From Michelin-starred chefs’ counters hidden inside pizza parlors to the latest 18-course “vegetable-focused” gastronomic fantasy/yoga studio, haute cuisine isn’t about white tablecloths anymore. And as New York restaurant critic Ryan Sutton says, “The waiters are the diplomats of the restaurant”—no matter how absurd the latest regime. “They are super well-informed now, and they’re passionate about more than just the food.”
Gone are the days of the tuxedoed French snob; say hello to the Zac Posen–suited, Ph.D.-holding food scientist. For your next restaurant expedition, we present a map to the world of waiters.
The Stepford Wife
Like a butler or a geisha, a waiter once had the uncanny ability to predict our every need and silently meet it. Empty glass? More wine is here within 60 seconds, tops. Long day? The foie gras is just the thing to soothe your shattered nerves. Nature calling? He’s there to direct us to the restroom, hold the door and dry our hands on the way out. Sure, we were paying for the attention, but as relationships go, this one was damn satisfying.
Menus have become uncharted territory, and waiters know it. Sections like “land,” “fire” and “etc.” have replaced boring (read: practical) terms like “appetizer” and “entree,” and the only guarantee of a coherent meal is a 10-minute conversation with someone who knows the lay of the land. As Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema says, “If you have to explain how the menu works, perhaps it isn’t working.” Until this trend passes, the waiter is as indispensable a guide as Sacagawea.
The Greased Palm
Once, it was ill-advised to show up without a pocketful of bills to pass out like Santa Claus: tips for the host, bartender, captain, coat check—not to mention the waiter. How much to tip was a headache. But the only way to ensure personal attention at a decent restaurant was to make it rain.
Restaurants from NYC’s Dirt Candy to San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn are moving to a service-included model that adds a flat fee to the check and makes waiters’ wages more predictable. “I suspect that 10 years from now, no one will know what a tip is,” says Craft empire builder Tom Colicchio.
The Impossible Host
Scoring a good table has never been easy. The sacred Book of Reservations would open 30 days in advance, and seat-seekers would dial frantically and pray. Those who didn’t make it were forced to try their luck as a walk-in, only to be judged by a host as immovable as Gibraltar.
The Impossible Host
With the VIP caste system and no-shows putting a hit on bottom lines, restaurateurs eighty-sixed the Book. They’ve opted for an aggressively democratic no-reservations route. Not willing to eat at 5:30, when doors open? The host takes a name and texts when a table opens. Say, next Tuesday?
The Struggling Actor
For actors, writers and the creatively unemployed, waiting tables was the ideal survival gig. A brain-free workday left them time to craft their masterpieces, and laissez-faire HR policies made it easy to bolt the minute a big break came. As they say: “Every waiter, like every prisoner, has a dream.”
The Struggling Farmer
These days, instead of scrambling to auditions, servers work the fields or wax rhapsodic about country life. Blame Thomas Keller: His French Laundry, in the Napa Valley, started serving Vermont butter that could be traced to original herds. We’ve been living with the Old MacDonald routine ever since.