Cover Story: Servers Sound Off

Here's the inside scoop on the job, the customers and the food

Scott Beseler

Anne Thoman

photos by Scott Beseler

Food writers crank out a lot of ink on chefs and the magic they create on the plate. But that's only half the story.

Somehow that plate's gotta find its way to you so you can slurp down all the delicious delectables it carries.

Where would any of us — kitchen or customer — be without the server? They play a huge role in the success, or failure, of a dining experience.

Think about it: Who doesn't love it when a server remembers your favorite wine, brings you "the usual" before you even ask or calls you "hon" while serving up a plate of crispy hash browns? And doesn't it infuriate you when the server just walks by your empty glass or takes forever to bring your check?

There's a subtle art to the craft of serving — it takes timing, intuition and practice — and it's high time we pay these artists their due. So in this year's Where to Eat Dining Guide, we devote some long overdue ink to our city's exceptional restaurant servers, from fine dining establishments to hash houses.

Here's what they have to say about their jobs, their bosses, their customers and, of course, the food!

Anne Thoman
Jean-Robert at Pigall's

Anne spent as much time during the interview asking me questions about myself as she did answering my questions. She's a natural nurturer — a must-have quality in someone serving you dinner at an upscale restaurant. Her calm demeanor immediately puts you at ease.

In the beginning: "I've always had my hand in it, for 20 years or so. After I graduated from college I was working in my field, but I always kept my hand in the restaurant industry. I like the social aspect of it. After Francis (her daughter) was born I decided not to work days, just to work evenings so that I could be at home with her during the day."

The industry: "I think that now it really is all about food. Everything is so food-oriented, and people do want to take an entire evening to enjoy food. Before it used to be 'Let's get a pizza,' and now it's more of an event. It's like a Broadway show or something. Even the way everything is presented now and the quality. I think people are more exposed to better ingredients and the way they're prepared, so that's what they want when they go out."

The job: "I think the social aspect is great. You're always a part of someone's celebration; they're always celebrating a birthday or an anniversary or engagement. People are always there for a happy occasion, so that's the nice part. People are in great moods when they go out.

"At Pigall's the service is very orchestrated. And you know, I think that's Richard (Richard Brown, the maitre d'). He wanted a staff that was very welcoming without being pompous. And I think that's what he has. You have to be secure and not be intimidated and probably need a good sense of humor. And the ability to make things looks easy. You want them never to feel stressed out even when you have a lot going on. You want them to feel that you have the whole night to sit there and listen to whatever they want to tell you when really you've got 3,000 things going on.

"It's hard because everyone is working 9 to 5, and when everyone else is relaxing that's when we're working. On the other hand, it's a wonderful job because there's beautiful surroundings, beautiful food. Everyone that goes in there (Pigall's) is very pleasant because they're out to have a good time. No one comes in there not wanting to have a nice night. So that makes it very easy."

The bosses: "In fine dining the staff is usually a little more seasoned and older, which is nice. You have a very mature staff. At Pigall's it's a choice, a career, something that you strive to do. It's not, you know, 'I'm trying to get a little money while I'm going through school.' Jean-Robert really tries to make it that way, with health insurance, you know."

The food: "Right now my favorite is the scallops. He serves pan-sautéed scallops with a spring vegetable risotto that has asparagus, haricots verts and brussels sprouts and then he finishes it with a truffle cream sauce. He shaves truffle on top of it."

The customers: "It's hard to turn tables because people get very comfortable. We give everybody three hours. But sometimes it's hard to get them out of their seats. A lot of times we'll say, 'Would you like to go back and meet Jean-Robert?' It's a nice way to get them out of their seats!

Sugar N Spice

Everyone should sit down and have a cup of coffee and a good laugh with Mona, who wants to be on a first-name-basis only. Watching her trade barbs with the regulars is a great way to get your day started. (She insisted her photo be placed right by Jean-Robert de Cavel's. So I figured putting her by Anne's would be the next best thing!)

In the beginning: "I've been here for 19 years in June, the first of June. I started working in 1975 in New Orleans on skid row. It was my first waitress job. Then they called it the Central Business District, but it was skid row."

The industry: "You know, 20 years ago you could give a person a glass of water and they knew how to drink it. Now they can't drink a glass of water without straws and lemon. That is the truth. And people eat out a lot more now than they used to. I guess we've got everybody in the family working and there's not enough time to cook and do all that. When I was a kid if you ate out it was a rare occasion, maybe once or twice a month if you were lucky."

The job: "The hours are good. I've been doing this so long it's easy, but it's very difficult to make money this way. Waiting on the public, it can be very stressful, but we have a lot of fun in here. We've had a load of fun over the years and there's a lot of these people that come every day — they're friends, they're family. But it's a rough way to make living."

The bosses: "I worked up here at Country Kitchen in Norwood on second shift. My husband worked at General Motors, and I worked there second shift and then when he retired the ad was in the paper for here and I needed a job. And the old owner, Mick Michaelson, had it then. So I came down here, he talked to me, and I asked him point blank, 'You know this ad's been in the paper a whole month and these ads aren't cheap. Are you hard to get along with or what?' And he laughed. So Mickey gave me the job, and I've been here ever since. And Elliot (Elliot Jablonsky, the current owner) has been very good to me."

The food: "You can go anywhere for dinner. You can't go everywhere for Wispy Thins. If you want to know what's good, ask a fat waitress. We have good coffee, and we have very good corned beef hash here."

The customers: "Over the years we've had a lot of them pass away. When I came here it was a different crew than there is now. Most of our customers are repeat customers. Some of these people we see every single day. Some of the people that we see every single day order the exact same thing every day. We've got customers that come in, we might not see them for six months but you know what they want."

