Saturday, December 1, 2018

Navigating Friendly & Familiar

The following article by Garrison Keillor, published by Gourmet magazine in 2001, remains the exemplar of discreet service, navigating the thin line between friendly and familiar. I often refer back to it as a mini-refresher course, and I hope you will find it useful, as well.


My wife and I are still mourning the loss of La Reserve, the elegant restaurant across from Rockefeller Center and the skating rink. The place had high ceilings and lovely murals of a lake and waterfowl, and it was never crowded, and you could sit and converse softly, as one likes to do with a loved one. The wine list was good, the food was fine, and the service was impeccable. Absolutely first-rate.

The maitre d' was always gracious and shook hands and welcomed us, and the waiters were wonderful grumpy old guys with sore feet and interesting accents (Belgian maybe or Grecian or Cartesian) and shiny tuxedos with starched shirtfronts, who floated around the room, giving and taking away, pouring, straightening, plying their craft, lending a Continental tone to your Manhattan evening, as if it might be Paris, 1938, and giving you a graceful good time without making you so aware of their presence.

It was your good time, not theirs - they were on hand to serve and also stand and wait.  If you said to one, 'Wow, this is some of the best darned Dover sole I have ever tasted, what's in the sauce?' he would give you a faint smile and say, 'I'm glad you enjoyed it, sir,' and go ask the kitchen and come back and say, 'Butter.' But his gloomy demeanor let you know that you didn't need to interact with him in any way, and you could focus on your wife and talk to her and treat him as a servant, which it was his honor to be.

This sort of natural formality does not come easily to Americans. We're not good at service. Even in upscale restaurants you tend to get a waiter who greets you as if you had come to Le Restaurant to meet him. 'Good evening! My name is Chad and I'll be your waiter tonight! How are you folks doing?'

This is disgusting.  A waiter has no business striking up a conversation. That is for the people at the table and he is not part of our group. He belongs to a dignified profession, and the dignity of it is expressed in a certain solemnity and reserve. The ability to be invisible is crucial. There is no need to come around mid-meal and ask, 'And how is everything?' - which is simply begging for compliments. If there's a problem, we'll let you know, Chad. Otherwise, bug off.

I have long thought that I would be an excellent waiter. When friends come over for dinner, I like to get up and wait on people, as my mother used to do, and fuss in an unobtrusive way.  I feel that waiting is in my nature, and I wonder if I'll ever get the chance to find out.

I can see myself, tall, shambling, dour, standing by the dessert wagon, watching Table 14, the couple from the Midwest, plow through their Chicken Eloise and Macaroni con Fromage, signaling the busboy to fill their water glasses, the bread girl to offer them another baguette, then moving in to administer more Sauvignon Blanc. The couple appear to be having a lovely time, and as I approach I hear the woman say, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' and he says yes and she says, 'I'm worried that it might change everything,' and he takes her hand and reassures her that it won't change what's between them, and meanwhile I am pouring a little wine into his glass, an angel hovering invisibly overhead, pulling the strings, wishing I could make everything shining and perfect for them, but at least I can supervise their wineglasses and get the tableware onstage and offstage and whisk away the crumbs and, on cue, light the tapioca flambe', and bring the coffee and the sweets, and then the bill, and finally, when it's time, when the gentleman makes a move to rise, rush to him and ease his chair away from the table, help the lady, and nod to them when they thank me, and, bowing, say, 'It was my pleasure, sir. Truly my pleasure.'

- From And God Created Waiters, by Garrison Keillor, Gourmet magazine, January 2001


  1. Insightful excerpt. I 100% agree with what a domestic staff SHOULD be and what they invariably end up as in the modern world, particularly America with its allergy to "servants who actually serve". I blame our hyper-egalitarian origins, although perhaps its the 'American' way afterall and has its place.

    Generally great blog! If only the subject matter wasn't so niche you would be getting much more well-deserved attention and comments. Keep up the good work! Your experiences and insight is invaluable to a millennial like myself with great interest in the traditional service industry.

    1. Thank you kindly, I appreciate your support.

      - Jim


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