Sunday, February 26, 2006

Brunch haters

Restaurant people are really like vampires; most waiters I know never get out of bed before 10am or out of the house by noon. Chefs have to get up much earlier than that, which I think is why they're usually snappish and grumpy. Long hours, high stress, and not enough sleep. I love waiting tables because you show up for a few hours, do your job, collect your cash, and go home. I never think about the restaurant when I'm not at work, except sometimes fleetingly. While you're actually at work, it can be a very high-stress environment (that's why waiters drink so much), but it's a low-stress job overall because you don't have to think about it at all when you're not there.

All of the restaurant workers I know love going out to brunch and hate working it. The restaurant I work at just started serving a Sunday brunch and the servers are furious; most people took the job because there's not a lunch shift and we all have other jobs or school during the day.

Now that I'm the server that's been working at the restaurant the longest (which has only been six months, but the entire service staff has changed over in that time), the regulars are starting to recognize me and be friendly and personal. There's a section in our restaurant that's like a bar area, right in front of the open kitchen line where the waiter station is, and diners can eat or have cocktails there. I was serving a couple of regulars (who usually sit at the bar, but on Friday night the bar was too packed to order dinner) there, and they were so sweet. They embodied the kind of eye-rolling, confiding, well-dressed, olderish, gay males who frequent our place of establishment to a T.

The thing I love the most about gay men is their candor. If there's something wrong with my outfit, or the service I'm giving, or the food, they're not going to hesitate to tell me. So I can be confident when these regulars said, "Girl, I've been watching the way you work, and let me tell you, you are good!" that it was true. It also makes me feel especially fabulous when I get compliments on my hair. In any case, these two regulars dine out every night (and probably at least once a week at the place I work), and so I asked them where was the hippest new place to eat in San Francisco. One of them told me Tres Agaves is the place to dine right now.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Blue Jay's Downward Spiral

Oh, no! The Blue Jay Cafe on Divisadero and McAllister has changed hands. Jay Foster, one of the founders of Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, and Andre Larzoule, owner of Alamo Square Grill, have sold this once-fabulous soul-food neighborhood spot, and we had the most awful experience there a couple of days ago.

A party of six on a Sunday morning (Blue Jay never takes reservations), we waited outside for half an hour to get a table. No problem, there were a lot of us and we're used to waiting for brunch on Sundays. Everybody has brunch on Sundays. I'd been to Blue Jay once for Sunday brunch before, and remembered how long it took to get our food (2 hours from the time we showed up at the restaurant to the time food arrived on the table) Since the Blue Jay opened, service has always been slow and harried; two adjectives that should never have to be used together to describe service.

It took over an hour from the time we were seated at the table until the food arrived. Everyone's food arrived at different times, which is not usually a problem for laid-back us, but when the first person at the table has been finished eating for 15 minutes by the time the last person's food arrives, that's a big annoyance. Valentine ordered a normal breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled, a biscuit, potatoes, and bacon. Each component of his breakfast arrived on a separate plate, five minutes apart from each other. I ordered a Cobb salad, which was $7.95 and arrived on a side plate with no bacon, blue cheese, or avocado: the three reasons anyone orders a Cobb salad. After 20 minutes I was finally able to flag down the slow, harried waitress, who brought me out each of these components seperately. I eventually sent the salad back because by the time the avocado finally arrived, everyone else had been done eating anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes (depending on when their food had sporadically arrived). The waitress took my salad off the check (she explained that portions had been cut because of new ownership), extremely grudgingly.

We tipped 30% (most of us are restaurant people) but I am sad to say that I won't return to the Blue Jay. I feel sorry for servers who work in a restaurant during a change in ownership (although I did, at the place I work now, but it's a much bigger, more expensive, and corporate restaurant) because things like this happen. I know it wasn't her fault that all the food arrived at different times but it still really sucked for us.

