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updated: 1/8/2014 10:41 AM

A guide to the gestures that help restaurants serve you better

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By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Be flattered if you catch the general manager of BLT Steak in Washington flashing a quick, sideways peace sign as he seats your party. Adam Sanders isn't revealing his politics; he's simply making a "V" -- and alerting his staff to the presence of a VIP.

Guests at CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental hotel who have enjoyed drinks in the lounge won't be asked whether they want cocktails again in the dining room if the restaurant director gently touches the side of the gas candle on their table. The coded gesture by Michael Chesser signals his team not to repeat the question.

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Celebrants at the Inn at Little Washington are no doubt thrilled to be personally congratulated by Patrick O'Connell in his stage set of a kitchen after dinner. The star of the show knows it's my anniversary or birthday! More likely, the chef has been tipped off by his underlings. As one of the inn's tour guides ushers patrons into the gleaming kitchen -- a treat extended to every diner -- he motions toward his ring finger to announce a guest's anniversary or points to his belly button to indicate a birthday.

"There's nothing more terrible than greeting the wrong guest with the wrong occasion," O'Connell says. Hence the well-rehearsed silent drill at his four-star dining destination in Washington, Va., in which guests staying at the inn are made known to the chef by a staff member arranging his fingers to form a peaked "roof," and patrons with no known special occasion are tagged when servers cross their hands together.

Writing orders on paper and tracking customers' preferences on a computer are well-known ways for restaurants to deliver smooth service. Some establishments go a step further and teach their workers to use discreet hand, eye and other signals to communicate with their colleagues -- all without a sound.

"You can't yell across the dining room, 'Hey, I need help delivering food!'" says Alex Susskind, an associate professor of food and beverage at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Although he doesn't teach restaurant pantomime "overtly" to his students, Susskind preaches its value. "The service experience is perishable. It begins and ends quickly," the instructor says. "What happens at the table can make or break" a diner's perception of a place.

It's hard to say when wordless restaurant commands originated. A 1944 photo spread in Life magazine revealed how the owner of the legendary Stork Club in New York let his staff know, without saying, that he wanted to pick up someone's check -- or get away from a customer: Sherman Billingsley played with his tie knot or tugged his ear, respectively. Some industry veterans say they first noticed hand signals when designer waters gushed onto the scene in the 1990s.

Created to make things convenient for restaurants, wordless routines prove reliable in the noisiest of venues. They also save considerable time. Instead of walking across a busy dining room and possibly slowing down colleagues, servers using body language can get a message across in a single movement. "If one person is doing everything, it takes twice as long," says Chesser, the ringleader at CityZen. Economy of steps equals savings in time: Sanders of BLT Steak figures dining room shorthand trims off 45 seconds or so per table; on any given shift, that's "20 minutes of attention I can give back to guests."

Silent touches enhance the guest experience by offering a sense of seamlessness and the impression that things happen automatically; O'Connell calls them "tiny little magic acts." Indeed, some wizardry is called for in a working kitchen such as his, with upwards of 18 cooks and as many as 60 parties a night eager to view it. (Another benefit of wordless communication: "You look brilliant" for acknowledging not just the guest of honor, but the cause for celebration, the chef says with a laugh.)

Hand signals aren't restricted to upscale places. "Our service is hybrid," says Sanders, whose clientele is heavy with politicians, media bigwigs and Secret Service agents protecting The Restaurant Isn't Saying. "There's the expectation of fine dining, but the energy is high."

"Most communication is non-verbal," says William Washington, general manager of Le Diplomate in D.C., where a forward palm from a supervisor triggers a server to refresh an empty bread basket. "Everybody does it to a certain extent" in the restaurant trade. To work for everyone, however, the signals must be subtle. "I don't want people to be aware we're doing it," says Washington, echoing the sentiments of his peers.

One of the most-used set of codes evolved from consumers' thirst for designer water. In a typical scenario, a preference for still water is designated with an extended flat or swiping hand, while sparkling water involves fluttering fingers. Tap water is denoted by a fist, sometimes with a digit sticking out, like a spout.

Among the more elaborate wordless service systems in the industry is the one employed at Eleven Madison Park in New York, which maintains an arsenal of more than half a dozen gestures to assure top-shelf attention to detail. The sight of a manager brushing his shoulder, gesturing toward a chair or gripping his hands at waist level is the crew's cue to clean a table, clear a diner's plate or hold off because a table is not ready to be seated, respectively. Inspiration for the rituals comes from old-school New York restaurants, foremost the Stork Club, says Will Guidara, co-owner of the restaurant, which has won five awards from the James Beard Foundation, including one for Outstanding Service (2004). Executed properly, Guidara says, silent signals add value and "make the dining room feel less frenzied."

The popularity of open kitchens mean cooks occasionally get in on the action. A line cook at the cafe at Chez Panisse in Berkeley in the early 1980s, Evan Goldstein recalls how the staff learned that the kitchen was out of a dish (or "86'ed" as they say in the trade): Someone would pull a hand across their neck, in a quick slash, says the master sommelier and author of a book on service. When Eric Ziebold, the chef at CityZen, has an order ready for a waiter whom he sees engaged too long in conversation, he might make the universal sign for "wrap it up:" a wave of the hand in small circles. "When you're talking to a table," explains the chef, "guests aren't eating."

Signals can work both ways. Diners from Minneapolis to Moscow know that scribbling in the air is likely to get them their check, and swirling an empty water glass typically begets a refill. Washington public affairs expert Jim Courtovich, who eats out as if he were a restaurant reviewer -- an average of 10 meals a week, though frequently at the same places -- raises a single finger to the side of his face to make his requests known at BLT Steak, Cashion's Eat Place and Marcel's. The simple gesture, says the founder of Sphere Consulting, can be translated a number of ways, depending on what's not on his table or the amount of time he wants to devote to lunch or dinner: Where's the food? Where's the wine? Where's the check?

"I don't want to wave my hand" to address an issue, says Courtovich.

Are more servers exercising their digits? "I'm sure it happens," says frequent diner Tim Zagat, founder of the popular Zagat Survey. "As a customer, I'm not supposed to witness it." To be effective, he says, silent exchanges also need to be discreet. "If I knew someone was signaling behind my back, I think that would be irritating."

Even restaurants that don't formalize gestures have non-verbal means of achieving their goals. Consider Passion Food Hospitality, a collection of seven restaurants in the D.C. area. While nothing is codified at the group's establishments, says partner Gus DiMillo, "if a manager needs something, he directs his eyes and a server takes care of the problem. We encourage everyone, when they train with us, not to wear blinders. Even if they're talking to guests, they should see what's going on around them."

If a server needs help, instead of calling for it or sprouting popeyes -- behavior that might attract attention from diners -- the simple act of placing a hand over a lapel brings a rescue squad at places including CityZen and BLT Steak.

Missed signals are an occasional occupational hazard. Sanders, the general manager of BLT Steak, is one of the few supervisors at the meat market who doesn't sport a tie clip, which means he's frequently adjusting the neckwear on his chest. "What do you need?" his teammates ask when they spot him fussing near his lapel.

And not all secret codes are meant for public consumption. As it turns out, veterans of the Inn at Little Washington sometimes need to help O'Connell know which patron coming into one of those popular kitchen tours is celebrating a special occasion, so they'll use playful R-rated gestures to distinguish between a man and a woman.

"Efficiency is wonderful," says O'Connell, the master of ceremonies. "If you can make it fun at the same time, wonderful."

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