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The Professional Waiter: A Guide to Good Service

Updated on December 11, 2009

Greeting the Customer

Probably the single most important part of service is the greeting.

It must, above all, be prompt. There is no substitute for greeting a table immediately after they have been seated.

Even if the waiter does not have the time to actually take an order, he must make the effort to greet any new table in his section within a minute of their being seated. Actually, a minute is still a long time to a patron who's just been seated. On their minds is the first drink, the first bite of food.

Patrons are not concerned with how busy the waiter might be, so no matter how busy he is, the waiter must figure out a way to stop by and greet the table. This might mean simply stopping at the table while on the way to another with a fully laden tray. This let's the new customer know that they have been reconized while also letting them know that the waiter is busy.

Diners will instinctively understand that they'll have to wait a few more minutes while he serves the other folks' food. After all, they would want and actually expect the same sort of treatment when their food is coming out.

After greeting the customers, the waiter's next most important task is to get something--food for sure, and alcohol if desired) going at the table. This usually means drinks, and in the U.S. invariably means that water and some sort of bread or chips will be delivered without asking.

A trend these days in 'upscale' restaurants has been the presentation of an 'amuse bouche' (means: "to amuse the mouth"), consisting of a small but tasty morsel of food immediately after the patron places their order.  

Since alcohol is a major factor in helping people enjoy their dining experience, getting a first rounds of drinks to the table quickly will help set the mood and give the waiter time to get a food order and get that going as quickly as possible.

As important to the experience as alcohol might be, it is the food that patrons came for.

Any delay in the beginning is magnified by the drinks and the fact that patrons are hungry, so the objective of the waiter should be to get some food to the table in no less than ten minutes after the arrival.

Ten minutes is an absolute eternity for hungry people who are smelling other people's food all around them, so promptness is the most certain road to good service and good tips as well.

Behind the Scenes in a Restaurant

The Line
The Line

Taking Charge of the Table

One of the first and most important tasks a good waiter must accomplish is taking charge of the table. A good waiter will not simply greet the table and depart, but will make it clear to everyone that his job and their food both depend on good communication.

Good communication is directed. Not controlled, but directed in a way that is efficient and unmistakably clear.

Being efficient in communication means that the waiter, who has to take the order, after all, must be able to get some specific information from the patron in order to serve them properly. Getting that information, and getting it right means that the waiter has to be in control of the conversation. Of course, they have to do it in such a way that looks to the patron like they are the ones in control.

After all, the patron has the information about what they want, right?

Often, no. In fact, this is often a major reason for going out. We don't know what we want. Exactly. I mean we know we want pizza, or steak, or pasta. But what kind of pizza, which steak and what kind of sauce we like on our pasta? Of course, there are folk who always know what they want. They always order the pepperoni, with extra cheese, the medium rare sirloin with A1, the spaghetti and meatballs.

But a lot of people go out to eat precisely because they don't know exactly what they are going to have that day or evening. They want to be tempted, teased by aromas and sounds, seduced into the evening's special. Knowing what you want removes some of the magic of eating out, or at least in some situations it diminishes the possibility of a new and different experience.

But we also need guidance. Especially if the menu is daunting in some way. Foreign languages, unusual names and ingredients and meaningless adjectives make it hard for us to know that we'll at lest favor what we are served, even if it's not what we were expecting because we were not, hopefully, expecting anything more than some good flavors and interesting textures.

Guidance is the waiter's job. His job is to guide the patrons not just with menu choices, but more importantly with timing. Ideally, he should do just as much explaining as is necessary on the first pass. Then, on the second approach, he should try to get the order. The complete order if possible.

Getting the order on the second visit means that the patron will be sure to get some food within twenty minutes of sitting down. Even twenty minutes is way too long, which is why chips-and-salsa, breadsticks and the trendy 'amuse bouche' were born. Delivery of one of these items means that food is being eaten right after the ten minute mark but before the order is near completion.

Getting the complete order means that the waiter can carefully time the meal, after judging what the patron's preferences are and how efficient the kitchen is on that particular night.  On a busy night a waiter might call for a course long before the patron is finished so as to time the course so it arrives soon (but not too soon) after the last course is cleared away.

One of the biggest mistakes that waiters make, especially in upscale restaurants, is assuming that patrons want to eat slowly.  The reverse assumption is in place for so much of what we consume, so some waiters false assume that patrons will not want to eat quickly in a nice restaurant.  

While it doesn't have to be 'fast' food, there's nothing that says that it has to be slow, either.

After all, when we get hungry, well, we are hungry, right then.  Delaying the meal only delays the satisfaction process.  Now, while this is a good thing, known as savoring one's food, if taken to the extreme, it can be an absolute appetite killer.  

Waiting ten minutes between courses can really put out the urgency of hunger in such a way that true satisfaction is not even approached, yet the result is still gluttony.  Long meals leave food uneaten and the talents of the chef are wasted.

This means that the 'real' food should start arriving in no less than twenty minutes into their experience and a course should arrive within no less than five minute after the previous course was cleared away.

Then, if the food's good, and especially if alcohol is a positive factor (ie some good wine is flowing), the dining experience will magically morph from 'uncertain' to 'pretty good' in the patron's mind, and the waiter will be headed for a nice tip.

Since customer satisfaction depends on the timing of the food and drinks, it's clear that a waiter who takes charge of the table, asking each patron in turn "what they'll have" and writing it down for all to see before thanking everyone and making a confidently quick move to the kitchen with the order is the waiter who will succeed.


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      Ronny 2 years ago

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      hana 2 years ago

      o it's very useful guide so.iam very happy thank you

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      dan nyshwazi 3 years ago

      very helpfull'thnx

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      shashi pal 3 years ago

      Very nice sir thank u very much

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      aldwin manalo 4 years ago

      thank you for this article

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      Nicola Mushahwar 5 years ago

      Thank you so much for this article. I learned a new term out of it too 'amuse bouche'.

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      Satish Ramnarayan 5 years ago

      It is a very helpful page for my training modules . Thank you ...

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      mike 6 years ago


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      David 6 years ago

      Well, reading both posts, it brings to mind one factor that ignoring can make or break the possibility of a decent tip...Each guest is different. There are many people who would absolutely require a busy server,( ie. in the middle of delivering food), to greet them for them to feel important. Many guests love, even if they don't realize it, to be waited on and served in a way that makes them seem more important than in their everyday lives. Now that being said, there are still those who would find it annoying to talk to them while you are delivering someone else's food. However, the number of people that want to be greeted immediately far exceeds the number of people who care about what you are carrying. Waiting tables is like delivering a good joke...ALWAYS know your audience. There are so many factors in serving that have to be fluid. What I mean by fluid, is that they are flexible. You can't just treat everyone the exact same if you want to maximize your tips. As far as what the original author said about waiting for food and service, I agree. The biggest complaint in restaurants is about time guests had to wait for food, greeting, or drink refills.

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      jason 7 years ago

      Thanks a lot for the helpful words.

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      an actual waiter 8 years ago

      While as some of your commentary is correct, it seems as though it was more likely that you waited tables at the spaghetti wharehouse. Possibly outback if you were fortunate enough. Some key points missed: a waiter should and can indite the patrons experience. Specials and suggestion are a key to leaving a customer with the best experience they can afford. Mastery of knowledge on cuisine and ability to lend anecdote to ingredients and preparation especially if thre food is a bit more exotic. Never go to a table with a full tray. No one is ever that busy if they are good at their craft. That's reserved for diners and chain restaurants. Personal appearance to the guest is paramount. If you seem nervous, overworked or hasty it sacrifices the experience from the first impression. That is why we tip a support staff. I could go on.