The old-school way of memorizing diners' orders is fried

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

Richard Weber can still do the hardest part of his job with both hands behind his back, literally. But maybe not for long.

Weber, a waiter at Washington's iconic Palm restaurant, is a 20-year professional who prides himself on fast service, deferential courtesy and, most important, impeccable and unassisted memory. During a lunch rush last week, he smoothly kept track of the food and beverage demands of almost 20 diners, an ever-shifting matrix of steaks and salads, cocktails and Cokes, running credit cards for some, describing specials to others.

All with nary an order pad in sight.

"I've always gone by memory -- it just feels more professional that way," Weber said above the fork-and-knife clatter. "Sometimes you have to go into the walk-in cooler and scream, yeah, but usually I can keep it all straight without too much trouble."

But the days of the waiter who doesn't write things down appear to be numbered, according to restaurant owners and industry experts. As Washington's annual Restaurant Week brings waves of new diners into local eateries, the venerable waiter memory act is in serious decline, a result of increasingly complicated orders -- customers who customize because of nutrition concerns or allergies real or imagined -- people going out in larger groups, and a generation that seems less comfortable with memorization.

Even at an old-school bastion such as the Palm, fewer and fewer servers are going penless. Weber increasingly finds himself scribbling at least a few notes for large or "complicated" parties. And by complicated, he means those who have been watching cooking shows on television.

"Whoever invented the Food Network should be shot," said Timothy Glynn, 51, another Palm veteran and a professional waiter for more than 30 years. "Everyone's a chef now. Everyone wants something special done with their meal. It's getting so you have to write it down."

"It used to be a point of pride if you could remember the specials and everybody's order and get it all right, but now it's just more complicated," said Gus DeMillo, part-owner of D.C. Coast, Ten Penh, Acadiana and other local restaurants. "You just don't see [pad-less waiters] as much as you used to."

DeMillo himself used to take orders sans paper at such old Washington watering holes as Mr. Henry's and Timberlake's. "We never wrote anything down," he said. "Everybody got their burger medium. But the restaurant business in Washington has evolved, and diners have become more sophisticated. We train our people to write it down now."

That's a growing practice, according to Mike Donohue of the National Restaurant Association.

"It's fun to see and something the guests will talk about," Donohue said. "There's always that chuckle moment, wondering if they will get it right. But it's part of the experience that's unfortunately being lost as orders have gotten more complicated."

Some restaurateurs have begun outright forbidding servers from flying without a pen. At high-end places, the cost of a piece of aged filet gone wrong can quickly overwhelm the cachet of what some dismiss as a tableside parlor trick. At the popular Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, owner-chef Cathal Armstrong banned the practice after too many bad experiences as a customer of memory-only waiters. Buzz Beler, owner of The Prime Rib on K Street NW, said his servers are required not only to write the orders down but also to repeat them back to customers.

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