Now, when I want a well-priced, neighborhood-y, delicious soul-food breakfast I'll have to walk all the way to Kate's Kitchen in the lower Haight for hush puppies with honey butter. There's always Eddy's Cafe (across the street from the Blue Jay) which has comforting ambience and simple eats (the best for a rainy day or a hangover breakfast), but not quite the caliber that the Blue Jay once was.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Noon siren

The test siren that sounds at noon is probably a wakeup call for more restaurant people than just my Valentine. I woke up at quarter 'til ten and got up to write; he got up when his usual Tuesday alarm clock rang: the noon siren. I wonder how many San Franciscan restaurant people use the noon siren as their alarm clock? If you are one, let The Dish know. I'll post results next week.

After eschewing the drinking scene on Friday night, I got totally hammered on Saturday in typical hypocritical fashion. It was a good, busy night in the restaurant, and the hostess did his best to seat me with two full turns like he always does. Unfortunately, the second turn (one table of 15 that took up my whole section) was a bunch of rude kids that ordered French fries, a couple of entrees, and barely anything to drink. Their entire bill was less than that of a high-spendin' party one-third their size.

It was this waste of two hours of my time that drove me to drink martinis after work. It was a good crowd out, not the usual boozer servers (among which I will readily count myself) but a couple of people who I don't usually hang out with. Why is it so much easier to bond with your coworkers over a drink? I don't know if other servers are as conflicted as I am over the amount that they drink after their shifts (I rarely drink at all on my nights off), but most restaurant people I know have a love/hate relationship with the bar that more often than not stays on the love side.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The things we have in common

Yesterday as I interviewed the head expediter (the main link between the kitchen and the front-of-the-house staff) for a story I'm writing about twentysomethings who have college degrees yet work at so-called "temporary" jobs that aren't in their fields of study, I got to thinking about a point he brought up.

"Something interesting about working in restaurants," he said, "is that when someone moves on, you always say you're going to stay in touch with that person, but you never do."

"I guess it makes me realize that the only thing you really have in common is that you work together. And you drink together."

Too true. So many times have I moved onto another restaurant, or said goodbye to a coworker with promises to call or text, to get manicures, to go for cocktails, to play tennis. A month goes by and we chat sporadically, then two months and we still haven't seen each other, and after the third month I'll delete her (or his) number from my phone.

Is the fast pace of the dinner shift the only thing that keeps us comrades? Is a restaurant really, as Anthony has said, like a reality TV show in which contestants form alliances merely to further their own selfish goals? When I got off of work last night and headed across the street to the Transfer to meet my coworkers for drinks (like we do every Friday night, and most weeknights as well), I looked around at them throwing back shots and wondered what the point was.

After having a beer stolen by the waiter who showed up for work too fucked up to see straight (he was sent home immediately but apparently headed to the bar and waited for us all to show up, 5 hours later), I hopped in a cab and headed across town to a houseful of old friends from junior high school who were digging through a gigantic cardboard box of elementary school photos, and all the notes we passed each other up to our senior year. Happy cheers erupted as I trudged up the front porch, and we spent the next several hours reminiscing, laughing real laughter, and fell asleep in a big pile on the living room floor. Now those are some numbers I know my phone will have forever.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Barbara Walters is a man

When it's cold and grey and the windows are rattling and the wind is blowing, it's a lot easier to get excited about sitting in front of a computer and working in a restaurant. Last night was the first night back since Saturday and family meal made me sick, of course. Family meal is the meal that the kitchen puts up for all the staff before or after service. At some restaurants, it's an introduction to the dishes they'll be selling or a chance for line cooks to try their hand at menu creation. At others, it's an alternative to the garbage disposal.

