Story By: Erez Gordon  / Illustration By: Andy Murray

It’s a simple truth; they do not love you back.

In my case, it was something about the way she crammed my pita bread with falafel balls, hummus and pickled cabbage; her left hand tenderly working the soft bread, as her other, armed at turns with tong and spoon, selected salads and condiments for my lunch. Her name was Shelly, and if there is a more genuine representation of unbridled affection, I am yet to find it. It was as if in some part, she herself was an ingredient, her willingness and enthusiasm a piquant addition, communicated with a knowing, heart-melting smile.

For the very first time, I had fallen in love in a restaurant.

If I were to give serious thought to how I ended up where I am today I might consider that singular moment as being responsible for my entire restaurant career: decades of people-feeding, germinated by a shy, smiling, country girl who simply managed to make me feel special for a brief moment.

I feel no shame in sharing this with you either. With the confidence drawn from an endless multitude of unconsummated three-hour-long affairs, I know that you have done exactly the same thing. Go on admit it to yourself. Every one of us possesses our own Shelly. For most it might be nothing more than the brief flash it deserves to be; the faint scent of a waitress or the smile of a bartender, perhaps giving rise to an unsavoury thought or two. Taken a step further, perhaps some fanciful imagined role-play scenarios, accompanied by an onanistic bout or two. Some may even take this childish game beyond the imagination and further still, somehow marrying that same person or entering into a long-term relationship, generating a mortgage, and children. On this last count, I can personally lay claim to two such regretful rites of passage.

Yet these outcomes are far less interesting than the fact that we have, all of us, fallen for it. And while we’re being honest, likely more than once.

The question then is not how it happens but more tellingly, why? Why do we fall victim to such notional flights of fancy, and in particular why does it happen in a restaurant environment?

Without reservation, I can declare that I have never found myself swooning over, say the dental technician whose chirpy chatter shades all manner of grotesque activity. Neither have I pined for any of the semi-clad, mantis-like hostesses that adorn coveted pieces of sparkling machinery at sparkling machinery exhibitions. Nope, such situations leave me stone cold.  But no sooner do I walk into a restaurant than I feel every one of my senses heightening at the mere prospect of finding true love… or the vague approximation of such.

To understand this, let’s delve deeper into the workings of that customer relationship, and even more curiously, how waiters like me can easily pitch a tent in both camps, sometimes even during the same twenty-four hour period.

Consider why any of us go to a restaurant in the first place. Sure there are the standard pedestrian reasons. We all of us understand that restaurants are a forum for many things – catching up with friends, spending time with significant others, celebrating seminal moments, eating. But consider why we choose to do these things in a room filled with tables and chairs and other humans all doing their own thing; perfect strangers, purportedly oblivious to us and to the meaning of our particular event. The answer? Theatre and performance. It’s going on in public dining rooms across the globe every day. 

So there we have it, playee and player in a curious co-dependent relationship, with one party (you punters) responding emotionally to another party (we bestowers of hospitality), as we get about doing our job.

Make no mistake, we server and waiter types gladly welcome these swooning reactions to our performances. They suit us just fine, and so like toxic algae in a still pond, we allow them to bloom. Because love after all is not about first sight, it’s about opportunity – and don’t we just know an opportunity when we smell it.

If I am being too cryptically euphemistic, let me be unequivocal. Regardless of how it looks or feels, irrespective of what you think you know, the simple truth is that we do not love you back. Though this may come as a surprise, please believe me. That lingering, longing glance you shared with the waitress, during which neither of you could look away and the rest of the world receded into an irrelevant sideshow – it was nothing of the sort. It was all just a misunderstanding. All the while you were contemplating that soft look in the eyes of the captivating brunette with the shining personality, she was wistfully contemplating the end of her ten hour shift, and wondering if she’d remembered to put through that order of duck-fat potatoes for table seven. Her helplessness in the face of your compelling charm was nothing
of the sort. It was her zoning out.

Please understand also that whenever possible we will purposefully drive you to imagining that you might indeed have stumbled upon true love; and that the most profound way for you to exhibit your love is with a big fat tip.

We all play knowingly, you and us, and someone invariably gets hurt. Simply by virtue of your inexperience, that someone will usually be you. Because we play every day, multiple times, as a job, whoring our way through every shift.
Is it any wonder that you stand no chance?

While we remain in the confessional with the shades drawn, allow me to sketch in the details. Here’s how it works…

In most cases we know of your impending arrival, though it wouldn’t much matter if we didn’t. In the event that it’s your first visit, we are practised at working you out quickly enough. If you’ve been with us before, we will know all your dirty little predilections; how you like it to go down, how important it is for you to have the same experience each time or whether you like a change-up every now and again. Each return visit will be like a homecoming and like all homecomings it will be laden with pre-sentiment and the emotional fallout of previous visits. We know if and when to swamp you with syrupy attention. We are practised masters of calculating when to leave you on your own for a while to help build the pseudo-suspense – for we all know how that ends, don’t we – or whether tweaking things and double-teaming you with
an extra waiter will twiddle your knobs.

