Wake Up Call

The Server Is Down

I'm a longtime restaurant person. I've been the dishwasher, the head waiter and the manager. I consider myself a good evaluator of service.

My passion is dining out at all types of restaurants. I don't look for the Mary Elaine's touches when I eat at Carlsbad Tavern. Each level of restaurant has its own level of service. The Good Egg greets you promptly with a pitcher of hot coffee. Bistro 24 anticipates your needs and coddles you.

Nonetheless, every restaurant is subject to the laws of proper service. There are many things a customer should never have to do at a restaurant, no matter how trendy or busy the place is. I call these "universal signs" -- not the universal signs of love or internationally accepted traffic signs, but the signs that a waiter needs to be paying more attention to business.

Standing uncomfortably by a table covered with dirty plates is a universal sign to the server to come over and clean up. I recently went to the new Cheesecake Factory in Scottsdale with a friend of mine. We went in for a late cocktail, about 10:30 p.m.

We picked one of the three bar tables that were open, the one with the smallest stack of dirty plates. And there we stood, watching the flurry of servers walk by with nary a glance our way. We gave up after two or three minutes and stacked the plates and glasses into an ungainly pile ourselves. The trick worked.

A server mustered the courage to approach our leaning tower of glassware, greeting us coolly. "How are you tonight? By the way, this section is closed. If you want service, you can sit at the bar or the hostess can seat you at a table."

If you want service.

"Are you kidding?" was the only response I could think of. He grabbed the leaning tower of glasses and the plates and walked away. We moved to the bar, to more dirty glasses and another server who ignored us, too.

Closing your menu is the universal sign that you're ready to order. That should be enough of a signal to send an attentive server running your way.

To be fair, Houston's Restaurant is often known for its over-service. Get you in, get you out, turn the table to accommodate the guests waiting in the foyer. On my last visit, we were asked if we were ready to order three times in the first three minutes, including a blunt "Are you ready?" I think my last scowl scared our server away.

Big mistake. We spent the next several minutes trying to get our waitress to come back. We had flipped and closed our menus, yet she wouldn't return. Apparently, this server could not "read" the table to know when we were finally ready to order. So, we provided the most extreme of universal signs: We stacked the menus at the edge of the table. We shouldn't have had to go so far, but feeble servers need your cues to move to the next step.

Crumpling your napkin by your plate is the universal sign that you're done with dinner and ready for your plates to be cleared. But your server is nowhere to be found. How do you get rid of the plates?

As demonstrated by the Cheesecake Factory incident, stacking the plates is not always a surefire solution. Another trick: Create a small stack of plates and pass it directly to an unsuspecting server, busboy or, better yet, a manager.

This is rude and generally inappropriate, but still a highly effective universal sign. I have received wonderful returns on this gesture at Mondo's in Scottsdale. Mondo's is a restaurant with a high employee-to-customer snub factor -- the number of employees per customer who walk blindly by your table. Servers always seem to have to be someplace else, and managers are always talking into those little microphones, looking through the walls as if to see the person they're hearing in their earpiece. Forcing the plates into a surprised manager's hands gives them a great wake-up call.

Arranging the check folder with a credit card or cash sticking out is the universal sign that you want to pay your bill.

Again, where's your server when it's time to settle up? Let me tell you. He's in back complaining that you took forever to order. He's seeking sympathy from the other servers because you took the plates and shoved them at the manager, while swearing that seconds earlier, you were only halfway through. And now he's sure you are cheap and he'll get a lousy tip.

Yes, he's going to get a lousy tip. And since he's not around, you have to improvise another sign. My solution: Leave enough cash to pay the bill, add a small but insulting tip, and hand it to the hostess on the way out. Tell her: "If you can find my server, tell him that I'm sorry about the tip, but I couldn't wait any longer to get change on this $100."

A bad tip alone won't fix the server or the restaurant. So, for the sake of the next guest, speak to the manager, the bartender, the hostess -- whoever will listen. Vote with your voice, your wallet and your feet. And maybe the next guests at this restaurant won't have to resort to any extraordinary universal signs.

Alex Neville is currently serving diners at one of the Valley's trendiest eateries.

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Alex Neville