Service with a smile?

Going out for a meal is as much about the service as it is about the food itself; a friendly, knowledgeable server can make or break just about any dining experience. Unfortunately, here in Whistler, service is notoriously hit or miss.

In my short two years in this community, I've had the pleasure of dining at many of Whistler's culinary hotspots, as well as, shall we say, the most casual of après establishments. And while I've written about many of the positive experiences in this column, that isn't to say that I haven't also encountered my share of duds and disappointments in the local food service industry.

I've had to chase glowering servers down and ask for menus and bills to be brought to the table after long waits, prod in search of chef's specials, eat lukewarm food and poke through a dish of pasta to remove a specific ingredient that I'd asked not to have included.

For a while I wondered if I was simply being too critical; maybe my standards were too high. But that wasn't it - hell, I'm not some stodgy, wealthy tourist that expects to be waited on hand and foot. Quite the contrary, in fact: my only real expectations are a simple smile and the ability to answer questions and deal with the odd problem that may arise (and yes, mistakes are permitted: we're all human). Quite frankly, overly attentive wait staff (you know, the ones that are constantly hovering at the fringes, with teeth-baring faux-smiles plastered to their faces) grind my gears even more than ones that only traipse by the table occasionally.

However, a few recent dining experiences out of town - though not far away, just a bit further down the road in Squamish - provided stark contrast to some of the service I've encountered in Whistler as of late. The Nest, a small restaurant tucked away in Brackendale, offers a delicious brunch starting from 11 a.m. on the weekends. I went there last week and they were quite busy, with just the chef and one waitress serving five tables. We waited to be seated for a few minutes in the lobby, but the chef suggested we just go take a seat on the patio. A few minutes later, the friendly server greeted us, brought us menus and told us about the daily specials. We even managed to have a little chat about wasps and French toast, though that's another story. The point is, even though she was busy, she took the time to connect. She cared.

Now before every member of Whistler's service industry sharpens their utensils to come to the defensive, a disclaimer: certainly not everyone is guilty of the crimes I described above. In fact, as the annual Best of Whistler votes prove, there are some real pros in this town, too.

One of the real challenges in this town has always been unearthing these diamonds in the rough because, let's face it, there are just a lot of people here for a good time and many of them are just in it for a paycheque (and the tips). In their defense, the tips aren't always that great (but here's a tip you can take to the bank: they'll probably be better if you take the time to smile and connect with the customer), and the industry fluctuates wildly, depending on the season and economy, so many are precariously balancing two, three or more jobs to make ends meet.

This summer has been particularly challenging for many local restaurants: the economic slowdown meant a lot of staff were laid off. But ask anyone who's been in the village this summer; there have been plenty of tourists and locals around looking to get a bite to eat. Staff have been stretched further and so, I'm sure, has their patience with difficult customers.

But here's the thing: I'm not a difficult customer. Generally speaking, I go to dinner armed with a smile and an empty belly. Something has to be pretty awful before I complain.

And there's this little thing coming to town in six months. Yeah, I know, everyone is tired of the big five-ringed circus that's taken over our world. But it's coming, like it or not, and as Whistlerites, we should care about how we present ourselves to the people that are coming here to take part in the craziness. Hey, they might even want to come back another time to ski.

I'd love to hear your stories on Whistler service (the good, the bad, and the ugly) so send them my way!

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