Servers, Service, and Social Hierarchy

Servers, Service, and Social Hierarchy

“The service was not so good,” an acquaintance told me of the highly rated restaurant for which she had made reservations six months in advance. A waitress myself, I asked what she meant. Pausing, she came up with only one example: “They had to cross their arms to set the dishes down in the right places.”

Listening to her talk about food service was like hearing her review a play. She thought she was paying waitstaff respect by appreciating the dignity of their art. A waiter should be polite and attractive, efficiently providing the right things at the right times with the perfect words to make you feel that you are eating the best food in the world. It is a peculiar role that we servers play.

If you were only hungry for food, you would pick some up, bring it home, and eat it. But the restaurant business is not just about getting a bite to eat. Any restaurant guide will rate the service. Similarly, any consistent restaurant-goer will have an opinion about what makes the performance of the waitstaff satisfactory.

Waiting tables at a high-end restaurant in New York City, I operate in a dining room that is a blur of high-stakes, complex memory games. Combine eight-to-fourteen-hour shifts on your feet, handling two or three more tables than is reasonable, an openly sexist and easily angered manager, the delicate moods of dozens of highly demanding customers, and you have what’s considered a desirable job. To me, bringing diners what they asked for is enough of a challenge. Meeting the needs of customers who sneer when I pause to remember the fifth special or who want me to guess their stylistic desire for orange juice in a glass with a stem seems absurd. One has to wonder what these people really hunger for.

Servers bringing food to tables is an age-old practice, but service as we know it today originated in the homes of the upper class, not in taverns or inns accessible to everyone. It has only been a little over two hundred years since restaurants in the modern sense have existed. The terms “server” and “placing your order” were not invented for eating out. They were carried over from eating in—the high-class way. Of course, most customers at restaurants don’t think of themselves as ordering a servant around. But neither would they gladly skip the white tablecloths, uniformed staff, and silverware-placing bussers to buy dinner at the counter. We forget what roles we are being asked to play. It is a replica of social hierarchy, a place where customers can rate the service based on how flawlessly staff catered to their needs. While they assume that dining out means getting whatever they want, they ignore the reality of class, and the fact that the people being served are still able to display their displeasure with “bad” servers by refusing to pay the optional gratuity that makes up the bulk of the server’s salary.

Of course, we servers are not slaves; we can leave anytime we w...