What does it take to be a great waiter?
"Pure charm," says Roberta Dobbie, a waitress at the Pizza Hut in Mount Airy. "I smile a lot."
No wasted steps, says Peggy Schaefer, a waitress at Baltimore's Polo Grill. "When you go in the back [the kitchen], you calculate what each table needs and you take it with you. You never make an empty trip."
An even temperament, says Wendy Anuszewski, a waitress at the Crab Shanty in Ellicott City. "When the chef yells at you or if your table yells at you, you can't go cry in the back."
Timing is crucial, says Seamus Fogarty, a waiter at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore. When customers sit down, a waiter should be at their table within a minute. "Half the battle is the early groundwork," he says. "Greeting them, getting them something to drink."
I asked these four waiters and waitresses to analyze their craft because they had recently been declared the best in the state. They won the Servers Classic, an annual contest sponsored by the Restaurant Association of Maryland. They passed written and oral exams. At the finals last month they were among 30 waiters and waitresses who were graded as they served a four-course meal to the big cheeses of the state's restaurant industry at the Holiday Inn Timonium Plaza.
The top finishers in the two categories, fine-dining restaurants and casual-dining restaurants, won free trips to resorts. Ms. Dobbie, who won first place in casual dining, got a trip to Aruba. Ms. Anuszewski, who finished second in casual dining, received a trip to Ocean City.
This was the second time in the five-year history of the contest that Mr. Fogarty has won. He finished first in 1991 and won a trip to Puerto Rico, when the contest had only one category. This year he won first place in the fine-dining category and was awarded a trip to Hilton Head, S.C. Ms. Schaefer, the second-place finisher in fine dining, won a trip to Charlottesville, Va.
Curious about what distinguishes great waiters from the mere mediocre, I first telephoned Vivienne Wildes. Ms. Wildes is a one-time Capitol Hill waitress who later became director of personnel at the highly regarded Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. She, along with three veterans of the restaurant business, have formed the Waiters Association, a professional society for waiters. The association, which has 1,500 members, is based in State College, Pa., where Ms. Wildes is doing graduate work at Penn State University.
One sign of a superior service, Ms. Wildes said, is when the waiter anticipates the unspoken needs of the customer. "It is called 'reading the guests,' " she said, and offered an example. If a guest is sitting in front of his food with his arms crossed, a good waiter will take that as a sign that something is wrong.
When I quizzed the prize-winning Maryland servers about the distinguishing characteristics of waiters who had "the right stuff," all of them mentioned attitude. You have to be accommodating, yet still keep your sense of self-respect, they -- said.
"You do whatever it takes," said Ms. Dobbie, who has been a Pizza Hut waitress for eight years. "But you don't give away the store." And, she added, "you smile through it all."
"What it is really about," said Ms. Schaefer, is "spoiling your customers." In her 23-year waitressing career, she has worked at "the Polo Grill, Peerce's Plantation, Velleggia's in Towson, Cacao Lane in Ellicott City and . . . an ice cream place in Catonsville called Father's Gay 90s."
Ms. Anuszewski, who has worked at the Crab Shanty since 1981, summarized the basics of good service. "You make sure the meal comes out of the kitchen quickly, you make sure that there are no big nuisances near the table, you sway them away from a dish that isn't looking like it should."
But she said, a good waitress goes beyond these basics. You do things that make the customer come back, such as holding your tongue when a customer says you have served him the wrong dish. "You don't say, 'I know you ordered the fried seafood.' " Instead, she said, you apologize for the "mistake" and get the customer what he now says he wants. "Ninety-five percent of the time," Ms. Anuszewski said, "the customer knows what the restaurant has done for him and he feels grateful."
Mr. Fogarty said thorough training is crucial to success. In waiter's argot Mr. Fogarty, 60, is "a lifer." He started his career as a lad working in a bar and general store in his hometown of Thurles in Ireland's Tipperary County. He was an apprentice in restaurants in London and Dublin before graduating to the rank of waiter. He worked as a waiter on cruise ships, and came to America in 1961.
He came to Baltimore in 1980 to work at Cafe des Artistes, then situated in downtown Baltimore. He has since worked at the Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point, Miller Brothers restaurant, the Center Club, Carolyn's Cafe and the John Eager Howard Room in the Belvedere Hotel.
His training, Mr. Fogarty said, has given him confidence, something all good waiters need to make it through the #i inevitable rough spots, such as the night at Carolyn's Cafe that he got "slammed." Slammed is a waiter's term for the situation when there are too many customers and too few waiters.
"One night a customer told me, 'You are the best waiter I have ever had, anywhere,' " Mr. Fogarty said. "Well, the next night, nobody was in the restaurant. So one of the waiters went home early. And later a crowd came in and I got slammed. And a man told me, 'You are the worst waiter I have had anywhere, anytime.'
"And I said to him, 'You're right: Last night I was the best, and tonight I am the worst.' "