« Five predictions for the new year | Main | Baltimore's "upscale" ethnic restaurants »

January 7, 2009

May I take your order?

TakingOrder.jpgI got this e-mail from a colleague about her meal at a restaurant recently, and I have to say I sympathize:

The wait staff was super nice, but this thing where they don't write down your order is so annoying. It doesn't impress me when they don't write it down. They get stuff wrong when they don't write it down. And they got a lot wrong, from forgetting to put in two of four salads, to serving caffeinated coffee to a decaf drinker to leaving out an ingredient.

Today (the first day I'm back in the office) we were talking and ended up talking about her e-mail. She asked me why servers don't write down orders. ...

I guess it's to differentiate a higher-end restaurant from diners and such. Probably it seems more European, too.

Actually I don't know why.

I'm often very impressed that the wait staff does as well as it does when nothing is written down. But these days people have gotten so much pickier about their orders, and they make so many more special requests and do so much more tweaking of the dishes (I call it the Starbucks Effect), that it must be getting more difficult to get it right.

We'd love to hear from any of you servers out there who want to speak up and explain why your boss doesn't want you to write orders down.

(Photo of waitress who has nothing to do with my colleague's e-mail by Amy Davis/Sun photographer)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 11:51 AM | | Comments (22)


We call it California Ordering. "I'd like the chicken Caesar salad, but no anchovies, and I don't like Romaine lettuce, so can you make it with, like bibb lettuce, and instead of chicken, can you add shrimp. Oh, and can you put low fat olive oil on instead of the Caesar dressing?" How would anyone ever remember that if they didn't write it down?

I would say restaurant owners and managers think it makes their restaurant seem fancier, like they hire an upper echelon of servers who are so intellectual they can memorize your order. But, as a former server, I can tell you that I very rarely wrote down orders, and I very rarely got orders wrong. I think memorizing the order helps you focus more on the guest -- you associate their order (even special requests) with their face, and I think you're more likely to realize if something's wrong and deliver personalized service. Plus, I found it to be much faster when I memorized the order and typed it right into the computer, versus trying to decode whatever chicken-scratch shorthand I'd scrawled down on a pad for each special request.
And I know I have friends who are amazed and fascinated when their servers remember everything they've ordered perfectly. That's probably part of it for owners/managers -- it gives guests a feeling that these people really know what they're doing and adds a little mystery to the whole process.
At the same time, I agree with your colleague -- some servers really need to write things down, and it's counterproductive to forbid them from doing so. I never worked at a place that forbid writing things down, BTW. I chose to memorize orders, and if I had a large table, I'd write things down.

Speaking from experience, if you pay attention it's fairly easy to do with parties of 6 or under. Even with special requests. It's even easier if you're doing drinks, then apps, then entrees, all at different times.

That said, I never did it unless I could handle it. Meaning, EVERY order came out the way they wanted. If it got to the point that I couldn't, I'd start writing stuff down. If it's just regular orders, it's usually easier to just memorize than pulling the book out and writing.

As a customer, I just want my order right (and I'm one of "those" Starbucks Effect people-I'm constantly adding or omitting something). I don't care if they memorize it or write it on their forehead, just do whatever you have to and get it right.

I have more of an issue with asking for something specific, the server writing it down/memorizing it, and then not checking that it's right before bringing it to the table.

(I still think I'm gonna have to start talking to cooks personally about my extra sauce/light cheese pizzas tho. No one, with the exception of a place in NYC, can get it right no matter how I explain it.)

I have to say that one of the things that remains in my mind about the late great North Woods is our server. She knew all of the specials and recited them without reading from a cheat sheet - and she knew the prices. She took an order for our table of 15 without writing it down and got every single person's order correct. Right down to the troublemakers who wanted things substituted. I don't know why that seemed to make the whole experience better, but it did.

As a former waitress, I cannot believe how many waiters do not write things down. I always note this when I go out. They usually run back asking something about the order or of course they mess something up. From upscale places to small pubs, this always happens. I swear, I think it is more common to NOT write down the order these days. When I do see someone writing it down I always thank them and explain why and they seem to appreciate the comment because they are doing their job correctly IMO.

Yeah, no idea why that happens. Never worked at an establishment that had that policy. Seems dumb.

But can I rant for a moment? In this cold and flu season, why can't patrons leave their germ infested tissues somewhere other than on the table when they leave? Perhaps they are not thinking or whatever, but recently people have been leaving their used tissues on the tables. Not on their plate, not in the public trash can, but on their table next to their water and wine glasses. Eew, Gack, whichever term you prefer. Do you really want me to pick it up and discard it, and then serve someone else's food? What if the person before you did that and I just served you a lovely strain of a severe cold? And while I am busy, do you want want your food to sit waiting while I wash my hands thoroughly after each such incident? Please, just a little courtesy with your snot rags. There have been a plethora recently and there is just no need for it.

Whew, thanks.

I'm pretty sure I was dining with this colleague when this happened. We didn't order anything special and no change requests: everything we ordered was on the menu. And there were only four of us, fwiw.

Another thing that goes along with this that my boyfriend has complained about in the past but that hasn't bothered me until now is when the food comes out and the server doesn't remember who gets what, so plates are given to wrong people, leaving us to play musical plates among ourselves.

