Restaurant 101: Bussers and Backwaiters

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.

Who’s Picking up the Bill?

Q: I have been to this “fine dining” restaurant a bunch of times. The owner knows me and my usual dinner-date. We almost always have a bottle of wine, two entrees and either an app or a dessert. We tip well.

We went last week, and my date ordered the same thing as always. It was great, as always. I am the adventurer, and I will often try the special or newest item on the menu. I’ve had “hits” and I’ve had “misses.” This time it was “seitan steak.” The owner is vegetarian, and I always order vegetarian items. I trust him, and I want to support culinary creativity. The seitan steak was HORRIBLE. So bad that McDonald’s would not have put it on a bun. I was hungry and stomached about half of it.

When the very friendly waiter came to check, we explained to him (politely) that the seitan was not the best addition to the menu. In fact, I offered a bite, and he took it. He agreed. It was HORRIBLE. He even said that the chef (not the owner, who was out of town), when plating the food, said “I don’t even know why we serve seitan.”

Instead of comp-ing the $19 entree, he offered free dessert. We accepted. Dessert was fine – nothing remarkable. He should have comp-ed the entree…no?


A: First off, let me say, that you sound like an absolutely delightful diner. A regular, great tipper, open to a new experience… I’d love to have you in my dining room anytime!

On to the server, though….there is a difference between being friendly and overly familiar. I’m going to assume that the server recognized you as a regular, but he should never hate on the menu like that at a table. Apologize, definitely, but don’t get the guests involved in what sounds like a personal power-struggle between the owner and the chef; just take the dish back to the kitchen, and send a manager to the table.
It’s also strange that a manager didn’t seem to drop by your table. Anytime a dish goes back to the kitchen, a front of house manager should come by the table to apologize, and try to gain some feedback for the chef to possibly improve the dish. 

To comp or not to comp? It’s one of the murkiest areas in hospitality. Some owners have extremely conservative comp policies, while others are more generous. But the ultimate goal should be to satisfy the guest. You didn’t go out to play menu-roulette; you wanted to have a great meal. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that everything on their menu is tasty. It’s generally accepted that if a dish is  “under-enjoyed”; it should come off the check. Sending dessert or any additional comp is up for debate (but I usually err on the side of generosity).
Since you are still thinking about this incident days later, this restaurant missed an opportunity to make you feel like the welcome regular you are.

Considering all of the variables above, I would say the Restaurant is stuck with the Bill on this one. The manager should have taken the Seitan steak off the check, definitely, in addition to sending out a dessert or a round of after-dinner drinks.  -m

If you’ve had a weird experience at a restaurant, I’d love to hear about it! submit your story by clicking on the “Who’s Picking up the Bill” button on the right. 

>New Segment!


Three years ago, just after I moved to Los Angeles, a girlfriend invited me out to dinner in Silverlake. The space was gorgeous, with lots of character, and the menu hit all the right local-sustainable-farm-to-table notes.

It was early, because we had 8:00 plans, and so the dining room was empty when we arrived. After we were seated on a banquette table, and pulled the napkins onto our laps, my friend noticed the booths in the middle of the room and thought that maybe we should ask to moved. Since we had already ordered drinks, and handled all the linen and flatware, I demurred.

And things were going fine.

Until the busboys started setting up a monster table of 20 right beside us. When they finished, there was less that 6 inches of space between our table and head of the monster table. And when the party arrived, they brought a new baby in a car seat that they nestled right beside my friend on the banquette, creating a scene in which all 19 guests came over to coo at the new baby with their derrieres directly in my friend’s entree.

No manager came by to ask if we would like to be moved, there was no apology from the hostess, so my friend and I literally picked up our table and moved it down about 8 inches.

The food had been good. The drinks spectacular. But that incident kept us from staying for dessert, and I have not returned to the place since.

Any number of variables could have impacted our experience that night, (the party could have grown at the last minute, the hostess might have been new), but the real issue for us was the lack of acknowledgment.

Though it pains me to say it, the restaurant is stuck with the bill on this one. There is nothing we could have done as guests to have avoided the situation, and the manager should have dropped by the table to check on us after it was apparent the section was…. squished.

Which brings me to the new segment– “Who’s Picking Up the Bill?”

If you’ve had a weird experience while dining out, I’d love to hear about it. Just click on the link to the right, and submit your story. Then look out for the ruling on Where the Sidework Ends.

Thanks for reading!

Restaurant 101: Scarlet Letters… or Blue…

As I was wolfing down my coffee and Nutella Toast a couple of mornings ago, I happened upon a clip from the Today show in which a health inspector checked out a local Bake Sale Diva’s kitchen.

The curmudgeonly, mustachio-ed inspecter hurrumphed at her open lightbulb above the stove, advised that she store her plates in a separate cupboard from any edibles, and cooed over the cooling capacity of her refrigerator. In the end, all things considered, the Bake Sale Diva ‘passed.’

In Los Angeles (and now New York City), it is not so much a matter of ‘passing’ for restaurants, though. In these cities, you must post a grade, like a Scarlet Letter, to your front window, so all who dine may see your transgressions.

As a diner, I am a fan of the letter grades, and an even bigger fan of the LA County Department of Health’s website feature that allows you to look up the particular infractions of a restaurant before dining there.  Milk held at inappropriate temperatures? A housepet in the kitchen? No thank you.

However, as a restaurant manager, I know that these ratings can fluctuate wildly.

In the ‘Today’ segment, the inspector checked the internal temperature of the lovely woman’s refrigerator, but did not note whether she stored her eggs beside a fully cooked pie, whether each container was labeled in English with a full account of its contents, or if any raw meats happened to be shelved above other foodstuffs. He noticed that she had an open bulb above her stove, but not whether her ceiling fan or air return vents were dusty.

Which seems silly in a home kitchen. In restaurant grading in Los Angeles, however, an establishment can lose as many points for a dusty ceiling fan as another that is discovered with urine on the kitchen floor.


I’m not saying to disregard ‘C’ ratings you find in restaurant windows…but a ‘B’ rating, after a little research, could turn out to be a combination of:

1. foods labeled in languages other than English
2. a sink that doesn’t reach 100 degrees fast enough
3. someone chewing gum in the kitchen
4. a dusty air vent
5. a leaky soap dispenser

All of which, in combination, reeks of laziness which will potentially lead to contamination, but aren’t many home cooks guilty of many similar behaviors?