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.

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