Where I work, the meal is put up at 5pm, before the shift, and we color-code it. Last night was "rainbow meal." Sometimes there's "white meal," which is pasta with bacon in a cream sauce and white rice. "Yellow meal" is usually curry-flavored, "red meal" tastes like chilis, and "brown meal" often has lentils involved. "Rainbow meal" isn't so bad, it's stir-fry with different vegetables, but I couldn't eat it. I had a couple of potato wedges (all ten of the servers I work with are potato hogs, and usually the kitchen will put up a couple of baskets of French fries for us at the end of the night. Last night as I was leaving I didn't even look at the fries, prompting real concern from the waiters who'd perhaps not really understood that I actually was quite ill) and then convinced my Valentine to bring me a smoothie to work, which I also couldn't finish.

The one real table I had was Barbara Walters. Not the real Barbara but an ancient drag queen who comes in about once a month in pearls and heavy makeup, although s/he wears men's clothes. The bad wig is what earned him/her the moniker, and last night was his/her birthday, and s/he paid for the whole thing and s/he is cheap. We served them eleven green salads and eleven chicken dishes and opened four bottles of their own (crappy) wine although our corkage limit is two. Since ol' Barbara Walters is a regular, I guess my manager figured we'd try to make him/her happy.

After all that talk about not going out after work last night (which I didn't), I got to school this morning to find that there WAS no school. I guess if I took this taking classes thing more seriously, I would have realized that today is president's day.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Restaurant Monday

Here it is, the beginning of the work week. Yesterday should have been, but I stayed home sick and watched 6 Feet Under all day. It's interesting how whenever I'm really sick and I call in sick, I feel horribly guilty about it. Yesterday was the first time I'd called in sick to this restaurant and I lay around all night wondering if I really was well enough to go in, how much money I was missing out on, and if I was going to get in trouble for not coming to work. But when I call in fake sick (which I don't do that often, really!), I never feel bad about it.

I picked up my whites from the laundress, and some things I'd had altered, which I'm always seeming to do when employed at a restaurant. I wonder where all my money goes because I never save any of it. When I'm not working at a restaurant, I live exactly within my means, and when I am working at a restaurant I live exactly within my means, this just means tailored designer jeans and manicures. Plus new sneakers once a month or's hard to save cash when you work at such a cash-centric, cash-burning job like a restaurant. I know a lot of waiters who don't even count their tips until after they get home from the bar, post-shift, because they don't want to know how much they spent that night. I don't do that, although when I get home and realize I spent fifty bucks buying my co-workers drinks and way overtipping the bartender I re-think the pre-drink counting as well as going out at all.

There will be no going out tonight. I am determined to not blow off my French class any longer.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tipping Karma

Yesterday Anthony left a comment as to how much dough he'd raked in on Valentine's Day, and it reminded me of one time recently when I was talking about a good night I'd had in the restaurant to a waiter that I didn't work with. I dropped "the number" (of dollars I'd earned the night before), and he cut me off with... "Don't tell me! Don't tell me! You'll curse your tip karma!"

Sure enough, after I'd dropped that number, I made the least I'd ever walked with the next time I worked ($80 on a Saturday night; unheard of!). Now I don't talk about how much I earn anymore, unless following a specific set of guidelines.

1) only talk about the tips you earn with other waiters at your restaurant who have worked the same shift, and then only in vague terms, ie, "Did you have a good night?" or, "How was your night?"

2) if the other waiter says, "Pretty good, how was yours?" then you can gently segue into talking about specifics, like "Well, it would have been crap but I had a 4-top who ordered a bunch of wine and tipped 25%" or, "The big party saved my night; they tipped on top of the auto-gratuity."

