Bussers and backwaiters are both dining room– “front of house”– staff in a restaurant. They perform service that does not include taking orders, pouring wine, or delivering drinks from the bar. They clear tables, refill water, perform bread service, and reset tables between guests. Sometimes they will ‘mark’ tables, i.e. reset them with clean silver, between courses (though some establishments reserve that task for servers.
Some more modern establishments will alternately use the term “Server Assistant” or “SA” in place of the older “busser” or backwaiter.
The terms are pretty much interchangeable and vary mostly depending on the style of restaurant; busser is more common in casual spots, backwaiter in fine dining, SA in corporate locations. In a way bussers and backwaiters are “assistants” in that much of their work enables servers to perform their tasks more efficiently. But I prefer the term backwaiter, because I think it is more indicative of their role as integral to the service. They may not be required to memorize the wine list and know all the allergens in the tortellini en brodo, but their work is no less important than that of the sommelier or the head waiter.
In most restaurants in the US you can ask any front of house staff member for help if you need a fresh glass of wine, or don’t care for your entree. But generally you will get these things faster if you request them from your server rather than the backwaiter. By all means catch the backwaiter’s eye if you have spilled something and need assistance, if you need more water or coffee, or if your table leg is wobbling. They are the head of the brigade and best equipped to meet those needs. But if you need to know if the cannelloni is gluten free, wait for the server.
If you’ve seen any film or television show set a restaurant, you have heard the number ’86’ thrown around like a verb by restaurant staff.
It has two meanings.
The first one is “We’re out of” as in “86 the meatloaf” means “We are out of the meatloaf.”
The second meaning is little more ephemeral. As in “That guy at table 12 is 86.” This means two things in itself– one, “that guy” is going to be ushered from the premises pronto, and the manager or owner wants the staff to get a good look at him, because an 86’d guest is usually not to be served in the future.
Restaurants are loathe to lose a customer, so generally the 86’d person would need to behave absolutely heinously to be 86’d.
There are several theories as to where the slang usage originated, but the one that makes the most sense to me is as a synonym for… dead. As the parameters for a grave are eight feet long and six feet deep. So the meatloaf is dead; it is 86. And when a customer behaves foully, they can become dead to the restaurant; just as if they were eight feet across and six feet deep.
If you have ever encountered a neighbor at your local supermarket hollering “Corner” while hurtling around the end of the cereal aisle, chances are you narrowly missed slamming into a person who works in a restaurant.
(I will neither confirm nor deny that I have shouted “Corner” in public spaces like farmer’s markets, parking garages, and the market down the street from my apartment.)
Restaurant staff work constantly in tight quarters with hot, heavy, cumbersome plates of food and trays of martini glasses, and so some strategies develop to make it less likely that a bartender with a tray of glassware will collide with a busser laden with arm-loads of dirty plates. When rounding a blind spot in the restaurant floorplan– generally near the major entrances and exits to the kitchen, bar, or scullery– if one listens intently, one may hear a chorus of “Corner” being performed throughout the night.
Get close to the kitchen, and you might also hear such juicy tidbits as “On your back!” And “Hot Behind!” Or their spanish cousin “Atras!” All of which serve the same general purpose; to keep folks from crashing into one another and spilling a tray of hot shortribs all over the floor.
This is simply a primer on basic wine service for those of you hosting in your home, or others of you who are seeking a restaurant job who have lied on your resumes (not that I have ever known anyone who has done that….)
1. Get a wine key. A real one, you are a grown-up after all. You want a wine key that looks like a swiss army knife, not one that looks like a metal man raising his arms as if to say “It’s gooooooood!” Additionally, your grown-up wine key should, ideally, have a hinged arm, not a solid one. 2. Learn how to use it.
3. Gather your accoutrement. A (polished) wine glass for each wine drinker, a linen napkin to wipe up bottle drips, and your wine key.
4. Pour a taste.
5. Pour 3-4 ounces in each glass. There is no need to overfill the glasses. Wine, like the rest of us, likes to breathe. And it is polite to leave some wine in the bottle, as some guests may enjoy a splash more wine than others.
A couple of other quick notes– one 750mL bottle of wine contains 5 glasses of wine. One bottle of sparkling wine serves 6. You can hardly ever go wrong estimating 2.5 glasses of wine per guest for a dinner party, as some guests will drink more and some less. Though if you know that your set is a thirsty one (that is not driving home), by all means calculate accordingly. Keep in mind that a good host should be well stocked.
Reservations are more than a guarantee of a table during a busy Saturday night, there’s a lot to know to make the reservation system work for you.
1.Call. I’m taking a firm stance on this one, because it is something I truly believe; it is always best to call rather than book online. Calling enables you to begin establishing a rapport with the restaurant, and if there is any additional information that needs to be delivered, the staff can alert you now. Perhaps that 8:00 reservation available online is actually a table outdoors, or perhaps there is a large party arriving at the same time as your preferred reservation time, (if you arrive before they do, your service will certainly go faster). None of these nuggets of information will be listed on Opentable or Yelp. Plus, calling gives you the chance to test-drive the place ahead of your meal. If the person on the other end of the line is surly or unhelpful, it might be a message from the ghosts of Dinner Future… advising you to avoid this place.
