My son spent four hours in a Korean restaurant in LA’s Korea Town recently with two friends. They ate, drank and talked uninterrupted by waiters, bus-boys and everyone else who worked for the restaurant. No one came to ask “How is everything?” “Is there anything I can do for you?” “Would you like dessert, coffee, anything at all?” No one came to fill water glasses that didn’t need filling in the first place. Nor did they pick up used or unused plates or cutlery. They didn’t clear  bread-baskets, butter plates or condiments.

My son told me that being in that Korean restaurant was next to perfect for him and his friends. When they wanted something, there was a red button on the table. They hit the button and within 15 seconds someone came to ask what they needed. Within a couple of minutes their request was fulfilled. Then they were left alone.

My son knows that the constant interruptions of restaurant workers is one of my major pet peeves, which is why he told me about this Korea-Town restaurant experience.

I often meet congregants for breakfast and lunch in restaurants in order to talk about challenges they face. They speak to me about problems with parents, children, spouses, siblings, friends, health, and work. Sometimes they want to talk with me about the death of loved ones and faith – big issues. At one such lunch recently, we were disturbed every couple of minutes by restaurant workers until I turned to our waiter and asked him to tell everyone to simply leave us alone. I told him that when we wanted something, we’d ask for it,

My wife and I have a favorite Italian restaurant in our neighborhood at which we’ve dined for more than 25 years. One waitress knows us fairly well, and whenever we come she tells every bus person, every waiter, bread-basket filler, water-glass pourer, everyone to leave us alone – completely. We love her for it, and we won’t sit at anyone else’s table except hers. We always give her a particularly generous gratuity when we leave.

My wife and I remember fondly our trip to Paris a few years ago. Around 1 pm one day, we wandered into a sidewalk café filled with a lunch-time crowd. We sat down at an empty table and were given a menu. When we were ready, we called our waiter and ordered. First came the wine, almost immediately, and then ten minutes later the food arrived. We drank, ate, talked, relaxed, and enjoyed each other’s company. In the ninety minutes we were in the restaurant, we were left completely alone. If we wanted something, we asked for it. No worker came to fill our water glasses. No one came to clear our dishes. No one interrupted us at any time. No one hurried us to finish our food so as to open our table to someone else.

When we were ready to go, we asked for our bill, got it quickly, paid it, and left. That was one of the most relaxing and leisurely meals I’ve had in a restaurant in quite some time. It now represents my “gold standard” of restaurant service.

What’s the problem in America today? In my opinion, it’s simply this – The idea of “service” has come to represent unrestrained attention to customers which, from our point of view as customers, constitutes a constant barrage of interruptions. Restaurant workers have become so specialized in what they do, and it seems to me that they are watched closely by their bosses to appear always busy, that if they should, God forbid, stand still, they worry that they will be reprimanded. And so, if we customers go to the restroom, we’ll return to the table and our napkins will have been folded. Our water glasses are refilled when only 2 or 3 sips are taken – same with coffee cups, even when we don’t want it or ask for it. Waiters clear our dishes while others at the table are still eating. Recently, my wife’s dish was picked up with food still on it and a fork in her hand!

I don’t blame restaurant workers (well – sometimes!). They are just doing their jobs. Rather, I blame their bosses who, in my view, have got it all wrong about what “service” ought to mean.

I love the “red button” service at my son’s Korean restaurant. Perhaps, I ought to carry my own red light button, put it on my table and tell our waiters, bus-boys and everyone who works in the restaurant that I don’t wish to be disturbed unless I turn on that red light.

Better yet – perhaps restauranteurs will read this and institute a new policy in their establishments to leave diners alone unless they ask for service. That would make my day and every day like that one in Paris. In the meantime, I’m going to visit that Korean Restaurant in Korea Town.

 

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