The patron isn't yet seated at the table at Peerce's Plantation in Phoenix when waiter Tom Flynn sizes him up. A wine man? Yes, but he has kids in tow at a restaurant known for fine continental dining. "How about a cold beer?" the waiter asks.
How did he know, when the patron hadn't yet imagined it?
This classic notion of service -- to anticipate the customers' needs before they do -- has won Flynn acclaim as the best waiter in Maryland for the second time in three years. It explains why two dozen people request a table in his section every night.
"I can't promise, but we'll do our best," says the maitre d' to a patron who has asked to be seated at one of Flynn's tables.
Waiting on tables is a subtle art; one must know when to be chatty and when to fade away, how to pace and what will please. Whether to push a Beaujolais or a Pinot Noir if the order is filet mignon and mahi mahi, when to whisk away an empty plate -- these decisions Flynn feels he must make anew for each patron.
"There really aren't routine things to do because everybody's different," he says. "You talk to them, and you have fun."
It's an art, sometimes with unexpected twists.
"May I have a straw?" a child asks him.
"Please?" Flynn responds.
As in any art, what makes one customer happy may not please the next.
At the table in question, Flynn sparked a private duel a-la-carte by removing the man's salad plate as soon as the man rested his fork. The woman was still eating. She felt rushed, eating solo. The man was pleased to have more room in front of him to relax before the next course.
Like most people, Flynn waited tables in college and assumed he'd get a "real job" when he graduated. But nobody offered him the money he made waiting tables for his degree in economics. More important, he liked his job.
So he stuck with it. To him, it's easy: "Customers tell you what they want and you bring it to them."
It seems so easy for Flynn that his peers, in the form of the Maryland Hospitality Education Foundation, singled him out for recognition for the second time after an interview, written exam and the trial of serving the pickiest of customers -- restaurant owners.
Approaching a table after serving the main course, Flynn can see the food he delivered moments earlier is vanishing from plates like steam from potatoes. He makes a joke: "I apologize for it not being up to par."
The mark of a fine waiter may come down to this singular moment. Most of his colleagues flub it, mistakenly putting their patrons on duty with the harsh, "Is everything OK?" when they are the very people charged with ensuring that it is. Flynn gives you the option to laugh, to complain that the filet mignon you've been devouring is slightly less than rare, or both.
He's there, say, when your fork tumbles to the floor just shy of the first bite. Or when it happens to the patron in the next waiter's section. After all, the patron could be in his station next time. By this Flynn is always reminded of the story of the doctor who asked a waiter for a bowl of soup.
"Sorry, you're not at my table," the waiter replied. A while later the waiter fell to the floor, stricken with a heart attack. "Doctor, can you give me a hand?" he asked. "Sorry, you are not my waiter."
This story is part of a repertoire amassed in 24 years in the restaurant business. Flynn is 44.
As an "older guy," Flynn feels he has to set a daily example for his co-workers. Otherwise the younger people might think it's OK to slack off or do a halfhearted job.
"It's like with children -- you can tell them until you're blue in the face, but they're not going to listen until they see you do it."
Flynn takes the long view of service; he's flattered if you choose his restaurant. He knows that people come to Peerce's for more than the food. They are celebrating, often a birthday, anniversary, wedding and they expect a good time. It's up to Flynn to make sure they get one.
"I have never lost anybody on the table, so to speak," he says.
It helps that the food is good. "That's the whole deal," Flynn says.
A good waiter makes a good meal better, yes, but when the kitchen makes a mistake, Flynn doesn't want the patron to do what he once did -- quietly take it, but cross the restaurant off your list.
"You have to tell the waiter, because then they can do something about it," Flynn advises. "Otherwise you'll never come back. It's a lot easier to keep a customer than get new ones. That's the important thing in my book."
Flynn works the dinner hour at Peerce's five nights a week. Years ago he worked a double shift at Marconi's. Then came children. Now he has more time for his family. (His wife, Sharon, is a waitress, until recently at the Milton Inn.) People are always surprised to hear he makes enough money to enjoy a middle-class life.
"The primary criteria for success in a job is you have to like it," Flynn says.
"You can't punch out at the end of the night and be civil to the family and feed the children if you don't," he says.
One recent Sunday the Flynn family -- they have two sons, 12 and 10 -- dined out at Peerce's, taking advantage of the restaurant's free dinner specials for children.
Truth is, Flynn likes to be waited on as much as he likes waiting on others. "For me, if I have X amount of dollars, rather than go to the movies, theater, I'd rather go out to dinner," he says. "I love being on both sides of the table."
Pub Date: 10/10/97