Devin Dearing Preston: NYC writer, playwright, and storyteller

Ritual

November 10, 2009

I’ve heard it said somewhere that people love routine. A schedule. Structure. Some sort of order to cling to in this world of chaos.  I don’t know about you, but I tend to believe this whole heartedly. Some people have a more, shall we say, pronounced need for order than others (aka people who don’t live well with me). But I venture to say that a little bit of predictability goes a long way in getting most people through the day, week, month, year. Whether its their daily dose of facebook before they get in the shower in the morning or their nightly dose of marijuana and a box of cookies before they go to bed at night. People seem to like to have something on which they can depend.

Which brings me to the ritual of eating out. A luxury that the average American partakes in an average of 5 time a week. Clearly a ritual we enjoy. And judging by our regular clientele, when people find some place they like to eat at on Fridays, they usually continue to do so. On Fridays. And they do this partly because they know what to expect. Its frankly why the chain restaurant does so well in this country. No mater what city you are in, its always the same. No surprises.

We have a guest who comes in at least once a week. He always comes in at the same time. And  always sits at the same table. Always orders the same drink. Always gets the same burger special ordered the same way. Always packs half to go for his secretary. Always has a black coffee. And always tips 18%. His company changes. But that is it. And this has been the case for the 3 and 1/2 years I’ve worked at my restaurant. His routine has become my routine and Tuesday lunch just isn’t the same without Mr M. and his Dry Bombay Gibson Up with extra onions. 

There is an innate routine built into the job of waiting on tables, too. As chaotic as it might feel at times its really a simple formula that you could teach a monkey to do. Well, that is, if monkeys could talk. It is what our bosses like to call “The steps of service.” The basic bullet points you need to meet to make the guest feel like you are taking care of them. Because wether they know it consciously or not, that is the routine that they themselves are expecting when they go out  to eat. Its the exact same script for every table. 

“Hello.”  “Something to drink?” “We’ve got some great specials!” “Decide on dinner?” “How’s that starter?” “Another drink?” “How’s that steak?” “Dessert? Coffee?” “Thank you!”

Repeat. And truth is, anyone who has eaten out more than a few times knows the waiter script too. And sometimes will try to take control of the routine and skip ahead steps or jump my lines. I secretly hate when they do that. Do not tell me what you want to drink if I haven’t asked you yet. Have a little trust, I assure you I will ask, and with a smile.

Now, as comforting as some of us find routine to be, I feel like, strangely enough, its not something we want pointed out to us. For instance, even if I know exactly what a regular is going to order (the same thing they always do) I give them a chance to decide to order it themselves. I’m not scoring any points by reminding someone that they are predictable. In the same respect, a guest doesn’t want to feel like they are the 30th person today that I have asked “How are you enjoying your steak?” There is a fine balance to be made between the familiar and the over done. We still want to believe that our experience, no matter how routine, is special somehow. That we are unique in our desire to eat at 6. That enjoying a salad before a steak is something no one has ever done before. And that we are the first to imagine drinking a cabernet with a Cowboy Ribeye. And it becomes my job to make the guest feel like this is so.

It ain’t easy. Because after six straight days of “Hello.” “Something to drink?” “We have some great specials!” even the most order loving predictable human can begin to feel stifled. When things become so routine that you crave a little chaos. One begins to hope for the unusual order. You dare people, in your mind, to behave in a totally unpredictable manner. Order cheesecake to start (which,sadly, I have never once seen happen).

The great thing is, because its predictable you know what to expect. But that is also the not so great thing. I find myself wishing the guest wouldn’t constantly remind me that this is my routine. I much prefer the predictability of my facebook time in the morning and the enjoyment of my smoke enhanced box of cookies at night.

 

Categories: Waiting is the Hardest Part

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