Waiters can pick the worst times to butt into

conversations to ask if everything is satisfactory

A couple of years ago, as is the natural course of things, I proposed marriage to a young woman of my acquaintance. Or, at least, I tried to propose marriage to her.

The problem was that every time I opened my mouth to pop the question, our waiter came by to say something or other, and burst the magic moment as if it were a small red balloon.

In between interruptions, I finally managed to ask her, though by that time I was so befuddled by a combination of wine and waiterly pestiferousness that I think I actually wound up asking her to pass the breadsticks. That particular young woman, being a quick study and all that, readily recognized from the look on my face that it was not breadsticks I was asking for. The rest, as they say, is marital history. (Or at least, it was history until the marriage crumbled like one of those aforementioned breadsticks.)

That particular waiter can be found at a nice little restaurant in Verona, Italy, called Il Bottiglia del Vino. And he's proof positive that, in the same way that guilt is the lingua franca of mothers around the world, approaching your table at exactly the wrong moment is one of the more significant elements defining a waiter.

This particular miscreant seemed to have a particular knack for the fine art of the inappropriate interruption. A Brobdingnagian brute of a fellow, he played the tables at this especially romantic little trattoria like a master. I could see him lurking in the shadows, cagily watching a couple grow closer, more intimate, more tender. And only at that moment, at the very peak of passion, at the crux of concupiscence, would he leap from his lair, and opt to announce the nightly specials, take the dinner order, ask if more wine was needed, or question the crest-fallen lovers about dessert.

Sometimes he would pounce for no particular reason at all, simply to ask if all was well, if the gnocchi or the risotto was properly prepared, if the osso buco or the vitello tonnato were just right. Verona, I reminded my ex-wife-to-be, is the city of Romeo & Juliet, a romantic story that does not end well. Very possibly they came to their bad ends simply because of service like this.

Local infestation

Relentlessly annoying waiters are, of course, not unique to Italy. Indeed, here in Southern California they seem to breed like gerbils they're everywhere at once.

No matter how deeply engrossed I am in a conversation, no matter how much the fact that I don't want to be disturbed is writ large, there's a waiter lurking nearby who's sure to pounce just as I make my most sanguine of points, asking if everything is to my satisfaction.

In some cases, they even revert to a sort of Dickensian English, wanting to know "if you've found satisfaction thus far in the meal." Where waiters learn to speak like that, I do not know. (The strangest had to be the waiter I encountered just a few weeks ago, who spoke only in the future tense. As in, "The steak tonight will be a Porterhouse, and it will be cooked as you desire it to be. It will be accompanied by potatoes as you wish them." To which I wanted to respond that, "I will be dining somewhere else, Master Buttercup.")

Now, I will admit that in most cases, it's fairly impossible for a waiter to gauge exactly what's going on at any given table. It's hard, from a distance, to determine that a gentleman is describing an unspeakably indecent act to a lady of his fancy (or vice versa), or an industrial secret worth untold millions is being whispered into a waiting ear. Most waiters, I've found, tend to show up at merely random moments usually wrong moments, but random nonetheless.

But there are others who, I'm sure, have developed an uncanny ability to interrupt the flow of the meal at precisely the wrong moment. In the same way that lower animals can sense an impending earthquake, they know that something of great import is about to transpire at a given table. And so, they leap into the breach, pepper grinder held high, wine bottle at the ready, dessert menu in hand. It is, I suppose, a talent of which I should stand in awe. And I do I call it awful.

Lack of training

A former waiter who begged for anonymity ("This being Hollywood, I never know when I'll have to be a waiter again.") said the problem is simple. "In most cases, waiters simply aren't trained. Unlike Europe, where being a waiter is a lifetime profession, in Los Angeles waiters tend to be people who are something else, but who have to work as a waiter until the screenplay is bought, or they land the role, or the record company offers them a contract."

Even at restaurants where there are more professional waiters than actors-between-jobs, there's also the exceedingly odd penchant for listing specials at a length so extreme, you're tempted to ask the waiter to sit down before he (or she) falls down.

I've listened in amazement to waiters as they recite a laundry list of daily specials, each dish described ingredient-by-ingredient, with every cooking technique detailed step by step. I once sat slack-jawed at a French restaurant in the Valley called Mon Grenier, as my waiter began to describe every dish on the regular menu in detail. I went blank as he enumerated the ingredients in the onion soup.

I've long lobbied for a federal law that makes the recitation of specials a hanging offense; what's wrong with just typing them up on sheets of paper, and inserting that into the regular menu? Karen Berk, founder of the Seasonal Table Cooking School, and one of the founding members of the American Institute of Wine & Food says, "All I ask is that the waiter take my order, and then get out of my face. I go to a restaurant for the food, and to visit with my dining companions. If I want a friend, I'll get a dog." She says that in her experience, the most professional service is found at Jozu, Spago and Michael's. "They're nice, they're helpful, and they don't hang around. They only appear when you need them."

Other favorable reviews

Fans of good service downtown speak well of restaurants like Nick & Steff's, the Water Grill, and Yang Chow in Chinatown, where William the Waiter is so well loved, diners insist on sitting at his tables, and his tables only. (Ask him to show you his collection of business cards he has everyone who was involved in the O.J. debacle, except for O.J. himself.)

Robert Simon, owner and guiding spirit at downtown-adjacent Bistro 45 in Pasadena, says that training his waiters to sense when diners need them and when diners don't is one of his main aims. "We have an eight-pound weight we drop on their feet if they get it wrong," he says with tongue planted firmly in cheek (I think). "We drop it enough, they finally get the message."

Simon says his goal is to make his servers as unobtrusive as possible, while keeping them physically in the restaurant. "We try to gauge the temperature of every table," he says, "and get a feel for who needs us, and who doesn't. We make our questions as simple as possible, just a quick: 'Is there anything I can get for you?' or 'Is everything as you wanted it?' Then, we get out of the way. I also try to hire waiters with eyes in the back of their heads. That way when they are needed, they know right away. If I could breed waiters with antennas, I would."

Robert Simon says there is one other rule he has. Which is that the manager must "touch every table." He says, "It's a small gesture. But it allows diners to know someone is there who cares. And then, he gets out of the way."

It's the waiter as Zen Master being there and not being there at the same time. Call it the sound of one hand serving.

Restaurant critic Merrill Shindler is co-editor of the Los Angeles/Southern California Zagat Survey.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.