Karen Duncanson
Bella Luna

As Karen and I settled in for our interview, she couldn't help being her usual, efficient self. She made sure I had a cup of coffee, cream and sugar before showing me her mischievous side.

In the beginning: "I've been in the business for 35 years. I was born and raised in Cincinnati. My husband used to work at Zimmer's restaurant (currently Nick's Chops and Chasers). They sold Zimmer's in 1979, and we moved to Sarasota, Fla. I've been back for 11 years. I worked for Grafton's for four years, and then Mark and Joe closed that restaurant and I left there and went to Jay's, and that was another one! I worked for him for almost six years, and he closed."

The industry: "I don't think people go out and 'dine' anymore. I think they eat. There's so much when it comes to fast food, and it's all a numbers game. They look at tables and seats as rentals. You're renting that seat, and if I can get you out of here in 40 minutes I can turn them. It's all a numbers game — dine and dash. I think people have lost going out and sitting down and having a nice meal, spending an hour and half or two hours having a conversation. People are just too much in a hurry. Everybody's got some place to go. Now it's just an eating game."

The job: "You get to know people personally. I've met a lot of really wonderful people. Even today I'll see people that I used to see at Grafton's and they'll say, 'Oh we haven't seen you. How are you?' And I always liked the flexibility of the schedule. That was the main reason I got into the business — my son. I worked just lunches when he was smaller, and then when he got older I just worked dinners and I was home during the day.

"And I know if I leave today I can go down the street and find a job. You can always find a job, always. And you always have money in your pocket. So when Rob was little, my son, I always knew we were going to eat tonight. You always have cash in your pocket."

The bosses: "I wouldn't think twice about leaving a place if they didn't treat you right. Jimmy from Jay's was very good to me. Mark and Joe Grafton were real good to me. They were just great people to work for."

The food: "The lasagna at Bella's is killer, and I really like the cheese ravioli with pumpkin sauce."

The customers: "We had an old guy that used to come in down at Jay's, he'd come in and kiss all the girls. He was in his 90s and he just always had a joke for ya, always made ya laugh, always kissin' on all the girls. And I had one that used to come in to Grafton's. He loved trains. He used to work for the railroad companies, and I used to tell him stories about when I was a kid. I was raised in Madisonville, and I ran with all my brothers and their friends and we used to hop trains. But every time he came in he used to bring me something that had to do with railroads. I've met a lot of colorful people."

David Sandy
One Restaurant & Lounge, Bacall's

David, a consummate professional, knows the business inside-out. His answers showed that, while he puts off a happy-go-lucky vibe, he's thought long and hard about what it means to successfully pull off the role of a server.

In the beginning: "I've been in this industry since I was 14. I started washing dishes at a little restaurant downtown called On Broadway. Then I moved up through the ranks, and I've been doing it for 22 years. I was classically trained as a server in fine dining at Top of the Crown in the Clarion Hotel downtown. And now I'm at One and Bacall's. I enjoy the duality of the extremes. At Bacall's it's your friendly neighborhood restaurant and you get to know a lot of people, a lot of regulars. At One you get to really put on a show — get dressed up, put on your white apron and your tie and make sure you have your wine key and your crumber."

The industry: "I think things have gone back to simple food. It's not so elaborate. Back in the late '80s and early '90s it seems like everybody was trying all kinds of outrageous things, and I think things have come back to the norm a little bit. As far as service goes, I think it's relaxed. I don't want to say there's no attention to detail, but I just think that the staff is a little bit more easygoing and not quite as formal all the time.

"I don't enjoy that when I go out — I'd rather have a server with a little bit of personality, you know? Outward it looks like they're having fun and enjoying themselves at work. All of that transfers to how your guests are going to feel during their experience. If they can see the server is having fun and still seeing to all the details, getting the job done, making sure everything is correct, then I think that it enables them to relax and have more fun."

The job: "I could work 70 to 80 hours serving or bartending because it's fun. That's the best part of the job — interacting with people. It's great to have someone come to your restaurant and maybe he's had a crappy day or isn't feeling quite right and then have him sit down and give him everything he needs, all the attention he wants and have him walk out and have forgotten everything that had happened that day.

"The worst part is always having a lot of cash on you. The other day my mom quoted: 'Most servers don't make it home with all their money.' And it's so true. Every restaurant I've ever worked at has always had a group of people that would go out after work. And that makes a huge dent in the cash you've made that night. I even know one server who actually had a percentage of money that he allotted every night for going out — it was a percentage of the tips he made that night."

The bosses: "Paul (McBreen), who was a server at One, is now the general manager. There's been a lot of attention to detail and to the service staff in general. He's really come through with that. He's doing a great job."

The food: "At One I have a few different things I really like. I like the ahi tuna tartar appetizer, and I absolutely love the peppercorn and ginger ahi tuna dinner. Those are both incredible. And then our scallop appetizer is unbelievable. At Bacall's the meatloaf sandwich and the Reuben are my two favorite things on the menu."

The customers: "My favorite stories are about unfortunate things that have happened. We had a winemakers dinner for the Cincinnati Wine Festival and we had Meeker wines from California — a great winery — and the last wine of the evening was their Frozin, which is port. I had a tray full of it and I spilled it all over this person. And he was very gracious. Of course I apologized up and down, and then the next thing out of my mouth was, 'We have a shirt in the closet for you,' because I know that my general manager, Paul, always keeps his dry cleaning in the closets. I spilled it all over myself as well and the tie that I had on had it all down the front of it. The Meekers, the winemakers, were there, of course. They signed my tie." ©

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