Cafe Reviews

Servers Turn the Tables

Striving for perfection isn't supposed to be a restaurant customer's job. The typical American diner is like royalty, to be treated with the respect due any divine creature. This is a service-oriented society, by God, and that means if the wait time is unreasonable, if the order isn't just right, if there's a long blond hair in the salad, suddenly, a first-time visit becomes the last time, or loyalties to a favorite hangout turn seditious. In Phoenix there's always another restaurant around the corner.

The sheer number of alternatives here provides dramatic impetus to servers to treat people right. Most of us know what we want from a server--good advice, answers to all of our questions, accurate order-taking, reasonable gentility.

And most of us try to be halfway nice to the hired help in the optimistic belief that it will influence the quality of our meal for the better. But, apparently, perceiving that it isn't always fun to serve royalty, some customers take that theory further.

Servers readily admit that some customers are "better" than others, that some make it easier to deliver good service. What exactly goes into being a good customer? Who knows better than servers? The expert servers whose comments follow have pondered the makings of the perfect dining customer. Below they share their thoughts.

Portia White
Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe
808 East Jefferson

Mrs. White's motto hangs near the door: We give fast service, no matter how long it takes. The food speaks for itself: fried chicken and pork chops, "smothered" chicken, chicken and dumplings. No disappointments here--especially if you love chicken.

Portia White, daughter of the Mrs. White, calmly sits on a stool behind the cash register, sipping lemonade behind her round, black eyeglasses.

At Mrs. White's, "What you see is what you get," says White confidently. "We have good food. We basically have good personalities. Everybody knows and respects my brother and mom.

"I couldn't ask for a better group of people," White says of her customers. "We adopt people, all races, ages--some folks, we just absorb them right in. When I know someone well and know what they want--sometimes we're really busy and short-handed--it's easy to serve them."

White urges her customers to make themselves at home--but only up to the point just before they think they can autograph the densely celebrity-inked walls at will. "Only certain people get to write on the wall," she says firmly. "Some people get angry when they can't write on the wall, so we tell them, 'Go out and let people know who you are, and then you can come back and write on the wall.'"

White says some of her best customers provide special considerations: One remembers her birthday; another's wife sends along cookies. A few weeks ago, somebody else gave the restaurant a pretty balloon for no particular reason.

What's her idea of a customer who goes above and beyond the call? Charles Barkley, White says, used to give free plugs for the cafe in the local media.

"A lot of people came because of Barkley," White says, bemoaning his departure from the Phoenix Suns. "He was nothing but nice and polite."

Stewart Bailey
Vincent Guerithault on Camelback
3930 East Camelback

Ronald Reagan and George Bush are smiling broadly in the pictures hanging in Vincent's foyer. By waiter Stewart Bailey's definition, they are perfect customers. Working in high-end restaurants like Vincent's over the years has taught Bailey to treat his customers as he himself likes to be treated. That means paying attention to the little things, like not asking a question while a person's mouth is full. And being friendly but not too friendly. He says, "I don't think customers come out to talk to the waiter." His job, he says, is to leave his customers with smiles on their faces. That's how he knows he's succeeded.

Of course, there's that other way that customers communicate their pleasure or displeasure--the tip.

At Vincent Guerithault on Camelback and other upscale joints, tips are typically the same 15 to 20 percent that food servers rake in elsewhere, although the bill is appreciably higher, so the server's cut comes to a rather nice piece of change.

Sometimes, says Bailey, a customer will slip him a little extra. Sometimes, it will be a lot.

"I was once given a chip for Caesars Palace. It was a $100 chip," he says. "It's hard to say what you consider an awesome tip. If you get one that's nice, you're happy about it."

The trick is to do the best job possible at every table. "You're only making money while a restaurant is busy, so you want everyone to come back, not just because someone gives you great tips."

Thomas Tuberty
House of Tricks
114 East Seventh Street, Tempe

When Thomas Tuberty was a kid, he would hold plastic cocktail straws in the flame of a candle when his parents took him out to eat, leaving a smelly mess for someone to clean up. With that on his conscience and six years' experience as a server at House of Tricks, Tuberty has learned to appreciate the pleasures of a great customer.

The best customers, he says, are fellow servers. "They know how to speak, what to ask for. They're not balancing their knives on the edge of the plate." He appreciates it when customers who are also food servers automatically put their utensils or other dishes on their plates to show they're done--but he doesn't expect it of everyone. "After all, they're paying to be waited on," he says.

What he likes is for customers to tell him what they want. Tuberty says it helps, for example, when the customer makes a food server aware of a time crunch.

"If you're in a hurry, tell the waiter. If you're kicking back, kick back," Tuberty suggests. "If time's a consideration, let us know. We have good chefs here who can just bat it out."

Tuberty tries to keep track of the events going on in downtown Tempe to help his customers move along on schedule.

Ironically, says Tuberty, his favorite customers sometimes are not the kindest. He says he enjoys a challenge.

Once in a while, a diner may be grumpy; then, says Tuberty, he will "kill them with kindness."

"I get a big rush out of it. If a hostess says, 'They're real jerks,' I'll head right over to that table. It becomes my goal to make those people happy."

So, choose your poison--be grumpy, or not. Better yet, be famous--maybe you'll be asked to sign Mrs. White's wall.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.