It was the very second that we opened. Four groups of people rushed the bar and plopped down. In hindsight I should have seen it coming, but while hindsight is clear as a bell, foresight is often much murkier.
When several groups of people all arrive at exactly the same moment, who gets service first is always a roll of the dice. Trust me, what seems obvious to three groups of people will seem less so to the fourth one.
“We were here before them,” said the spokesperson for said fourth group.
“Take your time, get to us when you can,” said the spokesperson of group number 2. “We understand that you just opened.”
Groups 1 and 3 just stared icily, unclear on the pecking order, and unhappy with any result that didn’t put them first.
I have often written that busy bars are like triage, whoever needs the most help gets it first. The problem is that “need” and “want” are two entirely different things.
“What can you tell me about this building?” asked the “host” of what finally washed out to being group #1.
Really? That is the question you are going to ask when you know that you were only marginally ahead of eight other people. Nine sets of eyes, comprising all the people in all the other groups, and his guest, bored through me.
“Let me get everybody drinks first, and then I’ll answer your question,” I said.
“What drinks do you have?” he asked, holding in his hand a list reading in large bold type: DRINKS.
“Why don’t you take a look at the list and I will be right back,” I said moving on to group #3.
“What kind of specialty fruits can you make Pimm’s Cups with?” asked the most vocal member of group #3.
Now I have made a lot of Pimm’s Cups in my day (Pimm’s, ginger ale, splash of lemon juice) and garnished them with everything from strawberries to cucumbers, but I have never heard of “specialty fruit” versions. And it seemed like the opening seconds of a shift with ten people waiting wasn’t really the best time to find out about them.
But that is the thing about the restaurant business: It doesn’t care. When things go wrong in the restaurant, they usually go wrong all at once. The kitchen can get everything right for months and the one time they don’t will be the exact same time that you knock over a glass of red wine, also for the first time in months. And take my word for it, if little things like the wrong shaped ice in a cocktail, or the wrong bulbed wine glass are going to set some people off, just imagine what spilling red wine on them does?
Anthony Bourdain once famously posited that “You can always tell when a person has worked in a restaurant,” drawing the conclusion that it takes a special kind of empathy to stand between a “hungry mouth and a $28 pork chop.”
And group # 2 had that empathy. When their turn finally came, two martinis and two beers were ordered. Both the types of liquor and the types of beer, having been figured out far in advance.
“We’ll get some margaritas when things settle down,” replied their leader, which was much appreciated, especially at that moment.
When things finally did settle down – just minutes later, drinks having been dispensed to all – I finally had a chance to return to them.
“We all worked in the restaurant business,” said the group leader of #3. “We get it.”
Good service is good service, but not everybody agrees on what good service is. To some it’s the ability for someone else to navigate their insecurities, for others it’s the acknowledgement of their superior knowledge and experience, and for still others it’s an educational adventure. And then for some, it’s just simply getting a drink. If everybody wanted the same thing, there would be only one type of bar serving one type of thing. And only one type of bartender too, I might add.
“Thank you,” I said to group #2. “You can always tell when someone has worked in the restaurant industry,” I said, echoing Mr. Bourdain, and doing everything in my power not to even glance sideways at groups number 3 and 1.
But glance I did because group number 1 had now decided that they wanted to move and were in the process of asking every single person sitting at the bar to get up and move down one seat.
“And you can always tell when someone hasn’t,” said group leader #2 taking the words, if not out my mouth, right out of my thoughts.