Waiters and Waitresses

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WAITERS AND WAITRESSES. The career of the waiter and waitress begins with the industrialization of food. Prior to that, women dominated food preparation and serving in most cultures, and this may have reinforced the suspicions of them as dangerous. Polluted or poisoned foods have been a style of murder favored by women. A notorious poisoner was the Marquise de Brinvilliers (16301676) who claimed that half the French court of Louis XIV was engaged in attempted murder. Before her, there was Agrippina (1559 C.E.), Lucrezia Borgia (14801519), and Catherine de' Medici (15191589), who have each been associated with such acts.

The Trusted Sex

In court societies, before the regulations introduced by the modern bureaucratic state, chefs, waiters, and food handlers were appointed by the monarch, and this served as an endorsement of trust. In the modern era, with refrigeration and scientific forensics, the incidence of food pollution and poisoning has dramatically dropped. At the same time, men have entered the food business and become celebrated chefs and restaurateurs. This is not to imply a causal relationship, but an interesting association of gender and status, borne out with examples from the formal restaurants of the late nineteenth century, where respectable women were not allowed as guests but could workin lowly positionsand where only males were trusted with the job of waiter. They were required to justify that trust by wearing white gloves while serving to demonstrate that their fingers had not slipped into the sauce and then been licked clean.

Waiters and Power

Many pleasures of dining out relate to service and luxury. In the formal restaurant, diners have temporary possession of elegant silverware, crystal and tableware, and the command of others. George Orwell (1933) declares that one should never feel sorry for the waiter who stands by, watching and attending to the pleasures of diners. The waiter is a snob and thoroughly understands the attractions of the experience and wishes only for the opportunity to act exactly as the diner is doing.

There are various contests for power and privilege going on in this setting. Orwell gives the example of personal appearance: the chef wears a moustache to display rank and show contempt for the waiters who do not wear a moustache, who in turn show their superiority by refusing to allow the plongeur or dishwasher to wear a moustache. Gerald Mars and Michael Nicod (1984) note the many strategies and tactics employed by waiters, diners, and management to gain advantages over one another. Each of them struggle, using tipping, fiddling (pilfering), and cutting corners, to display their superior status and power to one another.


The great divide between American and European restaurant styles emerges with the industrialization of food, dating from the end of the nineteenth century, when grocery stores (then, supermarkets), factory production, mass marketing of snack foods, and fast-food and chain restaurants began to transform a minor retail activity into a major economic market. American women worked in restaurants after the 1940s (Pillsbury, 1990), making them less formal and more relaxed. Dolores Dante, a waitress of twenty-three years (Terkel, 1972) reported on the pride she took in her work despite the taunts and insults received from male clients, who mistakenly used the threat of not tipping as a way of gaining her attention and service.

The role of the waiter and waitress has held constant fascination for novelists and social investigators, all of whom comment on the highly charged relationship between the diner and waiter. In formal restaurants, knowledgeable waiters can intimidate diners they consider out of place or presumptuous. Lone women diners, or those with young children, for example, may find the formal restaurant inhospitable because the waiter expects a negligible tip and judges them not to be worth their effort. In short, the pleasures of dining out rest largely on the performance of the waiter.

American Economics vs. European Craft

Americans mostly favor small diners, self-service, or fast-food chain restaurants where the level of service is low and the expectations of customers limited. At the other end of the spectrum, there are prestigious, celebrated, and expensive restaurants where the waiter is required to indulge the demands of diners. Between these extremes is the increasingly popular range of casual restaurants and bistros that often advertise themselves as emulating the more luxurious restaurants. However, in doing so, they create expectations in their customers which, in reality, they cannot deliver. The waiter (and more often waitress) in such restaurants is caught between the efficiencies demanded from the restaurant management and the customers' expectations. In this gap, waiters and waitresses learn short cuts; they may finger the food in order to improve the presentation on the plate; wipe off dirty dishes and cutlery rather than replace them; dilute coffee by making two from one serve and so on. The waiter is caught in a perennially conflict-infused relationship with the management, chef, and diner over presentation, quality, and speed of service (Hughes, 1958; Whyte, 1949).

Dining in America can be theatrical, with gimmick and theme restaurants that require waiters and waitresses to deliver food on roller-skates or to dress in colorful uniforms or theme costumes. With such attractions and diversions, the American restaurant locates itself within the entertainment industries. Accordingly, the waiter or waitress is a performer, spruiking the attractions of the menu, providing amusement, and creating the illusion of service. (Spruiking is a style of advertising in which the waiter is trying to convince his customer about the delights of a certain portion.) Included in the job might be salary incentives for selling the greatest numbers of desserts or menu specials. The European waiter does not traditionally work in such an environment where the numbers of clients and settings determine his salary. The waiter's interests are to enhance the pleasures of eating; thus a European diner in a formal restaurant expects the waiter to demonstrate impeccable manners and elegant style, and not to promote certain dishes. A greater degree of informality exists between the American diner and waiter; more conversation takes place that has little to do with the food and menu and more to do with the sociability of the event. The displays of food craft from waiters such as carving meats, serving portions at the table, and setting cutlery, have largely vanished from the restaurant scene in America, and only re-emerge now and then as part of the entertainment of dining in expensive, formal, elegant restaurants.

See also Delmonico Family; Kitchens, Restaurant; Places of Consumption; Restaurants.


Hughes, Everett C. Men and Their Work. Chicago: Glencoe Free Press, 1958.

Mars, Gerald, and Michael Nicod. The World of Waiters. London: Allen and Unwin, 1984.

Orwell, George. Down and Out in London and Paris. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 2001. Original edition, 1933.

Pillsbury, Richard. From Boarding House to Bistro: The American Restaurant Then and Now. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Terkel, Studs. Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Whyte, William Foote. "The Social Structure of the Restaurant." American Journal of Sociology 54, no. 4 (January 1949): 302310.

Joanne Finkelstein


The origins of the term may be the phraseTo Insure Promptitudeor from the slang "tip," to give. Tipping now operates as a tacit rule in most restaurants other than the fast-food chains and large-scale, self-service canteens. However, even though tipping is almost universal, the rules governing it are not. In the early part of the twentieth century, etiquette manuals offered lengthy advice about it, thereby indicating that it was a problematic exchange in a new, liberal era. Current tourist guides simply state that it is expected, even when there is a service charge already included. The iconic metropolitan comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, tells his urbane New York City audience that we tip in order to prevent violence, such as having our heads smashed into the glass-top table or being chased up the street by the "stiffed" waiter.