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

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; A01

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.

"This is one of my biggest pet peeves," Beler said. "I saw one of my guys do it with a party of eight, and I wanted to strangle him. Nobody's memory is that good. Why not write it down?"

The image of a waiter smoothly -- even ostentatiously -- taking a complicated order without even a ballpoint is an archetype of the restaurant profession, but some customers have always been annoyed by the uncertainty the practice introduces to a night out. Others see the practice as a display of old-world graciousness in an era when some restaurants use wireless devices to beam orders straight from table to kitchen.

"When they get it right, I'm impressed," said Washington businessman Carr Davis as he ate salmon on soba noodles at the Palm. "Here, they tend to get it right. Other places, it makes me nervous."

Neurologists take the waiter memory trick more seriously. Researchers have long been interested in servers' ability to absorb and retain a constant shifting flow of short-term data, especially because, as college psychology students learn, the assumption has long been that human beings can usually keep only about seven new items of information in mind (one reason phone numbers are seven digits long). Several recent studies -- including one published last year in the journal Behavioral Neurology that tested the memories of veteran cafe waiters in Buenos Aires -- found that the servers' constant practice actually expands the brain's memory function.

Smelling a market of baby boomers eager to ward off the fog of aging, several companies have now designed games to mimic the challenge of remembering restaurant orders (including one by Happy-Neuron, a company offering online memory drills, that you can play here).

"It's not that these guys go into waitering because they have good memories," said Stephen Christman, an expert in memory at the University of Toledo. "They get good at it through constant practice."

At the Palm, Weber, who allows that his recall skills are legendary among friends and family, said he applies no special strategy to keep orders straight in his head. He doesn't link each order to a distinctive haircut or shirt (that would be difficult in a restaurant where all four diners at a table might be wearing suits of a similar shade of blue). Rather, he silently marks one member of a party, the one nearest the front door, as his "core point" and numbers the rest of them clockwise from there.

Otherwise, he said, "I just remember it."

Having a fail-safe memory can be a bit dangerous in a high-end restaurant. Years ago, working at an Ohio restaurant, Weber greeted a man who had come in a few times, bringing different guests to drink champagne at lunch. This time, the man was apparently with his wife and being hailed as a regular was anything but an honor.

"He said: 'You must have me confused with someone else. I've never been here before,' " Weber recalled. "I just kept my mouth shut after that."

Weber doesn't make many mistakes. But fewer of his colleagues are following him along the paperless track, Weber said, especially the younger ones.

"I don't think their memories are as good," he said. "They've never had to remember a phone number, thanks to speed dial."

The generational divide is apparent all along the restaurant spectrum. The Juke Box Diner in Annandale is known for longtime waiters who can handle big parties without writing anything down. But the younger servers don't even try, according to owner Joe Attyah.

"My younger guy is 25; he writes it down always," Attyah said. "The others, they both been doing this a long time. They don't write it down. As long as they don't make mistakes, I'm okay with it."

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