No rules, just (what feels) right

Like capri-length pants, the “ladies first” edict is always stylish, in my opinion. This should hold true in any restaurant, whether its tables are set with plastic forks or with crystal goblets. But today’s emphasis on trendy atmosphere and table flipping often trumps the classic rules of service.

Seeking to understand the current flavor of etiquette in an industry where, increasingly, anything goes, Xpress set out to experience two local eateries.

On the premise that a country-style place might adhere to old-fashioned serving standards—at least gender-wise—we visited a popular barbecue pit on a busy Friday night.

Now, today’s home-style restaurants are of two general types. The old-school diner (a vanishing breed) generally features cheap meat-and-three plates and hand-scribbled guest checks. And the other, more prevalent type—the uppity down-home restaurant, if you will—is distinguished by retro-quirky decor, self-consciously presented menu items (sometimes fetishized in quotation marks, e.g. “Classic Fries”) and borderline-offensive prices.

The home-styler we visited, which shall remain nameless, was one of the latter places. The barbecue was tangy, the sides were zesty and the feeling was festive. But the cost was daunting, which made the poor service edge into infamy. You don’t expect attention to detail in a diner. But when you’re relinquishing the better part of a 20-spot for a smattering of pulled pork and a Diet Coke, little things start to matter.

To the server’s credit, he did take my order before my husband’s—but probably because I looked the crankiest: It was at least 15 minutes from the time the hostess sat us to the first appearance of our waiter.

It wasn’t our waiter who delivered the goods, but a young man who might have been a food runner or a suddenly promoted dishwasher—it wasn’t clear. “Who ordered the ribs?” he huffed impatiently, and, without waiting for an answer, proceeded to plop both entrées in the exact center of the table.

Well, at least that way he had half a chance of getting it right.

We fared much better at Sunset Terrace at the Grove Park Inn, a high-end chophouse in the traditional mode. Complementing the exquisite food and open-air view, service here was seamless. “We strive to hire servers who have at least five years of experience in fine dining,” says Amy Roberts, Sunset Terrace’s dining-room supervisor. “After they’re hired, our servers undergo a rigorous 10-day training period.”

Service with a view: The Sunset Terrace at the Grove Park Inn, where the eatery’s emphasis on quality service consistently pays off.

As might be expected, women diners here are asked for their orders first and given their food first. Plates are served from the left and cleared from the right. However, some of the extra-fine points of upscale dining seem almost backward by today’s standards. Consider this passage, from cuisine.net: “It has become common for waiters to remove plates as each guest finishes … perhaps because it can be interpreted as extreme attentiveness on the part of the waiter. … [But] the most elegant service facilitates the progress of a synchronized meal for the whole table.”

Just so, at Sunset Terrace, “all dishes are cleared at the same time,” Roberts confirms. “A man’s plate would never be cleared before a woman’s,” she emphasizes.

But if fine-dining protocol is like a waltz, then chain-restaurant service is akin to a military march. Scott Stetson, inventory manager at Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, managed Applebee’s restaurants for six years in Asheville, Durham and Gastonia. He points out that although Applebee’s uses food runners to handle the high volume of tables per server, the runners are trained to know which plate is going to whom.

“You don’t want the food runners auctioning off the food,” Stetson explains. In eateries like Applebee’s, he adds, “it’s all about efficiency.” Stetson offers an insider’s view of “table flipping”—the way chain restaurants insure swift service, and thus maximum profits, for both store and server. The system leaves little room for traditional notions of service etiquette.

“The seats are numbered,” he reveals, “and the orders are taken starting with the first person on the left and going around in a circle.” From the time a table is newly seated, “the server has about 60 seconds to approach the table to get the drink order, and four minutes to bring the drinks.” The rest of the meal is also strictly timed.

This uniform approach is called “branding,” says Stetson. “The idea is that, at any Applebee’s anywhere in the country, you’d get the same kind of service, an almost identical menu—and the food would come out at the same time.”

Falling somewhere among the foregoing examples is the bistro—that cozy, upscale-casual fixture of modern dining that emphasizes creative cuisine with forkfuls of ambience.

The popular eatery Fig in Biltmore Village is just such a place. And when co-owner Treavis Taylor attempts to describe his restaurant’s milieu, he also reveals the challenge facing the typical Fig server.

“We are a small place, and we want our atmosphere to be warm—with a high level of professionalism, but not at all pretentious,” he says. “Our servers must toe the line between maintaining some fine-dining rules”—including serving women first—“and being engaging.”

As in chain-restaurant service, it’s an approach meant to benefit both customer and employee. “A lot of our very wealthy clients come back to ask for specific servers they’ve come to know,” Taylor says.

And so if fine dining moves cotillion-smooth and the action in a chain eatery is more drill than dance, then trendy-bistro service is a postmodern manifesto: Call it contact improvisation with an interpretive edge.

According to Taylor, a Fig server “should know in less than a minute whether the client wants to be engaged or to be left alone. We really count on our servers to be intuitive.”

[Melanie McGee Bianchi is and Asheville-based writer and editor.]

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