Sunday, October 02, 2005


Restaurant etiquette question

Here's a question for those of you who have food service experience.

Suppose that person A and person B are dining together. Suppose person B acts toward the server in a manner to which the the server could take offense.

For example, suppose person B asks for tea and is told there is only black tea, which person B doesn't drink. Person B then observes a diner at another table being offered herbal tea, which is what person B wanted all along. Person B then asks the server, "do you have herbal tea?" Suppose that, justifiably put out by the incident, person B happens to ask that question with a certain facial expression. It's a facial expression like the one Larry David uses on Curb Your Enthusiasm when he thinks someone is lying to his face: a piercing stare, with the face moving slowly toward the face of the alleged liar in a slight corkscrewing motion.

Are you with me? Here's my question: is person A, in those circumstances, more likely to get a "spitter" because person B has offended the server? By spitter, I mean any unpleasant adulteration of the meal he is to be served, as an intentional revenge move made behind the scenes in the kitchen. It could be spit, but really anything gross will fit the definition.

Person A wants to know whether the risk of getting a spitter is serious enough to warrant a cautionary conversation with person B, which will entail certain costs of its own...

I never actually witnessed a spitter in the restaurants where I worked, nor any other unpleasant adulteration of the food. It's definitely less common than popularly believed.

Nevertheless, you're probably pretty safe, especially if you screw on a sympathetic face and an "Oh my God, I know" rueful smile. The server will feel like, "oh, good, I can still get a sympathy tip off this table." Server avarice is the key to food safety.
What can happen in kitchens happens — without revenge as a motive, I think.
eg When I was in college, I worked in an expensive restaurant one summer and saw the cook routinely formed prime rib breakfast hash by throwing the portion onto his dirty apron front and molding it. I left after a week, so can't give you more everyday stories. Just relax and hope for the best!
I worked briofly as a short order cook in a snobby London club, and also for several years behind a counter at a coffeehouse. Bottom line: if B pissed off the server, then the result is that the entire restaurant is at risk -- not of deliberate adulteration, but of indifference (oh, it fell on floor? ah, just slap it back on the plate). in other words, the reaction on the part of the server is usually general disgust with the entire world, not vengeance on the specific table.
I waited tables for 8 or 9 years and I never saw or heard of anyone spitting in food. I don't think it happens too often. I did have a member of the country club I worked at ask me to spit in his mother-in-law's food once but I declined.

I think that in your situation the only result would be that both A and B would get bad service. For me it was all economics. If a table let on that they thought I screwed up or didn't like me for some reason, I assumed I was going to get a bad tip from them no matter what I did from then on. So I would consider it a lost cause and concentrate on my other tables that I thought were more likely to give me a good tip. I wouldn't have been outright rude to A and B but I would put them on the back burner. I wouldn't do anything for them until all of my other tables had everything they needed.
When I worked in food service it would never have occurred to me to spit in anyone's food. I was only 15 at the time, and hadn't seen any films where the food servers took revenge on customers, and I hadn't lost my innocence about the workplace (I thought my manager's stealing my tips was really "taking her cut" as she explained it to me).

All my other food serving has been done to family members, and I tend NOT to want to make them ill afterwards, because I'm also on call for cleaning THAT up, too.
When I was a waiter, I never spit in food or did anything else that would constitute a health hazard. What I did do was provide lousy service. There's a point where it's obvious that you're getting shafted a tip anyways, so why break your back bringing refills and extra sauces? That said, in this situation, the sensible waiter would see that it is only one jackass at a table, not a whole table of jackasses. It's when the whole table is rude and demanding that service will suffer. So long as it's just one person, I agree with Matthew. Give the server a look that says, "Yeah, my friend is a tool, sorry."
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I am doing a paper on restaurant etiquette. What are the most annoying and aggravating things that customers do?
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