Food & Drink: Why are we waiting?

Bad service comes in many forms, from cringing wretches to little Hitlers
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A GOOD waiter once told me the secret of his profession. I leaned forward eagerly, anxious to know the profound subtleties of his calling. "Nice," he said, with a smile, pouring a little more of my favourite Pinot Noir. "A good waiter has to be nice."

But how to be nice when night after night your feet are aching, your car is getting a parking ticket, and you're working your butt off while surrounded by people having a good time? At least if you worked in a supermarket, you could be as miserable and aggressive as your customers. If you worked in a bank, you could be as suspicious and unsmiling as your clients. Diners, however, demand a certain level of perceived hospitality and friendliness from their chosen restaurant.

So waiters are not allowed to let a quiver of annoyance pass their brow when we want the grilled chicken without the eggplant puree, but with the corn and tomato salsa that comes with the veal, or when we'd prefer the salad with balsamic vinegar instead of raspberry, and the mineral water sparkling, but no ice - no, make that with ice, and a squeeze of lemon.

They are not allowed to whimper when they return from the back of the kitchen, through the scullery and past the dishwashers to the table with said water, only to find that one of your guests would also like a glass. Anyone else? No. Until they return with the next glass.

You can only recognise a good waiter when you've had a bad one. These creatures take many forms: there's the "it's my first night" waiter, to whom everything, from the chef's name to the soup of the day, is a source of mystery and delight. Lucky him, for every night will be his first night, no matter how long he works there.

Next is the "hello, I'm Darryl" waiter. Resplendent in his dad's bow tie, too-big white shirt and catering sup-pliers' elastic-waisted waiter's pants, he lands on your table like a gooneybird and breathlessly announces that he'll "be looking after you tonight". Every time anyone orders anything, he nods happily and says "good choice". You may not have a good night, but you'll have made a new friend.

Then there is the "I'm not really a waiter" waiter, a breed well-documented in Los Angeles, where waiters are in fact actors in search of the perfect role, screenwriters in search of the perfect director, and clients in search of the perfect agent. They tend to hold the diner personally responsible for the hiatus in their careers, so beware if you are not a film producer, director, or agent (and be even more ware if you are).

The school bully grows up to be the Mein Kampf waiter, one who is transformed into an ogre as he slips on his neat black uniform. At London's long-departed Schmidt's restaurant, I once asked a waiter for a beer, only to be scared out of my wits as he barked: "Eat first! Drink later!"

I am particularly fond of the "every- thing is special" waiter, determined to get through the entire evening without giving you one shred of advice you can possibly use. There is the "I am not worthy" waiter, who turns grovelling into an art form; the "I've only got two hands" waiter, who travels through life in perpetual slow motion; the "waitron", a new breed of low-skilled serf on automatic pilot; and the Marcel Marceau waiter, who always looks like he's doing something without managing to do anything at all.

Little wonder, then, that good waiters stand out. They possess an intrinsic sense of hospitality that immediately puts your needs first, without demeaning themselves. They are there when you need them, and not when you don't. They never ask who's having the fish. They are considerate, helpful, knowledgeable and psychic. They can make you feel well-fed, contented, spoiled, good- looking and intelligent.

So to all those waiters out there expecting a big tip from me, here it is: be nice. !