Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

I’ve noticed that more and more restaurants are moving towards a self-serve style. Restaurants commonly have disposable menus printed on regular paper, folded brochure style. These menus are neatly stacked in a special holder on the table complete with pencils to mark the check mark boxes beside all of the possible menu items. Once you have marked your selections, you must take the menu order form to a server and pay for your meal in advance. Some restaurants even leave the refilling your water glass to yourself- with pitchers of water at self-serve water stations.

Now all of this is very efficient, but it call it my personal bias or what you will, but I think this entire procedure greatly detracts from the pleasure of one’s dining experience. After all, when I’m dining out I would like to be served… to have the server present the specials of the day and to give advice when I can’t decide between the salmon or tuna, to read my options off a menu that is descriptive, visual or beautifully presented. I wonder why this has become the norm in sit down restaurants in Taiwan. Is there a high incidence of dining and dashing?

When I’m eating out I want someone to work for their tip, bring me my bill, and bring me my change after I’ve paid for my meal. I don’t want to have to get up out of my seat. Well, there’s one major difference- in Taiwan there is no customary tipping- so perhaps it doesn’t matter if you pay before or after the meal. But it also means that the level of service you get varies a great deal since the service staff doesn’t have any incentive to go the extra mile.

On the other hand when one eats at food stalls in the night market, you are often invited to first have a seat and eat your meal on the makeshift outdoors seating i.e. plastic stools and foldable tables. And you customarily pay after you’ve eaten. I sometimes wonder how these food stall owners, who literally cook out of a cart on wheels can keep track of who’s paid or not. You’d think that these people would want to be paid first because their customers could very well disappear into the crowd or take off without a trace. My bias again: in North America we pay fast food vendors or the corner hot dog guy first but in sit down restaurants we pay after the meal.

One of my Taiwanese friends offered an explanation for this phenomenon. When people pay first, they can then feel thoroughly relaxed and unrushed as they eat and chat. And as a practical measure- she asked me how many times I’ve almost left a restaurant without paying. As for food stall owners, they don’t ask you for payment upfront since they are running a casual, informal business.

I do have to say that of the restaurants that use menu order forms and ask for prepayment, I have experienced service at both extremes of the spectrum. One particular restaurant’s staff was extremely inattentive and slow; the water pitchers at their self-serve stations went empty and unrefilled for the entire time I was there. But I have also eaten in one establishment who’s servers did provide pleasant, helpful dining service by answering questions about various dishes on the menu, periodically refilling our water glasses and checking up on us during the course of our meal. So in the best case scenario, perhaps the wait staff would be more focused on giving good service, otherwise having wait staff would just be useless if they aren’t adding anything to the dining experience, and the restaurant would probably just be better off doing everything self-serve style.

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