For years, perhaps even decades, waiters and waitresses have been stopping by tables to ask, “Is everything all right over here?” or its variant, “How are you guys doing?”
It is a maddening line of questioning, for if everything was not all right—arsenic in the sirloin, creepy-crawlies writhing forth from the Western omelet—wouldn’t the wait staff be the first to know it? As for asking, “How are you guys doing?” doesn’t it stand to reason that if “we guys” weren’t doing so well, everybody in the restaurant would already be aware of this?
Asking these questions, usually in the most perfunctory, blasé fashion, is one of those rote, mechanical, dehumanizing gambits that wait staff have had drummed into them, ostensibly because patrons like it. But patrons don’t like it; they know that they’re being played. It’s like trying to wangle a bigger tip by touching patrons on the arm or bending down to make direct eye contact or fulsomely congratulating patrons on their choice of the cheese scrapple, lightly burnt.
“That’s an excellent choice,” Troy or Trey or Tara or Tanya will say. “My personal favorite, that’s for sure.”
A few years back, waitresses and waiters added a maddening new wrinkle: “Is everything all right so far?” they ask. This one has always perplexed me. The very way the inquiry is phrased—“Is everything all right . . . so far?”—seems to leave open the possibility that, while things might be going along swimmingly during the initial stages of the meal, there’s no reason whatsoever to sit back and relax. Take it from those in the know: In the rarefied world of dining, things can suddenly, unexpectedly go south in a hurry. And then there will be hell to pay.
I learned this firsthand a few weeks ago while dining at a roadside attraction on the way to Harrisburg. While I was plowing into my short stack of blueberry pancakes, three eggs, biscuits and gravy, heaping portion of home fries, toast, and orange juice, the waitress dutifully stopped by my table and asked, “Is everything all right so far?”
To which I replied, somewhat testily: “Are you suggesting that while things might be all right so far, they might suddenly take a turn for the worse?”
She eyed me intently with that jaundiced look that chain-smoking, weather-beaten, hard-living waitresses always reserve for persnickety tourists—and then said, “Well, you never know.”
She was right: You never know. As I quickly learned when I got back home and did some online research on the subject, visiting such websites as TraumaticBrunch.com and WaitStaffHorrors.net, the reason waiters and waitresses ask if everything is going okay so far is not that it is part of some ironclad, choreographed routine they have mastered, but that, in a shockingly large number of incidents, seemingly pleasant meals have turned vaguely apocalyptic.
Jim Ferguson, a long-distance truck driver working out of Salinas, was munching on a tasty po’ boy sandwich at a Baton Rouge diner back in October 2008 when a rattlesnake suddenly emerged from the plate of biscuits and gravy he had ordered as a side dish and made a lunge at him.
“Is everything all right so far?” the waitress asked as Ferguson was falling backward out of his chair.
“No, everything is not all right,” he replied. “The sandwich is fine but there’s a goddam rattlesnake in the goddam gravy. When’s the last time you had the board of health in here?”
Similar incidents abound. Karen White, a pension fund manager, was eating lemon sole in a New Orleans restaurant last August when she bit down on something hard, shattering a molar. Forensic scientists subsequently discovered that a small, thermonuclear device had been concealed in her fish.
“It was probably the North Koreans who did this,” a State Department official later confirmed. “They felt the heat coming down and hid the purloined device in the fish. Good thing she didn’t bite down harder; could have activated the sucker. Darned thing actually had a warhead on it.”
Barney Mulligan, a Detroit cabbie, had an equally unnerving experience at a small, suburban grille in February 2007, when he was approached by the waiter, who asked, “Is everything all right so far?”
“Yes,” he replied, savoring his cheeseburger.
“Well that’s about to change,” said the waiter, producing a sawed-off shotgun. “This is a holdup. Let’s have your wallet and your car keys. Now.”
The reason I mention all of this is that I now feel guilty about the innumerable times I’ve given wait staff a hard time just because they kept interrupting important conversations to ask annoying questions such as: “Is everything okay over here, folks?” or “How are you guys doing so far?” or “Is there anything else I can get you?"
Sometimes, it turns out, everything is not all right. More often than we like to admit, folks are not doing all that well so far. With shocking frequency, there is something else they can get you: a clean fork, a defibrillator, a SWAT team. And if a waiter or waitress should someday issue the warning that “you’d be making a big mistake if you don’t order dessert; we have the best tiramisu in Cleveland” (which actually happened to me back in 1998)—well, hell, go ahead and order the tiramisu. You sure don’t want to find out how bad a mistake you might be making. You really don’t.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.