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October 11-17, 2006

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Table Score

Our step-by-step guide to politely picking up your server

By Ella Lawrence

In the individually plugged-in worlds of and, face-to-face interaction can sometimes seem like so much more work than a simple IM. Holed up in front of our computers all day, we send winks and laughs to each other electronically, post new pictures of ourselves on our websites of choice and tune out the world around us to the sounds of our favorite playlist.

But how are you supposed to greet someone you're meeting for the first time when you already know so much through online conversations? I'm a proponent of the good old-fashioned method of hitting on someone in a bar, the grocery store or a restaurant. And during my time as a waitress, romantic flutter of some sort is an almost nightly occurrence. I've never given my phone number to a customer, but I have batted my eyelashes just enough to increase my tip percentage without coming across as overbearing. I've also become adept at kindly turning down date offers ranging from the friendly ("What do you like to do on your days off?") to the not-so-subtle ("What time are you off?").

I was recently asked out by a customer at the restaurant where I work. Although I do not plan to dine with him, I'd consider it if I was not already involved with someone. And because this often-hit-on waitress does not usually consider taking a tableside flirtation to the next level, I thought I would pass along this gentleman's method.

Rule #1: Err on the side of politeness. This gentleman was dining with another male friend, and both of them were friendly as soon as I approached their table. They had many questions about the menu and listened attentively to my answers. The two engaged me in conversation for several minutes each time I visited their table, but were also attuned to the fact that I had several other tables to attend. Being overly obvious about your attraction to your friendly server will only turn her off completely, and demanding too much attention when she is at your table will annoy her. Follow the server's subtle body language: if she lingers at the table, rearranging silverware and pouring you more water and wine, you're in the clear to chat. If she is looking around, has her body turned away from you and doesn't respond with more than a short yes or no, it's time to cut the conversation short and wait until she comes around next time.

Rule #2: Buy whatever your server tells you to. Yes, I am trying to make a buck, but I'm not going to sell a table some expensive bottle of wine that's not very good. If you're willing to drop coin (and this man was) and you're listening to everything I say, I'm going to notice, and you're going to have a nice dinner because I know what I'm talking about. Questions about the menu show an interest in the food, and attentive listening to the answers and following the server's recommendations are a subtle way to show you are interested and that you care what the server has to say.

Rule #3: Subtlety, subtlety, subtlety. When I'm serving you, it's my job to talk to you. If you're overtly hitting on me, that makes it hard. We're not in a club or a bar; you're out on the town and I'm in my place of employment. Don't put me in a sticky situation. Once, when working at a venerable four-star Healdsburg institution, a table of two young, attractive, wealthy and overall despicable men got drunker and drunker and more and more forward. They wouldn't take no for an answer when inviting me to join them for a cocktail in a faraway town. A couch was offered as a sleeping place, and then one joshed the other that where I was really wanted was in bed. I responded tartly with "Oh, well if that's the case, why don't I just give you my phone number and you can come over later and we'll have sex?" The men looked at me, astounded, meekly paid their bill and left the restaurant. That one-liner came directly from my manager.

Rule #4: Tip 20 percent. This is always the proper tip amount. Any less, you're a cheapskate; any more, you're desperate.

Rule #5: Leave the restaurant before it's too late. By the time those two gentlemen left my place of employment last night, it was late, but I didn't yet hate them. I was having a good time with my manager and the bartender trying to figure out how the one man was going to drop the question, and I was right: he'd spent an overly long time signing his credit card slip, and I figured he was writing me a note.

Writing a note is the best way to ask your server out. A direct question is awkward either way--if the server says no, you're stuck feeling like a jerk and have to leave the restaurant in shame. If the server says yes, he or she will be mercilessly teased by co-workers (restaurant people have eyes in the back and on the sides of their heads; they see everything that goes down on the dining room floor), ruining the date before it ever takes place.

On his way out the door, this particular gentleman handed me a folded piece of paper, saying, "This is for you." He could've left it in the check presenter, because a waiter is the only one who ever touches a check presenter unless a manager picks it up, in which case he will hand it to the waiter without opening it. (Unspoken service rule #435.) I appreciated his boldness, as it was the only bold thing he'd done all night and then he was on his way out the door.

The note had his name and telephone number. On the next line, he'd put the name of another restaurant I'd recommended. The next line read, "Tuesday [my next night off, which he'd ascertained through questioning]. 8pm. Dinner? Call me!"

This is the perfect way to do it. Put everything completely in the server's hands, leave before you embarrass yourself (see co-workers and eyes, above) and don't be too disappointed if you don't get a call back. This man was attractive, well-spoken and polite.

Beats finding out your date lied about her height by a foot and has terrible taste in shoes anyday.

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