, screaming across the room or snapping fingers to get the attention of your server. It is not advised unless you want soup on your fly--the fly on your pants. Most experienced servers are adept at reading tables, picking up on cues whether guests require attention or privacy. If your table requires attention, make eye contact with your server or gently flag the closest front of house staff and ask for your server.
While addressing servers, don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to your mother. Lewd, crude, misogynistic, condescending, offensive or oppressive language is off-limits. Treat the staff with respect and the service will reflect that.
Much of the arm waving and finger snapping are by guests who think they are neglected. Serving a round table of eight guests calls for etiquette. Women are served first followed by the men. Call it chivalry, call it old-fashioned--I call it proper manners. Gentlemen, I did not forget you. Your wine glass will be filled after all the ladies’ glasses are filled.
About the wine: drink responsibly. Know your limit lest your companions know you don’t know your limit. At winemaker dinners odds are there will be plenty of wine. Pace yourself. There will be plenty of wine if you want to revisit a particular wine later.
At finer restaurants with dedicated wine programs, wine is often served in fine crystal glassware with large bowls. Wine glasses will be poured a third, even a quarter full of 5 to 6 ounces of wine. I prefer 5 ounces of wine in a large wine glass than 5 ounces in a small glass filled to the rim. The large bowl allows the wine to aerate, open up and grow in complexity. You are not being stiffed when your wine glass is a third or a quarter full. It doesn’t mean you are a pessimist, either. Once you are done with your first glass, politely ask for a refill. Most restaurants will oblige unless you appear intoxicated.
To help pace your drinking, eat the food. I know it sounds like obvious advice. Unfortunately, guests who drink more than they eat present symptoms of intoxication by about the third course.
Make reservations if a restaurant offers the option, even when you think there will be plenty of tables available when you arrive. Most restaurants will hold a table up to 15 minutes after the reservation time. If you are running late, call the restaurant to advise them of your schedule.
When making reservations detail dietary preferences, restrictions and allergies. Most restaurants will be accommodating. The more notice you give the restaurant, the more accommodating they can be.
Should you decide against dining at that restaurant, cancel your reservation as soon as possible. Failing to cancel your reservation is like committing to your college roommate’s wedding and failing to attend.
Much like you had to coexist with college roommates, be mindful of your dining neighbors. That means speak in the appropriate volume, don’t answer your mobile phone and refrain from excessive perfume or cologne. Diners around you probably don’t want to hear about your job, business deal, romantic life or family life.
“Don’t wear so much perfume or cologne so people can enjoy the smells and tastes of the food,” said Faith Ramos, who has worked in fine dining restaurants across the country, including Campagne at the Pike Place Market. “You are at the restaurant to enjoy the food.”
Graciously leave at a reasonable time. Don’t overstay. Just like you wouldn’t want guests you entertain in your home to stay two hours past your bedtime, you don’t want to be the restaurant guest who is left two hours after everyone else has left. If you are thinking, “But, who would …?" Yes, that happens more regularly than you would think.
The end of this column brings me to the end of the evening; remember to tip your servers. For the record, I do not accept payment (including gratuity) when I work functions such as last Saturday’s dinner.
Restaurant professionals work extremely hard. Front of house staff are often paid minimum wage. They rely on gratuity to make a living. Furthermore, they are required to tip back the host/ess, bus people, the wine team and in some cases the kitchen staff.
Your gratuity is critical to a balanced restaurant ecology. Around 18 percent is standard these days. Restaurant professionals are consistently the most generous tippers, sometimes leaving 33 percent and in some extreme cases 50 percent gratuity. If the service warrants it, don’t be afraid to be generous. It’s good karma.