2.Special circumstances. On the phone call when you book your reservation, advise the restaurant of any special circumstances. Birthdays, anniversaries, food allergies, wheelchair or other accessibility needs, if you have plans after dinner and need to leave at a particular time. Even dropping a comment that “this is a meal with friends that haven’t seen one another in ten years!” is helpful. Such a party will have a lot of catching up to do, and I wouldn’t book another party on that table for at least three hours.
3.Don’t reserve if your plans are not solid. And if your plans fall through, please call ahead to cancel. It might free up a table in time for guests that would otherwise be turned away, and the restaurant always appreciates the gesture.
- Remember; the computer is watching. If you have a pattern of failing to respect your reservations (i.e. “No Showing”) most reservation systems track this. No one is going to hold a good table on a busy Friday dinner for a guest who has No-showed for several reservations. If you have a habit of no-showing, don’t be surprised if you see a trend of being seated at tables near kitchens and bathrooms, (or, in the worst cases, consistent rebuffs that the restaurant is already fully booked at every time you request).
- Sometimes, there is still a wait. Anticipating the time it will take a party to enjoy their meal and close their check is not a science. From time to time guests linger, or the kitchen gets backed up, or a busser had to leave suddenly because his wife went into labor. No one enjoys making guests wait for their table. And while every effort is made to have your table ready precisely at 7:30, circumstances might be such that it is not available until 7:53. When faced with this frustrating scenario, a person might feel compelled to huff “Guess I didn’t need that reservation.” But you did! You did! Because without a reservation, you would have been turned away at the door! There would be no table for you, not even in twenty-three minutes! And while certainly the restaurant ought to acknowledge your patience in graciously waiting until your table is ready by offering a complimentary appetizer or a glass of wine, no one is lying when they say that sometimes waits are simply unavoidable.
- The Large Party Reservation— Many restaurants have begun requiring a credit card to secure a reservation for parties larger than 6 (or 8, or 12). This policy may be a total bummer for you. But these policies have been established for a reason (see: No-Showing). Yes, just like when we were in elementary school, a few jerks misbehaving can change the rules for everyone. There is no use wheedling the host when she delivers this information on the phone. If such a policy truly bothers you, book a reservation elsewhere. Or, if you are granted an exception, don’t abuse it. It is typically the guests that exceptions are made for that tend to reinforce why the policy was made in the first place. Don’t be that guy.
- Another guy not to be. Don’t be the guy who, upon arriving in an empty or sparsely filled restaurant at the beginning of the evening say “We have a reservation, but looks like we didn’t need one!” More than likely the tables are empty precisely because they are being held for reservations that are arriving within the next 45 minutes. Or the tables are empty because the restaurant just opened.
- It is cool to have a reservation. On a related note, it is cool to have a reservation. You have a reservation! Your arrival is anticipated! Everyone is excited to see you! And everyone is grateful that you made a reservation, because reservations are about so much more than merely assuring that there is a seat for your derrière. Reservations enable the chef to know how many steaks to stock in the walk-in for the weekend. They help the dining room manager schedule enough bartenders so you don’t wait thirty minutes for a cocktail.
The word Turn in a restaurant is more than a verb, it is noun. In restaurant speak, a Turn is the liminal space between one party completing their meal and leaving the table and the next party arriving to take residence at the same table for their meal.
When service is running smoothly, turns are seamless. A party that arrived at 6:00pm is sipping the dregs of their coffee cups and signing the credit card slip by 7:45pm. They clear off moments later under a chorus of warm goodbye and thank you‘s from the assembled dining room staff. The table is clear of everything other than a few stray demitasse spoons and water glasses, so a single busser can carry all the dishes away in one trip to the scullery, and the table is re-set before an 8:00pm reservation arrives to take residency for another two hours.
Turns are necessary to most restaurant’s survival. In order to keep the lights on and the water running, establishments must be able to turn tables. On popular nights (Valentine’s Day, New Years Eve, Saturday night), the turns enable more guests to enjoy the space on a holiday or special occasion. Attempting to accommodate turns is why, when you call at noon on Saturday the only tables available for dinner that night are 5:00 and 9:00. The restaurant may be empty at 5:00, but the staff knows that all of their tables are booked for 6:30pm, so they may not be able to seat those tables at 5:15, or may only be able to seat them with the condition that they party clears the table by 7:00.
On special occasions such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Eve–and *ahem* Valentine’s Day–restaurants tend to rely on pre fixe menu.
This can be irritating. You have chosen a restaurant that you love based on the food you typically enjoy there! Why are they changing it up? Do they really expect you to order a $75 four course meal for your three-year old?
The main reason restaurants offer a pre-fixe menu on a holidays and special occasions is the same reason that they frequently require parties larger than twelve to select a set menu; it makes the service faster and more efficient so you and all the other guests filling the dining room can get their food in a reasonable amount of time.
Typically, the menu will include mouthwatering dishes from succulent pastas, unctuous roasts, cracklingly grilled steaks and seared fish…. It is in the chef’s interest to make everything tempting because she knows that if she doesn’t, forty-seven people are going to order the grilled ribeye simultaneously and her grill cook is going to get overloaded while the pasta cook’s lovingly handmade noodles disintegrate in a pool of congealing cream sauce waiting for the steaks that are on the same ticket.
If you have Pre Fixe Menu Anxiety (PFMA), here are some things to consider : Continue reading