Editor's note: Who knew what Christopher Hitchens would stir up last week when he wrote on Slate about servers pouring wine. Our awesomely talented intern Hannah, who works at a wine bar, has a response.
I work at a wine bar. I pour a lot of wine. It goes with the job.
When Christopher Hitchens posted his rant last week on Slate, I couldn't help but feel personally attacked. Hitchens abhors the intrusion of waiters who pour wine into diners' glasses. "How did such a barbaric custom get itself established," he asks, "and why on earth do we put up with it?"
I worry about being awkward, sometimes, or clumsy. But I doubt a guest at my restaurant has ever accused me, even in the deepest recesses of their secret thoughts, of barbarism. I believe it is my job to refill your glass when it is nearing empty. I know my boss certainly believes that this is my job, as do most of the people whose glasses I top off. And when I'm in the diner's seat, it's a shame to have to pour my own wine. When I go out to eat, I want to be served, not be left to serve myself.
Not only is pouring wine without being asked "a breathtaking act of rudeness in itself," Hitchens continues, but "it conveys a none-too-subtle and mercenary message: Hurry up and order another bottle."
Interrupting conversation to ask such a question directly? Hitchens is horrified. He will order his wine when he damn well pleases.
Frank Bruni's Response
Yesterday, Frank Bruni weighed in. His tactic was to brush off Hitchens' complaints&mdash"if a server’s to serve, he or she can’t skulk in the distant shadows of the restaurant all night long"&mdash(rock on, Bruni!) and make his own.
Bruni takes issue with the "indiscriminate assumptions" that servers sometimes make. For example, the assumption that everyone at the table is drinking. Bruni tells the following tale about his nondrinking friend:
The friend deliberately says nothing as a server delivers an ordered bottle and pours a bit for all four of the people at the table. The friend doesn’t want to be conspicuous and figures that later on, when the bottle’s empty, he’ll simply hand his glass over to someone else: me, I hope. The friend doesn’t drink any of the wine, so the level of it in his glass never drops.
But when the server returns to add wine to the glasses in which the level has dropped—my glass, for example—he also adds wine to my friend’s glass. He does this yet again on the next go-round. With even moderately careful observation, the server would deduce that my friend isn’t drinking, and that my friend’s glass has now gone from one-third to two-thirds full.
Bruni, unlike Hitchens, is willing to concede that the line between vigilance and intrusiveness is often quite fine and quite murky. Yet he charges servers (he is careful to specify, "some servers") with not only failing, but intentionally refusing to discern the unspoken desires of their customers—like that his friend's wine glass is exactly as he left it, or that guests might be uninterested in elaborate descriptions of the food or wine they set in front of them.
My Ideal Dinner Service
So let me tell a happier story. The story of my perfect world:
Bruni is out to dinner with his friends. They order a gorgeous bottle of red. Among his friends is man who, for whatever reason, is not partaking in the vino. Without a trace of awkwardness, I uncork the bottle at the table. Bruni tastes the wine. "Wow!" he exclaims, "How intensely tasty." I pour him a full glass.
When I gingerly commence pouring wine for Mr. JustWater, he says, "none for me, thank you." I discretely remove his wine glass. Since the diners are a group of friends, and more important, a group of mature adults, the nondrinker is not overly concerned with being conspicuous. He is, however, concerned with politely articulating his preferences. A simple "no thank you" does the trick brilliantly. More wine for Bruni and the rest of the gang. When another server approaches to refill the glasses (as I am busy listening to a lady recount all the ways I remind her of her granddaughter), he does not mistakenly pour deliciousness into the glass of Mr. JustWater. All are happy.
Waiters must cater to all sorts of people with all sorts of preferences. I take pride in giving good service. If you ask me for something reasonable, I will do everything in my power to make it happen. But waiters are not mind-readers. Words are wonderful things. If Mr. Hitchens had said to me, "I prefer to pour my own wine, please," I might roll my eyes (not in front of him, of course), but I would respectfully oblige. Trust me, people have requested much stranger things.
So, dear diner, please speak up! If you assume I will intuit that you prefer your chocolate cake before your salad, you will be sorely disappointed. And neither of us wants that.