I've put in time as a server, and time working with servers, training servers, and managing servers. Whenever I get the chance, I love to dine out and get served a little myself.
Being a great server is no walk in the park. Anyone who's spent time taking orders and whisking trays to the hungry masses knows waiting tables well is a challenging, sometimes formidable, feat. I've been dining out frequently recently, and as always, paying a lot of attention to the service, or lack thereof. Here are my conclusions as to what stellar service entails, and how to achieve it.
In a Nutshell
A wonderful server's job is to make sure each customer has a happy experience.
A server must pull this off within the confines of their place of employ. My cheese and wine bar had a dairy-focused menu, so accommodating vegans was a challenge. But wine is vegan! If they wanted, we made them roquefort-less salad and cheese-less grilled cheese.
Happy experiences come in all colors of the rainbow. There are fast food and slow food successes. There is great service with ample and expansive interaction and impressive service where your waiter becomes miraculously invisible.
Some Dos and Don'ts
Do develop razor-sharp people-reading intuition. Jenny is thrilled to spend all night picking your brain about raw milk cheese laws. James would rather do his taxes.
Do know your restaurant's menu and wine list like the back of your hand. Know that the shallot jam is cooked for three days and that the secret to the ravioli's miraculous richness is foie gras. Know that the restaurant was built in 1987 by Bob Bilson, a champion rugby star. Information is power. Use your knowledge generously but sparingly. Remember: Jenny is titillated; James is indifferent.
Do check with the kitchen. Even if you know the menu like the back of your hand. At my chain restaurant, unaware of sneaky garlic powder in the cheese toast, I almost killed someone with an allium allergy. And I nearly got myself fired.
Don't patronize. I know tomatoes are in season right now, and I know what boquerones are. If I don't, I will ask. In which case, it's also not OK to be condescending. My boyfriend is an accomplished chef, but English is his second language. Don't treat him, or anyone else, like they're stupid. (Even if they are.)
Don't ignore anyone, even if you're so deep in the shits you're going to scream. Even if they're from a section eons away and there's an emergency unfolding in your section. Tell them politely: "I'll be with you in one moment," and follow through. Perhaps send someone else.
Don't ever tell someone "you have to order with your server," or something to that tune. Hearing that makes my skin crawl! Say, "Great! Tempura green beans and fish tacos," and relay that to their server. Write it down if you must.
It's painfully obvious that chatting with your coworkers and texting where guests can see you are big don'ts. You're working, people. Have some respect.
Also prominent on my don't list: throwing down a plate in front of someone. Deliver the dish as if you're delivering a precious gift. Tell them: "this is the grape gazpacho with polenta croutons." And remember, your guest needs a spoon with which to enjoy that.
Do be you. You don't need to leave your personality at home, unless your personality sucks. In which case, be someone friendly, interesting, knowledgeable, helpful, warm, and professional.
Do enjoy yourself. Your job can be a great one. If you do it well, you get to make people happy.