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Service 101: The roots of American table service
July 9, 2013 - Anita Hanaburgh
As the young nation of the United States put down its roots, table service was the least of its concerns, which included dealing with the Native Americans, fighting with the British, settling the West. Who could really care about how the table was set or in what order the courses were delivered?
With customs brought from Europe and new circumstances, restaurant service in our country and the order that the courses were served in just sort of happened.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, American’s concern with service blossomed. European waiters arrived bringing a formal method of service — think Titanic. Grand hotels and eateries flourished. Some adopted European service. waiters — there were no waitresses — took the best part of one restaurant service and adapted it to the new restaurant, as their employment changed to a “mix it up and pass it down” service.
After World War II, our country became more prosperous, more individuals traveled and more individuals ate out. To compete and keep up, restaurants needed to strengthen their operations. Methods of service were defined. The “pass it down” system?eventually combined many styles of service with the country’s unique personality to define America table service.
Today, all restaurants or food service operations use some particular style or method of service. This “style” refers to the method used to get the food to the customer. We are talking about delivery here. These styles of service range in formality, starting with the least formal, “quick serve” (a nicer term for fast food), to cafeteria style, to family style to American service to Russian service, then to very formal French-style service. Each restaurant selects the style of service that is appropriate for its operation. For example, a school will select cafeteria style service — the customers serve themselves completely, selecting from an array of food and beverage choices displayed in a line.
A family restaurant with a homey concept might pick family style — with platters of food placed in the middle of a set table, and the customers help themselves, dishing out the food themselves.
McDonald’s uses quick service. Here, the customers order from a menu display and wait for the food, carrying the food to the tables themselves.
The style of service adds to the theme or concept of the restaurant. It determines the speed of service — the more formal the service, the more leisurely the meal.
Our American service is that service in which the food is prepared and plated in the kitchen. Therefore, it sometimes is called “plate service.” American service can be formal or casual. Friendly’s, a diner, fine dining or a formal hotel will use American service.
With American service, the customer selects the desired item from a menu, and the server reports that selection to the kitchen. The cook or chef prepares the food. The kitchen then arranges the food on a plate for the customer. In fine-dining restaurants, the plate arrangement may be an important factor in its enjoyment and cost.
The biggest disadvantage of American service is that the customer orders the food sight unseen. The customers rely on the menu description, their own food background, impressions of the wait staff or a passing plate to help them choose. With American service, the customer is often left unattended as the waitperson goes back and forth to the kitchen or attends to other tables. The advantage of this service is that is simple and relatively fast, yet it allows the customer to remain seated and be waited upon. It is advantageous for the restaurant because the food quality and quantity can be controlled in the kitchen.
In contrast, French and Russian service require that the wait staff attend only one table each. With French service, the food is prepared individually in front of each customer by a chef or wait person, with a second service person serving each guest.
Russian service uses large service platters. Each platter contains one course for all the persons at the table. Each course is placed onto each customer’s plate with formality.
Both of these methods require a lot of skill on the part of the wait staff, more cost to the restaurant (thus to the customer) and require more time; neither is a great method for the impatient American.
We sometimes see elements of these services in restaurants today. A restaurant might flame a sauce or prepare a specialty drink in front of the customer. The Russian service of rolls — placing each roll individually onto the bread and butter plate — is common in some formal restaurants.
No one type of service is better than another. Comparing services is like comparing high heels to sneakers. It’s a matter of choice for the customer as well as the restaurant.
Our puritan ancestors gave us deep roots that frowned upon using time for personal pleasure:?“Food on the plate, no wait.”
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