Matthew Lickona 6:30 p.m., Nov. 26
Is everything still tasting great?
A call for an end to an ill-advised yet ubiquitous service question
Good service can turn even a bad meal into something with redeeming memory hooks, and can turn a great meal into the stuff of enduring personal legend. I often talk about how, for me, the food always comes first—and it does. But at the same time, exceptional service is something to be relished. That’s why I always take time to mention it in my articles and posts. And while I don’t make a point of always calling out bad service, it can have every bit as much, if not an even greater influence on one’s perception of a restaurant.
Bad service, at its least imposing, slows things down a bit. At its worst, it makes the person forking over their money to get forkfuls of food feel awkward, disappointed, angry, or a combination of all three. Many actions contribute to the broad umbrella term that is “bad service,” many of which take a great deal of server self awareness to avoid.
Let me make one thing clear. I do not envy restaurant staffers. Getting through a night’s service can be like negotiating a minefield littered with countless, constantly varying explosive devices, many of which are looking for any opportunity to go off. Getting through without becoming a casualty can be tough. So, allow me to offer a bit of advice to servers everywhere, straight from the landmine gallery. Please quit asking diners the following question: “Is everything tasting great?”
This also includes all ill-advised permutations of that query, examples of which include: “Isn’t that delicious?”, "How good is that?", “Everything still tasting amazing?”*
I’d say be careful what you ask for, but that aphorism is worn out. How about you just stop asking! There's nothing wrong with asking "How is everything?" That's an honest question. But this ill-conceived bastardization of that legitimate question leaves nowhere to go but down. Few dishes register on palates as flawless. So even meals that are truly a cut above include miniscule errors, meaning the answer to the question “Is everything tasting great?” almost always leaves room for a diner to tell a server what isn’t so terrific about the night’s offerings. Asking all of one's customers if everything's "great" is like recklessly skipping through that landmine-riddled dining room.
Fortunately, most people are too polite or non-confrontational to be honest, but particularly sensitive patrons—the ones itching to detonate—love this question. It’s the perfect segue for a venomous, angry Yelp-appropriate account of everything that fails to meet their standards. It’s hard to complain about the big hunk of shrapnel protruding from the meaty portion of one’s work slacks when you’re the one who lit the fuse.
Even in the cases of those willing to shine servers on, simply being confronted with the "great" question leaves a bad taste in their mouths. Nobody likes to be put on the spot, especially in public and with an uncomfortable query like this. I’m among them. As you’ve probably noticed, I’m opinionated and don’t pull punches. So, this common question, while harmless and fun to the server asking it, puts me in a tough position. Do I tell some white lies? Answer—nope!
If the meal’s actually great, I’ll happily tell a server that and, so it’s not mistaken for the standard placation they’re so used to, explain why I think the dish or meal is good. If things are sub-par in a severe way, I’ll note what can use some work. If the shortcomings are minor enough that they render a dish good or so-so, far less than “great” (or, Lord help us, “amazing”) but by no means bad, I simply don’t answer and ask for the refill on water they probably should have asked me about instead of my opinions.
So, why don’t I just tell them about the deficiencies in the minor cases? Two reasons. One—other than tell the individuals who prepared the food about a tiny thing like slightly salty but edible potatoes or a just-a-tad-too-spicy-for-most-folks broth, there’s really not much they can or should do and, therefore, no reason for me to tax them. Two—they don’t really want to know. I mean, seriously, while good servers want to be accommodating and give customers a quality experience, they don’t really want to have a run-down on the food diners are consuming, positive or negative. What they require to be effective is just enough detail to know everything’s all good or, when it’s not, the absolute minimum info to allow them to correct any errors. The best part—is doesn’t take a server asking a generic question to get any of that. Hence, there’s no need for table-side interrogation.
Before anybody waiters or waitresses get riled and start in with the countering comments, allow me to throw this out—I know that, in the case of most service staff begging this query, it’s not your fault. Many restaurants create a prescribed regimen for interacting with customers. I have written several communications policies for employers in my day and understand the benefits of providing cross-company interactional uniformity. But if a restaurant is going to dictate its servers’ one-liners, the least they can do is keep things engaging enough to simultaneously keep patrons comfortable and happy, and increase their employees’ ability to earn a good tip instead of forcing them to say things that tick customers off and, hence, hack away at their generous natures.
On two occasions at a particular restaurant, two different servers asked me in a way-too-enthusiastic tone, “Is everything still tasting perfect?” It was obvious this was the SOP at that venue and I instantly felt sorry for them, but didn’t hold it against them. But not everybody is as savvy about the inner-workings of restaurants, and I fear the income’s of these otherwise fine waitresses have suffered from the negative impact of that sophomoric, mandated brand of space-filling chit-chattery.
And speaking of adjectives—"perfect"? Really? Talk about setting the bar impossibly high. A perfect meal? I’ll let you know when and if that ever happens for me. So, too will the likes of Ferran Adria, Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz, all of whom probably operate under the wise assumption that, as close as they’ve come in their storied careers, the Jesus equivalent of cuisine doesn’t exist. “Fantastic” isn’t far off and “great” is subjective. Both are over-reaching in most cases. If this question must be asked, maybe shoot for something more realistic and far less dangerous like, say “OK” or the sadly devalued food adjective, “good.”
Another negative aspect of these questions (especially the "perfect" query) is the fact they also double as statements presenting the opinion of the restaurant that the food at said venue should be "perfect," "amazing," or "great" and that the diner should think so, too. Or at least that it was at some point since they almost always ask, "Is everything STILL tasting great/perfect?"
Think about it. If an actor turned in a disappointing performance in a musical then proceeded to greet guests on their way out, glad-handing them and asking them "Wasn't I amazing?" with a beaming smile on their face, it would sound ludicrous. A portion of the playgoers would look that on- and off-stage emoter in the eye, tell him "nope," and spend several minutes elaborating. An even larger portion would nod silently, letting them bask in their misconception, then go on to share with the world the story of the naive, self-aggrandizing Broadway aspirer with Junior High glee club skills and an unrealistic sense of self. The same thing happens in the restaurant biz. I'm presented with far too many opportunities to share the "Is everything tasting perfect?" story not to tell it. And it's always met with laughs.
Servers, please stop asking if everything is still tasting great (or any over-the-top variant thereof). And those who employ wait staffers, please quit making them ask. Instead, stick to time-tested questions that are actually helpful like, “Can I get you anything?” or “Would you like a refill?” Friendly, accommodating engagement with no room for negativity. Is that so hard? Answer—nope!