And always, from the very outset, you’re the goose that has already been cooked.

We’ll lead you to the table and leave you in the care of our highly trained and very receptive staff. You may or may not have a favourite, but you will always have options. These might include the Finn; a natural blonde with an open smile, heavily accented and possessing a special European knowledge, delivered as experienced exotica wrapped in disarming naiveté. Perhaps we might place you in the safe charge of the tall American who possesses just the right level of obsequiousness and servitude, but with high sense of self-worth which leaves no doubt that you are in the presence of someone who is well above the pay grade but happy to be slumming it for a while. Or the Frenchie, soft and full-bodied, all warmth and mispronounced words that you forgive instantly: who could seemingly sleepwalk through your time together and still amaze with a preternatural capacity to enhance your experience. There’s the Italian with the smooth and unctuous exterior, promising nothing less than an entire cultural experience designed to make you feel like a deity and a helpless citizen all at the same time. Or, you might end up in the care of by the homespun, pragmatic Australian, torn between a desire to get the job done and to do the job right: our coolest server by far but nonetheless able to make you feel as if you belong nowhere but in those capable hands.

And we work hard at it too, meeting all requirements and suiting all tastes. Our success is your happiness and we labour towards it inexorably… until the bill comes and it’s time to settle up. Please don’t be offended by our frankness. This was always about the money and you should have always known that deep down, even if it’s a truth rarely spoken out loud.

Although all of this may appear mercenary, it does have one very important benefit. You can trust us. We respect the waiter-diner relationship, it is our bread and butter and we are very careful with the personal information you share with us. Though these intercourses are intensely personal actions, you have nothing to fear, we witness variations on the theme dozens of times each night. By the end, you become no more than a blurry vague form.

That is until your next visit brings you back into sharp focus.

We are witness to your most personal actions. We watch you put all manner of things in your mouth. We watch you chew. We see you dab at moist remainders with a pristine white napkin which becomes ever more soiled as the evening approaches its unavoidable end. We are standing close as the wine takes hold, as your shoulders slacken and your eyelids droop. We sense more than see your defences melt away as you give in to the desired outcomes; a softer, happier, more at ease you.

We are present throughout, as servers definitely, but also as companions, guides and, dare I say it, willing albeit short-term psycho-lovers.

If we ever doubt ourselves and the important role we play, we need only contemplate how disconsolate you become when we are not there. Our absence, even temporarily, leaves you feeling alone, uncared for, unloved. You tell us as much in emotional emails, letters and withering online reviews.

Sadly there are wait staff out there that only go through the motions, never truly understanding the gravity and responsibility of their role. They are blinkered to the emotional current coursing between themselves and each table; multiple raging torrents on which bob all manner of thoughtful detritus, fantasies and household feelings. If they were more aware they might be less surprised at the vehemence and intensity with which diners respond to their steaks being overcooked or their desserts taking too long. How should you expect diners to behave if the climax of their experience seems like it’s forever away? The spite and anguish expressed
in letters of complaint exhuming the long-interred remains of a sub-par dining experience will seem curiously out of kilter if we imagine the complaint is only about a meal. No, the polished, seasoned operators know that what you are really pining over is something unrequited. You are fanning the smouldering coal of a dashed expectation, preparing to unleash a fiery fury at the restaurant that failed to fulfil a contracted promise of love. For don’t we all know that hell hath no fury like a diner waiting too long for their first Friday night drink.

Rest assured though, it’s not entirely one sided. There are those among us, server side, who sometimes get lost in the fervour of it all. I call it Newton’s Law. This is not a reference to the famous Isaac Newton but rather an ex-colleague of mine with the same surname, and a hilarious but eventually quite saddening history of failure when it came to finding love. His time at work consisted of assessing each female diner as a prospective partner. Too eager by half, his emanating scent of patent desperation too often overwhelmed the glorious aromas of cooked food we were serving. Eventually, we had to let him go.

I did manage to finagle my swift infatuation
with Shelly into something more substantial.
Or so I thought. There was a late night rendezvous, a couple of afternoon trysts and
a very memorable platonic moment in which
I bathed her and tucked her into bed, planting
a chaste kiss on her forehead before leaving as,
I imagined, a gentleman should. After a few days of confusing silence I returned to her apartment to find Shelly had scarpered. Staring forlornly through a dirty bedroom window into a flat empty but for a few cavorting dust bunnies, the entire episode felt crushingly insubstantial, as if it had never been at all.