Readers, restaurant manager weigh in on dining pet peeves

Dining pet peeves were the topic of my column last week. In it, I mention that a study by food safety consulting firm Steritech found sticky or dirty tables and chairs to be the top irritation among diners. I also shared my own list of annoyances, which include, among others, unkempt restrooms, loud music and when hot food is served cold.

The rant prompted numerous readers to send in letters citing their personal gripes. The majority of these centered around the actions of waitstaff, so I contacted David Abes, whose career in hospitality management spans nearly three decades. Currently a restaurant consultant based in Atlanta, Abes most recently held the position of chief operating officer for Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. Prior to that, he was the regional director of operations for New York-based LDV Hospitality, whose portfolio of restaurants includes American Cut in Atlanta. Abes also worked for 14 years as the director of operations for the now defunct Here to Serve restaurant group. 

Rather than just give space to reader grievances, I asked Abes to weigh in with his opinion and provide insight into professional protocol for each of these “offenses.”

The biggest pet peeve for Barbara Nathan of Sandy Springs is when servers auction off food at the table: “When a server brings the plates and says, ‘Who has the ...’ and then plops it down in front of me. Our boys waited tables for years and they learned to record the orders using the 12, 3, 6 and 9 method. I want this to be the first thing each server learns. Bringing your food to you and not quizzing you should be a given for every restaurant manager. If I want an auction, I’ll do fast food.”

“Agreed,” replied Abes. “The server should bring everything by position 1, 2, 3 and 4 when it is a four-top. It is amateurish if you auction off food in more of a fine- dining restaurant.” He also went further, noting his impatience with servers or food runners who incorrectly position the plate in front of the guest. “If they don’t put the protein at 6 o’clock – the point directly in front of the guest – that’s a big pet peeve of mine.”

Atlanta-based restaurant consultant David Abes has worked in the hospitality industry for nearly three decades, including as chief operating officer for Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, regional director of operations for LDV Hospitality and director of operations for Here to Serve restaurant group.

icon to expand image

Fred Lennon of Marietta wondered if his age had anything to do with where he and his wife get seated in a dining room. “In our case (healthy mid-70s), we seem to have a look that suggests to the hostess we should be seated directly in front of the kitchen or bathroom door. Of course, someone may have to sit there, but it isn’t going to be us. We ask for another table to get away from the constant traffic going in and out and the threat of having food dumped on us accidentally. We go out often for good food and a quiet time (hard to find) together and don’t want constant activity around us.”

AJC food and dining editor Ligaya Figueras

icon to expand image

Abes was surprised by Lennon’s gripe. “You never profile. I’ve never heard that before.” Standard practice when coming up with a rotation is to seat people so as not to overwhelm a server with too many tables, Abes remarked. As for that dreaded rear table near the kitchen or bathroom, Abes has a name for it. “I call it Table 74,” he said, citing that table number at Atlanta Fish Market, one of Buckhead Life’s restaurants. That’s the last place you want to seat a guest. Table 74 is always the worst in the restaurant. There’s a waiter whose butt is up against you.”

What gets the goat of Johns Creek resident Bud Carter? When waitstaff refer to him and his wife as “You guys.” There’s nothing more grating than when he hears greetings like "How can I help you guys?" or "How are you guys enjoying your meal?”

“I can’t stand that either,” replied Abes. “If it’s a lady and a gentleman, it’s ‘Yes, ma’am. Yes, sir.’” A server can score big points, Abes said, by addressing the guest by last name, when possible. Mr. or Mrs. Smith, for example. “It’s is always a nice touch,” he said. “But you don’t say, ‘You guys.’”

icon to expand image

Carter’s other contention is when a server says “good choice” in response to his food order. Tongue in cheek, Carter wrote: “[I’m] waiting for one bold server to say, ‘Maybe you ought to consider something else. That's really not very good.’"

On this one, Abes disagrees. “You train your staff to be positive about everything. I think that’s fine.”

Certain server phrases also bug Peggy Kendall of Atlanta. “My husband and I had a server a couple days ago asking if we ‘were loving everything.’ I hate it when they do that, but even more cringe-worthy is when they ask, ‘How's everything tasting?’ That seems too personal to me. I don't want to describe what's happening in my mouth!

Abes concurred with Kendall. His solution is to phrase it this way: “Are you enjoying everything?” What Abes doesn’t want to hear is a server posit the question as “Is everything OK?” “You can get OK across the street,” Abes said. “I’d rather have a positive server than somebody that is just blah.”

Having worked in restaurants for 28 years, Abes has developed a litany of his own annoyances. Like me, dirty bathrooms tick him off because they immediately call to question the state of the kitchen. And he wants unobtrusive service from front-of-house staff. “They need to be on the periphery,” he said. Diners are there “to dine with other guests, not the server.”

He places a high emphasis on table maintenance. That is, a server should be attentive about removing bits of trash like spent sugar packets or drinking straw wrappers, as well as clearing empty dishes.

While some service rules are hard and fast, Abes noted that an essential part of making the diner experience positive is to take a cue from the guests. “Each table is different,” he said. “The server needs to treat each table uniquely. When you get to the table, that’s when you get the vibe.”


 Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.