table for 20…

I walk into the packed restaurant, all eyes on me. My old boss throws an apron at me and tells me I’m late. “Take the back patio and pick up the kickball team at table 38. Hurry up!” When did this place get a patio?? Customers are spilling their orders out to me as fast as I can jot them down. I miraculously remember to ask all the right questions about sides and how they want things done and make a run for the kitchen. I can do this. I’m an excellent waitress. Deep breath.

I’m trying to fill the drink orders but there isn’t ice and then the damn keg blows. I return to the floor without my order pad and have no idea who my full tray of warm, flat drinks might belong to. My face is burning as I feel the tears starting to surface. I realize suddenly that I’m barefoot and wearing a completely inappropriate bra without a shirt and…wait a minute, this isn’t real, this is a…WAITRESSING NIGHTMARE!!!

I started waitressing when I was 15. I had the coffee/breakfast shift at the little café in my hometown. I had my regular farmers whose orders I memorized. I kept their coffee full and they in turn tipped me well and flattered me with their compliments. I made so much more than the dumb girls who worked at the trendy retail stores. When I started college, I worked at a breakfast chain where they sat as many people in your section as humanly possible. You basically threw their food at them and turned over as many tables as you could for $3 apiece.

I turned 21 and hit the big time…cocktailing! Same story, different product: alcohol. I continued this through the first few years of my “professional” post college career, working at comedy clubs and sports bars on the weekends to make ends meet.

I finally worked my way up to bartender. On Sundays. During football season. Near the stadium. Ugh. Talk about a nightmare, I lived one every Sunday for 3 years. I never made the switch over to fine dining or I’d probably still be in the industry. Fewer tables, much larger tabs and tips. I’m going on 7 years “Service-Industry-Free” but I still have the reoccurring dreams.

Recently, I had the adventure of dining in a large group. Not my favorite thing to do. I anticipate every single thing that could go wrong with any given member of the table. Blame it on my 15+ years of waitressing and bartending. It doesn’t always have to end up as a negative experience, and usually it turns out ok. But I always envision the worst. Little Miss Sunshine, I am!

I become extremely uncomfortable in the face of any conflict with the hostess, waiter, manager, etc. Its ok that our reservation won’t be ready for another 45 minutes, we’ll wait at the bar! No really, the 4 person rocking table by the bathroom door is fine for the 7 of us! Agreeable customers are appreciated. Complaining nasty ones are given the stink eye by the whole crew (I know what kind of b*tching goes down in the kitchen). And that bread that was dropped on the floor? Ya, send that over to the big group at table 38.

I’ve found as I’ve gotten older and my dining companions more mature, that at least we end up with too much money at the end and not always coming up short. I hate the part of the night where everyone examines the bill and mentally notes that Johnny ordered that expensive bottle of wine or Jane had the lobster. I like balanced, equitable outings where we all gauge what the table is doing and order accordingly. Yes, we would all like to share that. Yes, we are all having a salad first. Yes, let’s split the bill “even-steven” 6 ways!

Some of my favorite group dining experiences are with my best girlfriends who (try to) meet up annually from all over the country. We’ve known each other for almost 20 years and are pros at traveling and eating out together. On our last big trip, we somehow fell into a beautiful symbiotic paying system. The 7 of us each took turns paying for whole meals. Seriously. And I think it worked out for everyone based on what they could afford.

So friends, for your next celebration or large gathering, please consider having it: a) at your own house b) at a friend’s house c) catered d) paid for upfront, or e) prix-fix. I’m just saying… And PLEASE, whatever you do, don’t make the restaurant staff gather around your table, clapping their hands, singing in unison to a terrible, horrible made up birthday song!

***please note that I do enjoy eating out and would still like to be included in your extravagant birthday plans…I’ll just be the one who slips the waiter an extra $20 for his patience!

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