The Bar Code: The Hallmarks of Good Service

Let’s face it: Bad service is something of an epidemic in Seattle right now. Whether it’s the typical disaffected server on Capitol Hill, the well-meaning but bumbling neophyte behind the bar who doesn’t know what a Rob Roy is, or the guy who looks like he’d been recreating the last 48 hours of Chris Farley’s life immediately before coming to work, the rapid growth of Seattle’s restaurant scene has left a lot of places so desperate for servers that they’ll throw an apron on just about anyone and let them take tables.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are also many talented and exceptional servers and bartenders all over the city. Talking to them and watching them work, it’s become clear that the core idea of quality service is: honesty.

So as a diner, how do you recognize honesty? Here are a few hallmarks of good, honest service. (Throughout, to save space, I’m going to use the term “server” as shorthand for server, bartender, sommelier, food runner, expediter, busser, host, and anyone else who might interact with you while you dine.)

Does the server communicate clearly? I’m not only talking about speaking distinctly and loudly enough to be heard, though of course that matters. I mean, do they properly set and manage expectations? Let’s say you see a delicious-looking cocktail on the drink list, and you decide to give it a try. Sure, you don’t know what Fernet Branca is, but the rest of the drink sounds great. A good server will tip you off that Fernet is an extremely bitter and medicinal-tasting liqueur, and unless you like that sort of thing, maybe you should try something else. Instead of putting you in the awkward position of either sending a drink back or choking down something you don’t like, they’ve anticipated the potential problem and sidestepped it.

Here’s another little indicator that you’re receiving quality service: Does the server ever down-sell you? Upselling is rampant in the industry, but a server who recommends a less-expensive bottle of wine or tells you that you really can share a salad instead of each getting one is a server who actually cares about your experience and not just their bottom line.

Knowledge also matters. It’s not about memorizing every ingredient in every dish on the menu, it’s about being able to explain a dish to a guest—and, furthermore, knowing when to say “I don’t know.” It’s perfectly acceptable to ask the chef, sommelier, or bartender. It’s not OK to lie, bullshit, or try to muddle through. I mean, you should know what “confit” means if you’re a server in a decent restaurant, but stepping away from the table for confirmation is vastly preferable to making something up.

Sometimes good service is engaged and present at a table throughout a meal, and sometimes it knows when to keep its distance. Above all, it requires the server to genuinely care about your dining experience. Getting to share in someone’s great meal (even if it’s just facilitating) is one of the things I love most about working in restaurants, and receiving that kind of service is what brings me back to many of my favorite restaurants. So be on the lookout for good, honest service, and appreciate it when it happens.

Had honest or dishonest service lately? Make your voice heard in the comments or e-mail

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