Why We Don’t Demand Excellent Restaurant Service

Have we become enablers to restaurants getting away with sloppy service? A chef and ex-restaurateur lectures us on why we need to up our standards.

by Inky Dario, art by Jer Dee

 

When I was asked if I wanted to contribute an essay on the service standards of the local dining scene, with leading questions like “Are we getting good service?” and “Are we, as customers, demanding too little from service?” I said yes faster than my sisig’s sizzle shushed.

Service is an issue so few tackle yet it affects so many. The silence on the matter is taken as approval. There’s really nothing wrong with food being the paramount consideration of our dining out experience. Nothing terribly wrong equating the money we burn with how sleepy we get after our meal. For many, abusing vowels and loosening our belts two notches has become the measuring tape for a good dining experience. Did it really matter that we just wiped our melted wagyu fat-coated lips with small pieces of paper we can’t—and won’t—even wipe our asses with?

Several times a week we hop on that bus that brings us from Point A to Point B of this thing called restaurant service. We are greeted at the door often without eye contact and full attention, addressed in a gender-confused title of ma’am/sir. We’re shown our tables, handed the menu and left to decide. We raise a hand, a signal that we’re ready to order, to several servers huddled in the farthest corner. After some elbow-nudging and finger-pointing, one of them makes his way to our table. We wait in anticipation of whether the food will look exactly like we saw it on social media. If it does, we give the place five stars; if it doesn’t, our good Filipino nature kicks in and just like John Lloyd and Bea, give it one more chance. If it tasted good and filled us up, the verdict becomes 6 stars, quickly forgetting how the appearance betrayed us eight spoonfuls ago. We ask for the check, settle our account. We leave hoping that before merienda, we burp and taste the soy-garlic flavored lunch we had, our cue to unleash our stock of vowels online and share our “five-star” dining experience.

 

We don’t expect to be greeted with a smiling, welcoming face. We don’t expect to be walked to our tables, our chairs pulled for us. We don’t care if nobody helps us order and guides us through the menu. We don’t mind responding to “Truffle pasta?” and serving our friends ourselves.

 

Practice makes perfect. Going through that sequence repetitively, we’ve become better at it. We learned not to mind the ma’am/sir, and we proceed to our table once it’s pointed out to us. We pull our own chairs and seat ourselves. We instinctively prepare to have a second choice from the menu just in case our top choice is unavailable. We wait. Our food comes, and automatically we set aside whatever promotional junk is on our small table to make way for our large plates. Our order is announced in form of a question. “Truffle pasta?” Intuitively, we point to who among us ordered it. Or we pass along that plate to our buddy at the far end and so way out of our server’s reach. Do we expect him to go around our table given the fact that there is hardly any floor space that allows for ease of service? We prepare to eat—but wait, shouldn’t there be a soup spoon? A salad dressing? We ask for drink refills and get them. Often, we walk away without having seen the dessert menu; we never asked for it. Often, we leave our tables with our soiled and empty dishes still in front of us. Hey, it’s simply easier for them to bus our tables without us there.

Practice has turned us into good customers. Restaurants love having us. We assist them in their work process and leave them a tip—on top of the service charge. Never mind that they lack the finer points that fill the in-betweens in the Point A to Point B sequence. Going through the motions has come to mean the service itself, and we have come to accept it as that. Our fault for not knowing any better, right?

The irony is that restaurants know better. They hire managers who have worked in hotels here and abroad, cruise ships and high caliber establishments. Owners and investors have lived and been schooled abroad, modeling their concepts from their stints or vacations in marquee destinations. Yet they choose to author their service standards much lower than what they know they must give, and price everything higher than they should. That’s because we are good customers. And because we are good customers they don’t have to be good restaurants. That’s the universal law of equilibrium. Balance is reached because we became intuitive even if they did not. We don’t know any better and we’re alright with that. We don’t expect to be greeted with a smiling, welcoming face. We don’t care if nobody helps us order and guides us through the menu. We don’t mind responding to “Truffle pasta?” and serving our friends ourselves. We’re happy to get our drink refills when we ask, happy to get the dessert menu when we ask. We don’t care if they pay attention to replenishing our bottomless mason jars with their iced tea. We hardly mind sitting and conversing in front of a table full of soiled, empty plates, and crumpled and torn pieces of ass-wipe. We’ve never questioned the service charge law. Mind you, the law doesn’t have provisions for the service they must give (or the service we should receive).

It isn’t uncommon for pricey but casual concept restaurants to defend their lack of finesse in service with the easy conceit that “we are not fine dining,” as if fine dining is a crime. That’s shameful. It isn’t uncommon for customers to defend their lack of expectations with the idea that “we just want to eat.” That’s even more shameful.

We get what we deserve. After all, all we want to do is eat. All we believe in is food.  All we dream about is the next truffle-flavored carbohydrate conquest. We are not mature enough as food consumers to understand what it is to be a customer. To be served. Be pampered. Be treated well. Be given what we expect and not just what we request. Be given more than we expect, despite the fact that we already expect too little.

Response to a request is not service. Not having to ask is service. Service is an anticipation of the customers’ expectations, needs, and wants. Hotel school taught me that. Hotel school also taught me that I have to be intuitive so I can anticipate. We practiced service, day in and day out. We exerted the most effort so our customers will not. That was our equilibrium. We were taught to design hotels and restaurants with high regard for space needed to conduct service with ease. Responding to your request is part of the process and not service. Giving you water each time you ask for a refill is a response to a request. Keeping your glass full is anticipation. Clearing your empty plate within four minutes of your last spoonful is attentiveness. Giving you a dessert menu without asking after the mains is anticipation and good salesmanship. Waving around your empty beer bottle and getting more beer might be service to you. Clearing your first empty bottle and offering you a second is service and salesmanship.

If this is relatable to you and you still believe that you are getting service, good on you. I’m not going to say you’re wrong and please don’t tell me I’m just finicky. Instead, I will tell you I envy you. I envy that you find bliss in all of the effort you made and all the intuition you have because the restaurant lacked all of those. I envy you that you are not cursed like me. I’m cursed to be always yearning for my girlfriend’s chair to be pulled for her. Yearning to have my menu-related questions answered properly. I’m cursed to pay the same price for the beer I raised my arm for and the beer I just had to nod to.

 

This article was originally published in the Slant section of The Appetite Issue of Rogue, May 2016, in a slightly longer version.