On the Side: The invasion of the pushy atmosphere-snatchers

Posted: January 08, 2009

By a stroke of good fortune - for the server and manager, at least - my wife was not present at the Center City lunch where the following unsettling events transpired.

These days she is an editor of some note. But before she was an editor, she was (back in her college heyday), a server herself, though the honorific at the time was "waitress."

In that capacity, including a gig at the Magic Pan, the cutting-edge creperie, she was proud of her sunny disposition, her efficient service, and, most of all, her restraint in visiting gratuitous annoyances on innocent diners.

We shall get into the ugly particulars of the aforementioned Center City lunch in a moment.

But in a general sense, my wife's abiding peeve is this: Dinner guests are not to be regarded as an audience from whom plaudits are to be routinely milked.

You've been there: Upon the second bite of the endive salad (or precisely before the launch of your punch line), the server materializes.

And hovers impatiently until all eating, drinking and conversing comes to a halt.

"Isn't that endive salad terrific?" goes the refrain.

This is just one variant.

There are others: "We're enjoying our appetizers?" is another.

These are not questions.

There are two complaints my wife has with this approach. One is that servers shouldn't be tone-deaf to the ecology of the moment. If there's high hilarity at the table, or a confidential whisper, this might not be a good time.

But it is the second sin that she finds less forgivable: It is presuming the customer is so bursting with the desire to send the kitchen a compliment that he wants to stop chewing (or talking) right then, and dispatch the eager server with the good news.

My wife's own rules of engagement: Stop by the table shortly after the food has been served to ask the following questions: (1) Is the halibut (steak, duck breast) cooked to your liking? (2) Is there anything else (butter, water, ketchup) you require?

In other words, it's a service moment, not the occasion for a tableside pep rally.

Let us return then to the events of the afternoon in question. The scene is Del Frisco's, the grand sprawl of a steak house now open at 15th and Chestnut.

Our table of three ordered modestly - a petit filet, a steak sandwich, and a fancy hamburger (with a $9 side of the "chef's vegetable of the day," which was broccoli).

Up to this point, our young server had been sunny and welcoming and efficient: It was what happened next that might have caused him bodily harm had a certain individual been at lunch with us.

Three bites into my burger, he materialized: "Everything's perfect!?"

It was a declaration, not an inquiry.

"Since you bring it up," I said, "the burger is way too salty."

This struck him dumb. He continued around the table. Then he was gone, the script not having accounted for actual feedback.

Afterward, I encountered a manager: "How was lunch?" he asked.

"Frankly," I said, "there was so much surface salt on the burger, it sort of ruined it."

He paused: "You know," he said, brightly, "we like to season aggressively here. Everything that goes out gets a last fling of salt.

"We call it feeding the chickens!"

That man is lucky to be alive.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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