The Spanish Waitress

I’m sorry to say it, but waiting staff in London are so often abysmal these days.  Foreign students or travellers or temporary employees – often well-meaning but generally poorly trained and overworked.  Of course, one sympathises – they are young and on minimal salaries.  But you have to have witnessed proper good service – from the old-fashioned sort of waiter or waitress that so few restaurants now seem to employ, who see their job as a profession and are proud of every aspect of if – to realise how poor many waiting staff are.

Aside from often not speaking the language well enough to understand the simplest query, they just don’t seem to care, or haven’t been shown, how things ought to be done.

How frequently it happens that starters are brought to the table and plonked down in front of people at random, without thought for the basic idea of asking who has ordered what.  Such a ridiculous, basic, inexcusable mistake!  Customers shouldn’t be passing around their starters because they’ve been served to the wrong people!

And it should be unthinkable to deliver a meal to someone when they haven’t been provided with appropriate cutlery to eat it.  Just the other day we sat and observed a waitress have a conversation with someone as we waited, fuming and embarrassed behind our plates of gradually-getting-colder food, for her to eventually deliver our knives and forks.

Okay, sometimes a waiter will know to open the red wine early.  Sometimes the table will be cleared of crumbs between courses.  Sometimes the lady will be asked if she wants any wine before it is poured into her glass.

But so often, you have to ask for a steak knife, ask for mustard, remind someone that you also ordered a salad.

I’ve known places serve battered fish without being able to provide tartare sauce, in fact not even know what it is when asked.  (I’ve known cafés advertising beef and horseradish baguettes to be unable to provide any horseradish!)

And what has happened to the concept of setting down a plate of food in front of someone, with the meat facing towards them and the accompaniments away?

I was taught this during my time as a waitress in a decent hotel, many years ago.  It is a basic rule of the waiting profession.  But it seems no-one is taught it any more.  Constantly, plates are deposited randomly, often with the chips to the front and the steak or chicken to the back.  Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but some of us still care.  Some of us know that it’s wrong!

And why do you never get butter with cheese and biscuits, nowadays?  You always have to ask!  And how seldom the butter, when it comes, is soft enough to spread, rather than being straight out of the fridge.  And how rarely has the soft French cheese been allowed to stand and melt properly, so that one can appreciate its true flavour.

I guess I’m showing myself up as someone who is used to eating out and is being fussy.  But if you pay a lot of money for a meal, these things should be done correctly, they should go without saying!

This rant has been prompted by the memory of a waitress I witnessed in a Spanish café.  A waitress with character, with attitude (a good one) – and with skill!

She is not old, but not young.  Not fat, but not thin.  Her hair is tied back, she is wearing a pretty flowery dress with short sleeves, and a white apron.

She is so busy!  She is serving many tables at once.  Rushing here to deliver some wine, hurrying there to clear some plates.  More people come in, and she greets them with a smile and a welcome, quickly sitting them down with a menu and promising to be back shortly.  To watch her is to watch a true professional at work.  To watch her is like observing a circus performer keeping a series of plates spinning.  She is always looking, watching, checking to see the state of play at each of her tables.  This is what bad waiters and waitresses never do – they will walk the length of the restaurant with their eyes to the floor, deliberately avoiding getting stopped and asked for anything.  A good waiter, or a good restaurant manager, will always be looking to see what stage each table is at, what is likely to be needed next, and how soon.

The Spanish waitress is an expert in spinning plates.  You can see her prioritising moment by moment.  Three things need doing at the same time, but she has the knack of choosing the most urgent, the most likely to keep her customers’ overall happiness quotient up.  She knows that offering a drink on arrival is key to feeling that you haven’t been neglected, and also stops you getting up and walking out if subsequent service becomes slow.  She knows that it’s the interval between the starter and the main course that people judge good service – and a good restaurant – by.  Get the main courses out quickly, don’t leave people sitting forever with empty starter plates in front of them.  The gap before a dessert or before coffee can be a bit longer.  Get the first two courses served in good time, that’s what matters.

It’s a pleasure to watch her managing her tables – ours included – with such competence, and also with such good nature.

Always she is polite and smiling, and it doesn’t seem forced.  She is rushed off her feet, to a certain extent, but she seems to find this exhilarating, a challenge rather than something to begrudge.

And if she can’t get to you immediately, she acknowledges with a comment or a smile or a nod that she knows you are waiting.  This is another key to good service.  People understand that a server can be busy.  They just want to know that their need has been noted, that someone is striving to get to them when they can.  It is being ignored that annoys people.

We don’t understand all her comments as they are tossed here and there, to her customers and to her colleagues, in lyrical Spanish.  But from her smiles, and the smiles and responses of those she addresses, we know that she is being polite and friendly, and getting people on her side, and also showing some of her character – whether it is her true self or an act doesn’t really matter.  It’s the fact that she’s making an effort that goes down so well.

We are visitors to her country but her English is more than passable.  She asks a few friendly questions, makes some suggestions when we hesitate about what to order – offers some alternatives when we aren’t sure what drinks to have.  Oh the value of a suggestion from a knowledgeable waitress!  Yes, we are happy to choose the local beer you suggest, and whatever you think is best from the kitchen – something available and fresh and likely to be served quickly – will meet our needs adequately!

Sardines and squid, I believe we order, and then steaks with chips and salad, generally a safe bet, and whatever local alcohol is recommended.  (And yes, my steak is served with the meat towards me, as the God of Good Waiting intended!)

Followed by my favourite Spanish dessert, crème caramel – or as they have it, ‘flan’.  And it is such good flan, such perfect flan!  In such a small and ordinary pavement café!  It couldn’t be better in Spain’s most exclusive restaurant.

Everything in this charming little place is good – from the squid to the steak to the salad.

And most especially – the service!

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