Words escape reporter during his one-and-only shift as a waiter

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; A04

My career as a high-end waiter who works by memory alone lasted exactly five words: "Gentleman, the soup today is . . .."

Make that six words, if you count what I said next: "Uhhhhh. . . ."

Fortunately, there was a real waiter, Richard Weber, to step forward and smoothly relate the lunch specials in place during my one-and-only shift as a waiter at the Palm. The downtown restaurant let me don the white coat to see what it's like to manage the constant barrage of customers' desires as a seasoned pro like Weber does it -- without writing anything down.

Weber can recite specials, take orders, sort out individual requests and keep the plates moving for as many as five tables at a time. At any moment, 20 diners might be counting on him not to miss a beat -- or a beet -- during their meal. Usually, he does it all without notes, although, like other servers, he is finding that more difficult in an era of sauce-on-the-side and off-menu demands.

"When I grew up, nobody had even heard of cilantro," Weber said. "Now they ask to add a little fennel, maybe replace the egg with avocado. There's just more to forget."

But he was having no trouble Friday, even as I was drawing a total blank. With no training other than a quick rundown of the specials and a suggestion that I tie my apron under the waiter jacket, the restaurant had sent me out without even a crib sheet. My hands were empty, but so was my head.

Weber made it sound easy -- and delicious -- as he recited without notes: "The soup is crab, asparagus and mushroom. Our salad today is arugula with a raspberry vinaigrette, dried blue cheese, bacon, pecans and thinly sliced apples. We have a bento box with fried shrimp, crab cake and a sesame-encrusted ahi tuna. . . ."

Where I had only made the four men looked puzzled, Weber made them look hungry. With no notes, he delivered the spiel in seconds, made sure they understood it, answered a question about the salmon and moved on to put in a lunch order from another table that he'd been holding in some other part of his brain all this time, along with a drink order from yet a third table.

I was still trying to remember the soup.

"To me, it's like a mental exercise," said Weber. "I don't do crossword puzzles. This job will keep you sharp."

I ducked into the kitchen, pressed against the wall to avoid being crushed by the whirling waiters and repeated the specials to myself a dozen times.

At my next table, I got as far as the bento box before a diner asked me about the salad, shattering my routine. Weber bailed me out again.

I was about to ask for a little advice, but it was time to take the order from table No. 1. Per Weber's instruction, I had mentally designated one of the men as "position one." But it was someone else, No. 4, who jumped in to order first, a southwestern steak salad, medium. Then another diner -- No. 3? -- asked if he could get a blackened sea bass that wasn't on the menu. "Certainly," I said vaguely, trying to remember what No. 4 had said for an appetizer.

I looked helplessly at Weber, who gave me a small nod that said, "No problem; I've got it all."

I did a little better at a table of two, although I forgot to tell them about the bento box, put the entrees in front of the wrong diners and would have completely spaced on the Pellegrino water if Weber hadn't gently reminded me.

To keep patrons from thinking the Palm's service standards had evaporated, Weber told each party what was up. "This is a reporter from The Washington Post," he said. "He'll be taking your order today."

One of the men looked at me knowingly.

"I didn't know it had gotten that bad at the paper," he said with a sad shake of his head.

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