Secret service: An anonymous head waiter reveals what the staff at Britain's top restaurants are saying behind your back
Saturday 22 May 2010
What does '86' mean?
There's a really easy one to get things going. When we run out of something, we say it's "86". Simple. So when everyone's been mainlining pig, the kitchen will tell front-of-house, "The pork belly's 86!". But we use it for other things, too. If we turn up for work and there's no sign of Andrew, that waiter who got caught ogling a customer's breasts (see 'Job du Jour', below), the manager could say, "Oh, yeah, Andrew's been 86'ed". As in sacked – we've run out of Andrews. Customers can also be 86'ed (thrown out, barred, terminated). There are loads of theories about where the word came from, but all we really know is that, like a lot of restaurant slang, it's American. Some people say it began with a Prohibition-era law that said bars could only let 85 people in at a time. The 86th customer would be turned away.
'Job du Jour'
Now, don't get all politically correct on me for this one. I didn't invent it, OK? But one thing you have to understand about waiting tables is that it's BORING. And if there's one thing that's going to make it less boring for guy waiters, it's hot female customers. In some places (I'm thinking provincial towns), an attractive customer can be the highlight of the week. But you've got to keep it subtle. In one restaurant, we had a cleaning rota with a "job du jour" (job of the day) for each member of staff. Cleaning the windows, polishing the brass rail round the bar – that kind of thing. Then we started using it for hot customers, sometimes shortening it to "JDJ". So, when we have an incoming, a waiter might whisper to a passing colleague, "There's a JDJ on table eight". If he's interested (he will be), the waiter will make a trip or a "drive-by" past the table to take a look.
In other places, we might give colleagues a heads-up by saying, "There's a rush order on table 12, position three". If a closer look is required, the waiter might fill the table's glasses or ask if everything's OK. Basically, if you're attractive and some waiter from the other side of the room comes walking past for no apparent reason, you know what his game is.
In restaurant utopia, all customers are equal. But in the real world, that's only true in places where your food comes in a cardboard box – and there's nothing utopian about Burger King. In proper restaurants, some customers will always be more equal than others. And staff need to know who needs to be loved – whether they're friends of the boss or rich people who might want to come back with their rich friends. Anyone who writes "VIP" on the booking sheet is an idiot – it's obvious and vulgar. Some places prefer "TI", or "très important". If we're lucky enough to get a celebrity in, we'll write "WKF", or "well-known face". Whatever the code, they get the good table and the royal treatment.
When you're running the door and people walk in off the street, you write down their name and send them to the bar to wait for a table. Which is fine, but when there's a crowd, how do you tell Clive from Colin or Catherine from Claire? Well, maybe Clive is bald. You can't write "bald" next to his name – someone might see. And "slaphead" could get you punched in the face. So you get clever. Every waiter has their own way of doing it, but I used to write "Assisi" as in Francis of Assisi (Catholic guy, no hair). What about Claire? Well, maybe she's a "JDJ" with a rush order of BIG BREASTS. Some people write "jugs" or similar, but I prefer two zeros – "00" – with a little dot in each one. OK, so that one's not so clever – but it works.
We don't actually say "upsell" but it's something we do and, if you've got half a brain, something you should be able to spot a mile off. So you say, "I'd like a gin and tonic, please". The waiter says: "Bombay Sapphire?". How helpful, you think, of him to make a recommendation. Of course, the waiter doesn't care about you – he cares about the bill and will do everything possible to direct you towards the most expensive items on the menu. Bigger the bill, bigger the tip. And at least pretending to be nice and smiley and helpful is only going to encourage you to dig deeper. Ker-ching!
Look, we eat out, too, and we know there's nothing more annoying than the waiter who slams the bill on your table with half an eye on the door the moment you take your last sip of espresso. But, please, don't push your luck. The longer you linger, the less money we make – fact. You chat: we slide closer to the breadline. If you insist on staying put (there are bars for this kind of thing, you know) then no problem, but at least make up for it with a bigger tip. A lot of people – mostly in America – call these good-for-nothing hangabouts "campers".
'Mr T Save'
Let's call him Thomas – Thomas Save. He's your most regular customer because he has a reservation all night, every night. But he's not real. He's the table the maître d' keeps up his sleeve just in case a "TI", a "WKF", or, indeed, a "PWK" (person we know – the owner's wife, say) walks in without a reservation. It's an art, dealing with these people. In one restaurant I worked at, you had to be two parts maître d' to one part social engineer. If you get, say, the head honcho of advertising agency X in at the same time as the boss at agency Y, you know they'll want to be seated out of eavesdropping range but close enough that they'll be able to see who the other guy is wining and dining. Oh, and beware shaggers. I once had a customer who always came in with a different beautiful blonde. One time, I said to one of these girls, "Hello, how lovely to see you again". Oops.
I learnt this one hanging out with some waiters in Vegas. It should catch on here. You know how fleas have those really stubby arms that are way too short to reach the little flea pockets in their little flea trousers? Well that's the word I use to describe bad tippers. If, say, table eight is so full of such dirty fleas that they don't tip anything, you say you've been "stiffed by table eight". Other waiters use stronger terms – none of which you would need a guide to understand.
There's only one thing worse than a flea and that's a runner – someone who dines and dashes, chews and screws or walks out without paying like a stinking thief. No words can describe how much I hate these people but you'd be amazed by how many customers try it – especially in big, busy restaurants. Well, listen up – you can run but you can't hide and if the police don't catch you, don't let me EVER see you anywhere near my restaurant again.
'The postcode filter'
Years ago, when I worked at a big fancy restaurant, we used to have a big list in the reservations office that matched the first three digits of London telephone numbers with their corresponding areas. So when Mr Bloggs phoned up to book a table, you would take his number and very quickly find out where he was calling from. If it was, say, Chingford or Lewisham, we would say, "Sir, I'm terribly sorry but we are fully booked for several weeks". But if Mr Bloggs was from Hampstead or Knightsbridge, then it was all, "Yes, do come along" and complimentary drinks. Of course, the list is long gone now – you can't tell anything from a mobile phone number. Shame.
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