Server Error

My name is Meredithand I'll be your waitress today. God help us all. What I'll actually be today is sweaty and bewildered, in my little green hat with the unidentifiable smear on the brim. I'll be praying that all the pens didn't roll away the last time my apron fell off, leaving me unable to write down your order. And I'll be hoping against hope that you don't ask for anything unconventional, like toast.

illustration by Jason Stout

illustration by Jason Stout

No, toast isn't on the menu, but it seems like a reasonable enough request -- to a customer. I know, because as a restaurant reviewer and avid eater-outer, I'm proficient at being a customer. I'm good at it.

But anyone who's going to be a critic of anything should know all aspects of what they're talking about. Sure, I cook a lot, read a lot, explore the world through food. I certainly eat enough. But it's been a while since I worked in a restaurant.

This summer the tables have turned, so to speak. I'm living on Mount Desert Island, Maine -- a beautiful, secluded, remote place ... until the tourist stampede of July and August. Because freelance writing is such a solitary task, and because I wanted to learn more about the restaurant business, I've picked up two shifts a week at a restaurant in the middle of Acadia National Park -- waiting tables at the Jordan Pond House Restaurant.

The restaurant, which is more than 100 years old, sits sandwiched among five lovely mountains on the shore of Jordan Pond, a glittering little lake reputed to be the cleanest in Maine. I'd eaten at the Pond House a number of times, and it's very special. Sit on a screened-in porch or overlooking the pond on the "Tea Lawn." Highlights on the menu include fresh-squeezed lemonade complete with a tiny pitcher of sugar-water so you can sweeten it yourself, or a bowl of lobster stew -- a brilliantly simple concoction of sautéed lobster, cream, sherry, and paprika in a rich stock. Some people come in every summer for the homemade ice cream or blueberry crisp made from tiny wild berries. But the Pond House is best known for afternoon tea. Served in ancient green pots that are inevitably chipped, adding old-world charm, the tea itself is secondary to the addictive popovers that are served alongside, straight from the oven. A server brings out a basket of fluffy, steam-filled rolls that are like Yorkshire pudding from a muffin tin, complete with whipped butter and strawberry jam. To a customer, the whole experience is a little bit glamorous in a rustic, traditional way.

The servers themselves are a wholesome, smiley, corn-fed bunch, mostly bright-eyed college kids or recent grads having an adventure. People all over the world compete for summer jobs in national parks, and the ones who make the cut are typically excellent at what they do.

Then there's me. Wholesome, smiley, corn-fed, yes. But my eyes aren't as bright when I'm squinting into the sun, blinking sweat out of them. And did I mention that I can't carry a tray to save my life? What I believed to be my last stint with waitressing ended abruptly six years ago, after some second-degree burns. It should be noted that the staff of an emergency room is far calmer than the staff at a restaurant.

I thought it would be different this time, that such a large and lovely restaurant would be a better experience. With 172 tables in the restaurant, I only have to pay attention to four of them. How hard could that be?

I start off by bringing people water and asking if they want something else to drink. If a customer has an intricate request -- like she wants an extra-dry cappuccino -- I continue to smile and act normal. When she explains to her table-mates that you can't get a good cappuccino on this island, I refrain from pointing out the inanity of demanding an American bastardization of an Italian drink in a restaurant designed for gentle pilgrimish grandparents and families on camping vacations, not snotty New York fruitloops, and that she's lucky we're not making her wear a tri-cornered hat.

Most customers are actually very polite, gracious people. A sign on my table alerts them to the fact that I'm from Texas, so they want to talk about that. I want to talk about it, too. Can I pull up a chair? I'm much more interested in trading life stories than I am in hearing about what they want to eat.

Because inevitably they want something really heavy that sloshes, like 10 bowls of chowder, or something light yet lopsided, which can also be a problem. Ranch instead of feta. Water with lemons, water with no lemons. Some people want chocolate milk, which we definitely don't have. Then there is the toast contingent. Requests like this set me back about 10 minutes, because I have to walk around and strategize, then find someone in a position of authority to badger. Finally, someone in the kitchen runs past, shouting, "We don't make toast." Then I'm safe, because once I know the no-toast policy I don't need to approach the cooks, which isn't allowed anyhow. People who are cooking lunch for 400 simply don't have time for one of your customers to be a sunburned German toddler with a craving. Yeah, me neither.

I don't even have time to feed the patrons who obediently restrict themselves to ordering from the menu; in a restaurant this size, every trip to the kitchen is at least 50 paces to and 50 paces fro, with time factored in to maneuver around the other 20 servers who also need to be in the same small space. In short, a major time commitment. "I'm sorry that your Coke refill took 45 minutes, sir, but there was a line, then I realized that I've had a chicken sandwich sitting under a heat lamp for long enough that the cook made me another one real quick, during which time I ladled out some lady's soup and realized that her husband had wanted an ice cream, which promptly melted in the 140-degree kitchen so it had to be re-scooped..."

In a bad situation, there are two things you can do: lie, or surrender. It is appropriate to lie, for instance, to a condescending curmudgeon who describes to you exactly the way he wants his popover to look. The charming thing about popovers is that every one looks different, more different than every snowflake, even. They puff and struggle out of their tins while they fill up with steam, then they wilt a little, and you can't dictate which way they should wilt. So when you fall behind, smile and lie through your teeth that you were waiting for the perfect popover to come out of the oven. He'll understand.

Surrendering to the customers is in order when you really screw up. Like if you have a table of six but something happens where you only manage to bring three of them lunch. Those were some huffy people -- until I waved the white flag. When I pleaded total incompetence, they couldn't get enough of me, started calling me sweetheart all the time. One woman at the table congratulated me on being able to own up to a mistake and told me that as a nurse, one time she forgot about one of the patients. I think it validated her to be forgotten about.

If you can't be good at what you do, there are ways to use ineptitude to your advantage. I believe I have a special knack for making trays look more unwieldy than they are, and for making the restaurant seem busier than it actually is. I've started to confess this to people who coo and cluck over how hard I seem to be working. They think I'm just being brave, but the other servers seem to make it look so effortless. Which brings me to my point:

Waiting tables isn't effortless, and it isn't even well-compensated. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant is a terrible pain to go out to eat with, because they always seem to insist on leaving a 40% tip. My silent theory has always been that if off-duty servers eating out didn't leave such huge tips, they wouldn't show up the rest of us in the 15-20% crowd, and they wouldn't be so poor. In other words, if they didn't spend so much cash tipping others, they wouldn't need such big tips themselves. Now I'm in the big tip club, too, but I've given up on hoping for good tips for myself. With three more weeks to go, I'm far more interested in trying to survive than in raking in the bucks. While other servers skillfully rush people in and out, I just say, Sit down, relax, and enjoy the view. You're gonna be here for a while.

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