Portland Restaurant Service

My wife has a fantasy:  That somehow, I can change the restaurant service culture in Portland.  I am happy that I am still a part of my wife’s fantasies, but this particular windmill may be just too big to fight.  We all know what she is talking about.  That Portland server reputation of, “Yeah, I know we’re the s***.  The too-cool-for-school approach.

Alright, Portland is officially a foodie mecca.  That cannot be denied.  The eleven month growing season.  The quality of ingredients available to us.  The fine pinot noirs, the artisan ales, even the small, boutique distilleries that have given us a generation of mixologists and their craft cocktails. The lifestyle this area affords us, has invited a lot of very talented people.

Great Portland Restaurants

We have a number of great restaurants.  We have even a greater number of very good, no tablecloth, neighborhood restaurants.  The one thing that has kept them from being considered world class restaurants has been the service.

So how does someone change this culture?  Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of places that actually have friendly, approachable service.   It is still a big uphill battle, however.  It is very off-putting to go into a place, drop a hundred-plus dollars, only to feel like I was, not only taken for granted, but downright abused.  It is hard to ‘stomach’ another place that expects you to enjoy their food despite themselves.

I think the way to start is simply to have the conversation.  Why should we continue to patronize these places?  Or even worse yet, continue to tip that twenty plus percent when the service doesn’t warrant it, just to keep one’s reputation as a good tipper?  People need to decide that they are not going to go back to those places where they got sooo much attitude, that the lingering memory of their experience is not the wonderful food they had, but how the service left them feeling.


I think at least part of the problem lies with the chef-owner.  Very often, they are so focused on being creative that they don’t even realize there is a problem.  And they should be focusing on their food—that is what they do.  However, they need to take the ego out of the equation.

National Restaurant Association

portland restaurant serviceLook at all of the data.  Be it Zagat, or the National Restaurant Association, they will tell you that sixty to seventy percent of complaints come down to the service.  It’s not about the food.

So, how do we get that chef to see this?  I will not tolerate any abusive attitude from any servers who like to come off like they know more than their customers.  Stop returning to those places where these offences occur.  Stop leaving big tips just because that’s what you do.  One more thing I feel I should mention.  I am a front of the house guy.  The last thing I want is for people to stop leaving generous tips.  But, if the situation warrants it—don’t do it.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Rachel says:


  2. David says:

    Do you really think that it’s only the pretense and arrogance that defines the shortcomings of Portland’s restaurant service? I think that there is a lack of commitment to professionalism that pervasively undermines the capacity for great service.

    Perhaps you can change the culture by creating a certification program. When we restaurant owners hire one of your certified servers we would know that they: understand food and can describe it in full sentences; pre-bus; pour water and wine well and often; travel the dining room with their hands full; don’t call everybody “guy”… etc.

    Working five shifts each week in less than 30 hours and make more than a school teacher with a masters degree. It’s a good enough gig to take some pride in. And perhaps us owners could do more to instill this sense of pride by holding these keys to our success in higher regard and treat them accordingly.

    1. Tom Bethel says:

      I mostly agree with what you are saying, David, but without some system in place to get certification, it really is up to the restaurateur to conduct the training. Every place is different.

      1. David says:

        But you’re the one who has the wife fantasizing about you… so I thought you should take it on. Thanks for all you do Tom.

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