Serving is an old and honorable occupation, and if you’ve ever done it (or been in a relationship with a server), you know it’s a life that stress-fractures under the weight of difficult, cheap, mean, or just plain rude customers. But rudeness goes both ways. And a server who makes a diner feel embarrassed for making a reasonable request? Here’s what happened last week to one of my coworkers when she took the in-laws to a well-known bistro in San Francisco:

Mother-in-law orders the fettuccine, which contains cod. Mother-in-law tastes said pasta, finds it a little bland (it “needs something”).

Server is summoned. “Could I have some Parmesan cheese for my pasta?”

Server resists. “We don’t offer cheese on seafood pastas here.”

Mother-in-law, looking flushed: “It needs a boost.”

Server: “How about salt?”

Annoyed mother-in-law says she’s already salted it. Could she just have some cheese?

It’s obvious that the server is irritated by this apparently unorthodox request, as if she’d just been asked for a bottle of ketchup.

Server brings a ramekin of shredded Parmesan, instead of grating it at table, the restaurant’s customary MO. She drops it ungraciously, as if it violates her principles, adding, “That dish really shouldn’t have cheese on it.”

Mother-in-law sprinkles Parm on her bland pasta, which she now considers improved…

Look, people ask for horrible things in restaurants. Cosmopolitans, Inglenook rosé, mint jelly, and ketchup for things no reasonably tasteful person would ever put ketchup on. But servers—indeed restaurants—have an obligation to please the customer with the tools at their disposal. “Aw, we don’t have cranberry juice at the bar. Let me see what the bartender can come up with.” “Here’s that ketchup, sir.” And Parmesan on a dish designed to be Parm-free, and that might even suffer, in the chef’s opinion, from cheese?


See also: Pet Peeves: Servers’ Condescending “We”

What do you think? Should servers try to steer diners away from “incorrect” choices as a way of preserving the integrity of a restaurant’s food? Let us know in the discussion box below.

Photo by Chris Rochelle /

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