Earlier this year at a downtown Toronto Italian restaurant where the entrees run nearly $50 a pop, a waiter placed a tiny plate of penne with tomato sauce in front of me.
He then launched (uninvited) into a three-minute lecture on the exotic, volcanic soil in which the fruit had grown (they were, you know, those same San Marzano tomatoes you pick up at the corner store for $5 a tin).
Just when my wife and I were thinking that the chap was finally done, he instead leaned in closer and breathlessly delivered the clincher. “And that little green leaf on top,” he said, “is called basil.” A few weeks earlier at a tasting- menu-only restaurant nearby, I had supplemented my menu dégustation with the pricey option of wines by the glass paired to each of its many courses. This seemed only sensible (I mean, how can you pick wines for what you don’t know is coming?). But it swiftly became a lot less so—not by dint of the selection of wines, but because every single one poured came with a long discourse from the aspiring sommelier on soils and vintage and weather and other arcane details, almost entirely unnecessary.
Ten courses, 10 glasses and 10 long interruptions to our conversation. No, wait, make that 11, because one of the server’s meandering explanations apparently bored even her so much that she lost her train of thought halfway through, stumbled to a halt and excused herself. Only to return a few minutes later, when my wife and I were mid-course, for a bonus interruption.“I remember what I was going to say,” she announced, cheerfully talking over us. “Most people think that white wine in Burgundy is all chardonnay. But it’s not! They also grow aligoté, and….”
How did we get here, exactly? Where did the idea of high-end good service get all mixed up with primary school show and tell? Where meals begin with a waiter asking if you’ve ever been to their restaurant before, just for a chance to tell you “how our menu works,” in case you’d maybe, like, never seen one before? When I was young my father used to enjoy telling a story about visiting Toronto in the early ’70s and heading out for a bite at what he was told was the best French restaurant in town. After looking over the menu, he beckoned the waiter over to clarify the first item on the table d’hôte. “Tell me, please, what is the soupe du jour?” The waiter did not know, so he excused himself to go and find out. “I’ve checked with the kitchen, sir,” he said, upon his return. “It’s the soup of the day.”
We’ve come a long way since then and yet, somehow, we haven’t. Sure, most waiters here now know enough French to translate soupe du jour unassisted. But then, if you’re in a trendy enough spot, there is also a fair risk that your waiter will believe that the hipster in the kitchen with the beard and tattoos actually invented it.“The soupe du jour? Well yes, I can tell you what that is. Chef got up very early this morning and…went to the market. Then Chef picked the best local organic ingredients, because that’s his philosophy. When Chef got back to the kitchen he combined some of them with a bone broth he made himself—from scratch!—and…” If you think the fastest way to end to this reverential tale is to order some, you can bet that only moments after placing it in front of you, and before you’ve even had a chance to lift your spoon, your waiter will be back. “So how are your first few bites treating you?”
I suspect this new school of service can actually be traced back to an actual Waiter Zero. The first of his kind, a true pioneer. Who, somewhere stateside—back in ’58—thought to approach a table of newly arrived customers and, instead of doing something useful for them like dropping off a bread basket or a round of martinis, told them unbidden that his name was Luke and he’d be “looking after them” that night. Alas, “Luke” emerged from his initiative rewarded with a good enough tip to encourage recidivism. That bred imitators. In time, most “family restaurant” operations across the continent were thoroughly infected with the thinking. Next, it jumped to those contemporary upscale chains peddling fast-food with aspirations (or, as the chains themselves call it, “casual fine dining”). And that facilitated cross-species transmission, to the realm of genuine fine dining itself. What can we do now to turn back the clock? Not enough, it seems to me.
But who knows—maybe I’m in the minority here. I just believe that the best service is the sort you hardly notice at all.