Dining Out: The Other Side

By Tatiana Prophet

There is one pleasure that all Americans can indulge in at least once in a while: dining out. Whether we go to Denny's or Brasserie le Coze, the idea that someone else can cook us hot food, and that another person can, in turn, bring that hot plate to us and put it in front of us, all the while replenishing our chosen beverage as we eat, is one of the last few pleasures of the industrialized world that is enjoyed by everyone across the board.

Like every other member of our modern society, I, too, indulge occasionally in the use of a table that is not in my apartment, and in consuming food that I have not made, so that I can be waited upon while enjoying the conversation of friends well-loved. I am fully acquainted with the pleasure of being served food and libations.

But I am also thorougly versed in an aspect of eating out that is not experienced by all Americans -- something I will call "the other side." The other side is the fine art of serving food and libations. The other side must have gotten a bum rap somewhere down the line, because clearly not quite as many of us indulge in it. And I can't quite figure out why.

Maybe people don't know what a pleasure it is to be on the other side. You're probably saying to yourself right now, but serving food is one of the worst jobs in the world! Au contraire, mes amis. Let me enlighten you on the nuances of the little delights we experience during our shift, which we servers like to call our "day at the spa."

The Worst Table in the House.

I know diners have always suspected what I'm about to tell you, but let me just confirm. Yes, it's true: We love to give you the worst table in the house. You might ask, why? It's because we who take server jobs do so because we like to dampen our customers' enjoyment. It's as simple as that. But there is one other secondary reason: we do it because we love each other. Let me explain. We are serving food because we need the tips to pay rent, buy food, and go to the doctor. Since we get $2.13 an hour, we need all the tips we can get. No, that is not a misprint. Federal law says that employees who are eligible for tips do not get a normal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour; they get $2.13 an hour. Unless you live in Alaska, California, Guam, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Connecticuit, Hawaii, or West Virgnia, which don't follow federal guidelines, if you are eligible to receive tips, you get roughly two dollars and thirteen cents an hour. Some states allow as much as $3 or $3.50, but Wyoming stoops to $1.10, and Texas, $1.68. Ouch! This translates to: if you don't have tables full all of the time, on an 8-hour shift you are making roughly $17.04 per day.

It's all about numbers. So because we love each other, we take turns on who gets tables. When I eat out, I usually do not ask to be moved to a different table. If I really, really want to sit in a different place, I ask the servers if it would mess them up too much for us to sit in a different spot.

The Silver Screen.

I want to be a movie star. So I'm really glad I get to practice my acting skills when I recite the daily specials. It gives me practice being in front of so many watchful eyes as they hang on my pronunciation of "brie," "beurre blanc," and "strawberry coulis," all the while filing their nails, talking on cell phones, or examining the lint at the bottom of their make-up bags. My favorite kind of dining guests are those who want you to perform the specials for them, even though they have already made up their minds about what they want to order. I take special delight in being a wound-up circus monkey.

The Cappucino Elves.

No sarcasm here: I love making cappucino almost as much as I love drinking it. In fact, I love spooning frothed milk onto a waiting shot of espresso so much, that I do it slowly and lovingly -- even when I have six hungry tables. And the best part about making cappucinos, lattes, chai lattes and mochas, is that I know how much my customers appreciate what I do. When they order a cappucino, that gleam of anticipation in their eyes, they know that I don't just walk into the back and take a steaming cappucino from the Cappucino Elves. They know that it is I, and I alone, who takes the time to make sure that they have a deliciously frothy and wonderfully comforting cappucino.

Best Girlfriends.

Something that makes dining out an even more pleasurable experience is when you can eat with your best girlfriend. There's nothing better than sitting in a restaurant with a warm mug of coffee, swapping stories of one's most recent bizarre adventures, philosophizing on the state of the world, or discussing the latest movies and music. Sometimes it can take hours, especially if you are both on your day off. We who are servers love it when we see best girlfriends catching up. And the best part is at the end of the day when, if the best girlfriends only ordered two salads, and you kept their chosen libation of herbal iced tea perpetually filled for three hours, they leave you $1.20 on a bill of $6.00. After all, that's 20 percent of the food order! Never mind the opportunity cost of other customers who could have been sitting there for those three hours. The nicest part is when you try to refill their water glasses and they, knowing you have your tip in mind, cover the glass and say, "I'm awesome, thanks," with a tight-lipped smile, so they can feel justified in leaving you a dollar and some change because you didn't really do a whole lot for them. That 80 cents they saved (in not leaving at least $2) will go really far.

I Love Mathematicians.

Which brings me to my favorite part. I love mathemeticians! Again, let me explain. It really impresses me when a customer can calculate exactly 15 percent of his check. With every tip I get, I do a quick mental calculation to figure out if he indeed did it right. And if he did it right, he gets a gold star in my book! If he comes back, which he often does, I am just gushing with awe for someone who can calculate $1.44 on a bill of $9.60, or 75 cents on a bill of $5. What skill! I know that the 54 cents he saved by not leaving me $2 in the first case, and the $1.25 he saved for not leaving me $2 in the second case, will go a long way in his day.

When I'm eating out, I wish I were as quick on my feet. I just leave $2 on any bill below about $13. I just can't figure out 15 percent when I'm having a relaxing meal, being served by someone who that morning took all the chairs down from the tables, wiped the tables, poured the pitchers of cream, made the coffee and tea, swept the floors and cleaned the bathrooms -- for $2.13 an hour. I'd rather not tax my brain. Let me leave $2 and brighten someone's day just a teeny bit. I know my brain will thank me, and so will my server.