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On the House Special: Waiting Tables in December, Part I

On the House is Eater's semi-regular column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, we bring you an anonymous, but well placed, waitress' take on the holiday season in times like these. Her story unrolls in two parts, the first one now, and the second at noon.

2008_02_onethehouseA.jpgDining out this December has been something of a crap shoot, what with the tourist-heavy holiday crowds, deserted dining rooms, recession specials gone wild, and the general sense of cold, dark doom. But what's it like on the other side of the table, for the server caught up in this mess? Here's the take from a still-employed waitress at a very popular, local restaurant:

December is the time when we are guaranteed to be completely slammed. All of the reservations are booked and people plan large parties for their offices or extended families; caterers make bank; and hosts get passed more twenties than ever. People order the magnum of Henriot, they order the ribeye with bone marrow butter, and if they enjoyed their meals, they buy gift certificates as holiday presents for their friends. December is also a high time for bad attitudes. Aside from above-average levels of intoxication, dining rooms in December are full of people who don't normally spend a lot of money on dining out, and the fact that they're spending makes them act like entitled, petulant babies.
For a server, it's a "grin and bear it" situation. You work like mad, but after New Year's, you have lots of money and lots of down time as all of those holiday diners crawl, hungover and cash-strapped, back into their yoga pants. (That's why servers take their vacations and visit their families in January and February. It's the dead time of year for restaurants.)

But this December is different.

This December—as we know from ceaseless reporting about the economy and the manner in which it has affected every industry—is a restaurateur’s nightmare. If you ask anyone who works in restaurants about business of late, they’ll probably say something like, “busy but not really.” Their meaning is that the number of diners hasn’t gone down nearly as much as has the decrease in food and beverage sales. Restaurants are either half empty, or they are filled with diners who order about half of the food and drink they would order under better economic circumstances. Someone told the San Fransicco Chronicle that these diners are called "non'trées," apparently terminology for people who stick to a couple of starters. Yes, work is slow, and when you can get people in the door, they order less than they did. It's hard being a server right now. But it's obviously hard being a diner right now, too...

Continued: "On Sunday, you wait on old people, mean people, babies, people who want their soup extra EXTRA hot, people who want their steak well done, people who want to drink cup after cup of decaf coffee throughout their meal..." [Check back in a bit

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