Omnivore - Tip-top server at Top Flr

We visited Top Flr recently and had a great meal, which I wrote about in this week's Grazing column.

As I mentioned in my column, our server, Patrick Labouff was one of the best servers I've ever encountered, and his effect on our experience has had me thinking a good bit about his occupation.

Patrick's approach wasn't formal in any way. As a matter of fact, our meal began with what I regarded as a non sequitur. He announced that he was also waiting on a large table celebrating a birthday in the rear of the new downstairs dining room.

"Why are you telling us this?" I asked, fearful it was a way of announcing that we weren't going to get very good service because of another table's priority.

He didn't reply and when he left, I asked Wayne, "What the fuck?"

When he returned, however, he knocked us out with his savvy. (He also said I'd been right to ask him why he was telling us about his other table.)

Wayne has an annoying habit of asking servers for their recommendations. I find that 9 out of 10 times this is a completely pointless exercise. Many servers have not even tasted all dishes on a menu and, even if they have, they invariably make the "safest" recommendations. They rarely know the ingredients.

Of course, this is an infamous problem in ethnic restaurants, where servers invariably assume diners outside their own culture want the most Americanized, blandest dishes possible. But I find the same kind of assumption operating at many mainstream restaurants.

Patrick was just the opposite. He knew the menu in depth, steered us away from some items and directed us toward others, comparing the dishes to one another and the ingredients to those he'd sampled in other restaurants. Along the way, he peppered his conversation with some comments about the Beat poets. (We swapped stories about meeting Allen Ginsberg.) He's a grad student in economics.

My guess is that some people would find such conversation intrusive. And, had Patrick talked about collecting Hello Kitty items, I'd find the conversation intrusive too. But it was obvious he was responding to us personally rather than inflicting us with information that didn't interest us.

Maybe the rarity of this has to do with the way servers are regarded in our culture — as temporary workers on their way to something more. I don't know that I've really noticed more passion for food in the work of professional waiters in Europe, but they generally seem more educated about the food they are serving. Maybe that just comes with time. It's always a shock to go back to a cafe in Madrid or Paris and see the same server year after year.

I don't have a clue. But it was nice to run into a server with more passion about food than many chefs I've met. It really made a big difference in our experience in unexpected ways — by eliciting memories of meals in other places, by connecting good food to a poetic aesthetic, for example. Groovy.

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