Restaurant 101: Sections

In a restaurant, either directly or in passing, you may have heard “that’s not my section,” (or “that’s MY section” depending on the nature of the conversation). Sections are exactly what they sound like; each server in the dining room is assigned an group of tables in the dining room. Depending on the typical volume of guests in the restaurant a server’s section can be anywhere from 3 tables to 10. Sections are not random or arbitrary, however, they are integral to the smooth operation of the dining room, ensuring that a staff member does not get overwhelmed with more guests than he can handle, and maintaining an equitable spread of guests throughout the restaurant.

Sometimes you might see a whole section of empty tables in a restaurant and all the guests are seated in close vicinity to each other. Just because a table is empty does not mean it is available; there may not be staff assigned to the empty area. In corporate restaurants, you are unlikely to be seated in a closed section. In a mom-and-pop neighborhood spot, you might be able to finagle a table in a technically closed section, but keep in mind that because the restaurant is staffed with the crew in the other section, your service is likely to be slower.

Sectioning the restaurant is a necessary part of the service solution, ensuring that no staff member becomes overwhelmed, and thereby that all guests’ needs are efficiently handled.

Hospitality @ Home: Buffet Set Up

With Turkey Day around the corner, here are some things to help you serve up your buffet with ease and style.

1. How many people will be at your party? More than 10 people, and you’ll want to be sure that you set your buffet so it can operate from both sides. For small gatherings “buffets” can be set on your stovetop in covered pots so that hot food can keep warm over a low flame, with plates and cutlery on a nearby countertop.

2. Do dishes need to stay hot? You can keep dishes warm by placing hot food on hot plates and keeping them covered. Soups and melty dips can be set in fondue pots over a sterno flame, or in crockpots to keep warm. Get your surge protector on and be sure to tape or otherwise secure loose cords so guests don’t trip over them.

3. Consider the silverware. If you are placing the silverware on the buffet, place it at the front of the buffet, rolled tightly in a roll up that can easily be held or even tucked in a pocket. But if it is possible, it is more efficient to pre-set the cutlery and napkins at individual seats at the non-buffet tables.

4. Consider the sauces. Place saucers beside serving dishes as a landing spot for spoons/ servingware so the tablecloth does not become covered in food debris.

5. Prevent traffic jams. Place canapes and beverages at different locations (if you have the room) to prevent bottlenecks. At a bare minimum, set your beverages on a separate table across the room from the food.

6. Be cagey. If you are on a budget, place plentiful, less expensive dishes at the beginning of the buffet and the more expensive, scarcer items at the end. As in, put your dinner rolls, and mashed potatoes at the beginning, the steak and shrimp at the end.

7. Be fancy. Create levels. By skewering meatballs or other small bites with bamboo sticks, or placing dishes with a low profile (like cut sushi rolls, tortillas, cookies) on literal pedestals. If you don’t have a plethora of cake stands, you can create levels by placing plates on overturned teacups or mason jars. Or if that’s not your aesthetic, you can place a row of sturdy boxes down the center of your buffet table, cover them with linens and tuck your serving plates around and on top of them. If you want to be extra opulent, you can fill the space between the plates with seasonal fruits, vegetables, and sturdy kale leaves to completely cover the fabric components, creating a “cascading cornucopia” effect.

Restaurant 101: Carrying Plates

Here’s another tip from serving school: how to carry multiple plates. This is just the basic 2-3-4 plate carries. I am deeply in awe of diner servers in fast-paced joints that can stack seven chicken-fried steak dinners, but I know that skill can only come from years of experience with the weight and balance of a particular set of dishes, acclimation to their temperatures, and the sure-footedness that comes from knowing a restaurant dining room as well as one’s own home.

The multiple plate carry is useful for dinner parties, or for your first job in a restaurant. The four plate carry is also ideal for transporting plates of birthday cake from a conference room to your office mates, should the occasion arise 😉

Restaurant 101: Maitre’ d

Maitre d’

(May-truh dee)

From the French maitre d’ hotel, which means, essentially, ‘Master of the House.’ Typically this title is unisex, applying to men or women in the position, as the feminized “Mistress of the house” has, *ahem*, un-egalitarian connotations.

In the restaurant, the ‘House’ has two sides; the Front of House and the Back of House. The Front of House encompasses the areas that customers interact with, the dining room, the hallways, washrooms, etc. It also contains the liminal spaces of the phone lines and reservation system. The Front of House can extend to Valet service, coatcheck in a complex fine dining establishment.

The Maitre D is the Master of the Front of House. This seemingly simple definition can be applied in multiple ways in various dining rooms. In some restaurants the Maitre D is the de facto manager. She may be responsible for overseeing staff assignments, monitoring service, coordinating arrangements with the kitchen, bar, as well as handling any employee issues that arise in the course of a service. The de facto manager style Maitre D will also be responsible for closing out the days’ cash/ credit card transactions, locking up the restaurant, etc.

Some people with the title Maitre D further act as the sommelier if the restaurant does not have one on staff.

In a fine dining operation with the full coterie of roles from Bread Server to Service Captain, however, the Maitre D may act more as the head waiter and lead host, greeting guests at the door, remembering repeat customers, making everyone feel welcome, and waiting on certain VIP tables himself.

Wherever you find one, however, the Maitre D is a good friend to have in the dining room. He is the best person to make special requests from (flowers to arrive at your table, a bottle of champagne waiting for you, a certain table for an important meal, or menus without prices listed on them when you are treating guests and want them to feel welcome to order anything). It is not out of place to offer a gratuity to a Headwaiter style Maitre D who has taken special care of you. But as some Maitre D’s are actually salaried managers and precluded from accepting tips, do not be surprised if a tip is rebuffed with a polite “Thank you, but a tip is not necessary.” If a Maitre D turns down a gratuity, it would be rude to continue to offer one.