Photo: Rob J. Brooks, Flickr
When I was applying for my first waitress job, my total lack of experience qualified me to work at two types of places: Coney Islands, the Greek diner/chili parlor mash-ups that are ubiquitous in southeast Michigan, and family dining chains clustered around highway exits. I opted for the former, mostly so I wouldn't have to sing.
I haven't visited a Lone Star Steakhouse since the mid-1990s, but the restaurant's original shtick included a server-led birthday boot scoot that involved way more coordination and tune-carrying than I could possibly muster. Even if I'd been blessed with Ethel Merman's pipes, I'm not sure I'd have been any more gung-ho about breaking out in birthday song: The whole routine seemed designed to shame the staff and mortify the celebrant.
Yet a surprising number of restaurant goers expect their servers to fuss over their birthdays – and act genuinely hurt when nobody bangs a tambourine, flashes the lights or presents them with a free slice of chocolate cake.
There are restaurants that famously make a big deal out of birthdays: Around here, nearly every Japanese steakhouse menu features a $5 birthday package, which includes a rousing medley of "Happy Birthday" and "Hava Nagila" sung by the chefs and a souvenir Polaroid picture. But most restaurant celebrations tend to be more restrained, for reasons of price and propriety.
Here's the thing about birthdays: Everybody has one. And on a Saturday night in a nice restaurant, it's not uncommon to find a birthday boy or girl at more than half the tables. Few restaurants can afford to fete all those celebrants with free cake, Champagne or anything else. That's why the only gift most guests get from the kitchen is a dessert plate with birthday greetings written in chocolate.
Chocolate script strikes me as a classy solution to birthdays, which are terribly fraught for servers. Even when the birthday party's well-behaved – meaning they're not drinking way more than they should or demanding another set of plates for their store-bought cake -- it's often unclear whether the honoree wants to be repeatedly reminded of the milestone. Talking about someone's age rarely squares with good service.
Still, I don't think birthdays should be entirely ignored. I even brought a box of candles to the restaurant where I work so we can properly top birthday desserts. I firmly believe an embellished plate, single candle and a quiet "happy birthday" are more appreciated than any song and dance.
What do you think? Do you like a server serenade? What do you expect from a restaurant on your birthday?