On Servers Forgetting Orders

Dear Helena,
Why can’t servers just carry a notepad? Do they think memorization is a mark of good service? I feel like whenever the server tries to memorize my order, he screws it up.
—I’ll Have It My Way

Dear I’ll Have It My Way,
Although some restaurant managers do believe that memorization is impressive to the customer, like juggling cutlery it’s a parlor trick that can easily go wrong. Anne Stoll, co-owner of Delfina in San Francisco, says when servers attempt to memorize orders, “they’re always forgetting the side of Brussels sprouts.”

At upscale restaurants, your server is actually more likely to have a notepad in hand, says Gary Smith, a restaurant consultant. “When I worked with Michael Mina ... you wrote everything down, because he never wanted you to go back to the table and say, ‘I forgot what you ordered.’” Even if the server has razor-sharp recall, customers won’t know that. When the server writes things down, says Stoll, “it puts customers at ease.”

As you may know, George A. Miller’s classic 1956 study found that humans can retain an average of seven items in their short-term memory. But Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California–San Francisco, says: “When it comes to complex information like words … or even more complex items, like faces, we can remember fewer and fewer units.” In other words, while the average person can remember a seven-digit phone number, he will struggle to remember: “One steak, one pasta, two salads, dressing on the side”—let alone which meal goes with which face.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.