Heh, nice rant, wishful server. That is pretty gross. I usually go the bathroom to blow my nose, which nips the problem in the proverbial bud.

It might be a coincidence, but I notice that, with a group of 6 or 8, when the server does not write the order down, not only is the order confused but things like all of the water or that missing silverware don't get to the table.

When I see the wrong meal coming at me, I hold my hands up so the server can't put it down. There have been rare times when the server had no idea what was on the plate. Well, if you don't know what it is, why would I want it??

jl's simple guideline:
If you flub and order you didn't write down, I'll do the math for your tip without a calculator.
"Hmmm, let's see, 20% of $100 ... 2 bucks. It's 2 bucks, right?"


I take a different approach, I let them help me calculate the tip, "What is 2% of $100?" And if they ask why only 2% or they get that wrong, I release a hell storm of comments on what they did wrong. (actually i am an overly good tipper-based on a former s.o. who was a server- and I wouldnt want to ruin everyone else's experience at the restaurant)

Great rant, servers wish! I give you servers all the credit in the world for not just handling all that gross left over food, snot rags, crumbs, spilled stuff and most of all (ech) money! Don't get me wrong, I love money - I just hate touching it. I read somewhere that it's one of the filthiest things in the world, which is why I use a debit card almost all the time. I hate handling cash. Sigh. I could never be a server - too much germophobia!

True story Monday lunch: I was hosting a meeting of a committee (four Canons at a table!) and we went to Ryan's Daughter at Belvedere Square. Waitress took our order without notes and disappeared. A server (different young woman) brought out the dishes and placed each one at the right spot. Three minutes later the waitress reappeared to ask if everything was okay. It most certainly was!

Four canons at a must have been a round table!

This is a very timely discussion. We decided to try Abbey Burger Bistro last night, and granted, there had been some sort of excitement with the stove hoods and smoke upstairs, so maybe it was a particularly off night. But I used the build-your-own burger FORM, so basically ended up writing down my own special order and someone in the kitchen STILL got it wrong? Yes, I checked the boxes of things I wanted, and I ended up with mayo, which I had not checked. So maybe some small fraction of the errors aren't a server who doesn't write it down getting it wrong, but someone in the kitchen not getting it right?

I am a bit of a germophobe too, as I am in nursing school and know a little too much about their transmission havoc. So I appreciate everything that patrons do to keep their germs to themselves.

You know who has the cleanest restaurant I have ever worked in? (Since I moved from Balto in 07, it is not really shilling, no?) Gertrude's at the BMA. I worked there a couple years ago and I was really impressed. They strip down the entire kitchen every night and scrub until clean. You would be surprised how many restaurants do not do that, or do it once a week, month,etc. It was my favorite place to work in the city. And eat outside.

Ha Carey!

A friend of mine prefers his pizza as you do...yet no one can seem to get it right. He constantly gets light sauce, extra cheese instead. It's like no one can fathom that someone would want it the other way...

a server's wish.... ya know, i totally agree with you 100% about those damn dirty tissues. but really, it's all over their water glasses or wine glasses or whatever other stuff is on the table. please, if you're sick...stay home. get well. come out and visit the restaurants when you're healthy. do you really want to infect countless others working or dining just because you "want" to get out of the house? order take out. be nice.

Amen, Michelle. I would say a large fraction of errors are because of the kitchen. Your server can't peel apart the layers of your sandwich and rummage around to make sure there's no mayo. It's the kitchen's job to pay attention to those details. In all fairness, assembling the same dish every day probably becomes a bit robotic, and they get tired and just sort of automatically slather on that mayo without thinking. Honestly, years ago I gave up on asking for alterations to the menu items. In most restaurants, no one seems to be interested in my special requests. Asking is just futile.

I was a waiter for years and only wrote things down if it was an odd order or there were more than four people. I liked to associate the faces with the orders so that I could know what was going on (something that helped greatly with the folks who came in repeatedly with the same order).

Concerning the earlier post about someone else delivering the food, only certain restaurants allow you to assign numbers to each seat (say #1 is the closest to the door) thereby allowing anyone to deliver the right food to the right seat using the ticket. It is fast, easy, and too difficult for some servers or food expediters to grasp.

As a bartender/server I'll second that it is usually the kitchen that screws stuff up. I worked in an establishment that had handwritten tickets, no computers. So you had to write it down when you took the order, but the server can't control what the cook does in the back once the orders have been delivered.

Everyone makes mistakes, but at restaurants and bars most of the time it isn't because the server didn't write down your order.

Cheese: Aw ... now I'm disillusioned. I thought it was the holy aura surrounding the four canons (and heaven help me if I forget to acknowledge the additional presence of my beloved sidekick and associate Mz. Natalie who was also with us and is immune to canonicity).

Post a comment

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

Top Ten Tuesdays
Most Recent Comments
Baltimore Sun coverage
Restaurant news and reviews Recently reviewed
Browse photos and information of restaurants recently reviewed by The Baltimore Sun

Sign up for FREE text alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for dining text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Food & Drink newsletter
Need ideas for dinner tonight? A recommendation for the perfect red wine?'s Food & Drink newsletter is there to help.
See a sample | Sign up

Stay connected