3) some waiters never talk about what they earn, which is good. Usually the waiters who don't talk about what they earn are the ones who earn the most, and they've learned that it makes their co-workers resentful when they talk about how much they earn.
I think these guidelines are something you kind of pick up through osmosis after working as a server for a while. Where I work, you give a copy of your evening check-out to the person you're tipping out: "tip pool" (the host, the kitchen, and the foodrunners) , the bar, and the bussers all get a copy. This checkout lists the tips you've earned before you tip out everyone you need to, which can be anywhere from 30-40% of what you make in a night.
I don't necessarily approve of giving the bussers a copy of the check-out because they tend not to understand this and then start bitching about how they aren't getting tipped out enough for the amount of work they do (and they do work hard, and sometimes waiters under-tip). Then they start scowling and slacking off (as is happening with 2 out of the 3 bussers I work with now), hiding from the waiters, then they quit or get fired.
This is the restaurant heirarchy, and you have to do it if you want to be a good server. I worked as a busser for years, then as a caterer, which is an entry-level service job: everyone does everything (setup, serve, bus, wash dishes, break-down. Catering is the best and most brainless way to make a quick buck I know of and I miss it sometimes. Being a good waiter requires heavy use of your brain!). After working as a caterer, then a catering captain, I finally got a job serving lunch at a not-great place and didn't get my first really good serving job until I'd been in the restaurant industry for 5 or 6 years.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cupid's Curse

Keeping in good tradition with a cursed Valentine's Day, I woke myself up this morning by throwing up. Had to miss dinner at EOS tonight, call in sick to the restaurant tomorrow, and I've been laying about the house for an hour between bathroom breaks. Luckily I have a sweet Valentine here to take care of me (this picture is to the damage he did at all-you-can-eat pizza night at Goat Hill in Potrero Hill last week).

Last night we went to Eldo's in the inner Sunset, and I don't think it was anything I had there; he had the same things. We split a chicken club with fries and then didn't eat very much off a plate of carne asada nachos because the meat tasted funny. Maybe it was the two pints of stout that did me in (he drank Pilsener), or a delayed reaction to a bad oyster (which I don't want to believe, because I ate a dozen oysters two nights ago at my very own place of work).

What an interesting way to start a food blog. With food poisoning. Blech. Have gotten out of bed for the first time today to check email and post this.

Monday, February 13, 2006

In the beginning, there was food.

Monday is the day that restaurant people call their own. The weekend's over, the real world has headed back to the office, and chefs and waitresses are parked in the coffee shop recovering from their work week, which generally is Wednesday-Sunday.

I got up early this morning, which was easy to do since I didn't work last night. Rode over to my French class at city college; a monumental feat because it takes a half-hour to ride. Easy to do on nights I haven't worked, nearly impossible to get up at 6:30 and get on the bike when I've been amped up, serving people until midnight.

It's a typical day off, drop off the laundry whites (aprons and Oxford shirts to be starched), head over to the cafe to read the Times and the Chronicle, return the movie that's been due since Thursday (Downtown 81, starring Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was really more like some guy with a camera following his friend around, terrible acting that is wonderful in its falseness. The movie was great as a snapshot of the early eighties Manhattan art and music scene. Very new wave).

It's pointless to try and watch a movie during the weekend. After the restaurant closes on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night, going out is the norm. I succumbed to the coaxing of my coworkers and headed out on Thursday night, thus ensuring myself a near-failing grade on the French test I had Friday morning. I showed up to class a half-hour late, still semi-drunk, and proceeded to mangle syntax, forget verbs, and scowl my way through an hour of misery before leaving (a half-hour early) to return to bed.

Last night my coworker Anthony and I went into the restaurant for dinner; I can't resist .50 cent oysters during happy hour so we sat at the bar and commiserated with the folks who have to work Sunday nights (I refuse to work Sundays, because I like to have one day in which I can be on the same schedule as the rest of the world). We were good, Ant only had one drink and I only had two. I wish more bars would carry Hangar One, which is a boutique vodka that's distilled in an old airplane hanger in Alameda. The original is clean, best served up with a twist. My favorite is the keffir lime vodka, which blends in perfectly in taste and color when mixed with ginger-ale: this is what many bartenders and servers drink *during* their shifts, because it's indistinguishable from a regular soda. Hangar One also makes a Buddha's Hand (citrus), Madarin Blossom, and Raspberry (which I don't like very much, but I think any berry-flavored alcohol is gross). Hangar One is the only drinkable flavored vodka.