0656 A waiter serves a table at Soulsa in Melvillle, north of Johannesburg. 281107 - Picture: Jennifer Bruce. Story: Trish Beaver.Waiter & patron etiquette

A waiter can make or break a meal. Restaurants in the US are, according to the Wall Street Journal, training their staff to move from a textbook manner to something more nuanced and situational, depending on who is eating, what the tables’ dynamics are and the diners’ moods.

The key to the individualised approach is to be able to “read” a table within just seconds. If children are at the table, don’t make a fanfare of bringing a dessert menu; if one diner seems tearful and upset, spread the word among staff to give that table space.

Rather than interrupting a conversation, some are trained to place a hand on the table to lift diners’ eyes to theirs, writes the Journal.

It reports that “crucial” economics are behind the drive for well-judged service.

According to a study by market research firm NPD, restaurant numbers are flat-lining and will grow by just 1 percent by 2019.

Mark Maynard-Parisi, managing partner of Blue Smoke restaurants in New York, told the Journal that timid guests are put at ease by being invited to take their time over the menu, while those who make eye contact and smile or ask for a cocktail menu “are saying ‘hey, I want to engage with you and I want you to make me feel really important’.”

Training for seven days teaches his staff that “the most important thing is to read the dynamic between the group”, meaning that waiters and waitresses judge body language to gauge tension, points of contention – such as alcohol – and are able to respond, holding back or jumping in where appropriate.

The old urban myth of a disgruntled waiter or chef spitting in food holds no sway with the new way of thinking. In fact, a grumpier guest may well get better service, says the Journal, as staff scramble to placate and not upset things further.

Wayne Vandewater, vice president of learning and development for Applebee’s, told the newspaper that, in the end, the idea is all about standing out from the crowd.

“Food is easy to copy, a building is easy to copy, but it’s not easy to copy our people.” - Daily Mail