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On the Other Hand: The host with the most tells (almost) all

The funniest incident to date happened the other day at the restaurant where I work as the lunch shift host.

A skinny old guy with long gray hair pushed in his equally old but not as skinny wheelchair-bound wife. It was one of those newfangled fold-up wheelchairs with hand brakes for the pusher. I directed them to the closest booth, where she climbed up and they both settled in. The server took their order and I forgot about them until they left the table; I had to out rush after them because the guy left his metal car cup behind.

They’d parked their huge SUV with Texas plates right out front. When I handed the guy his cup he took it and said he was coming back in to finish eating, leaving his wife sitting in her wheelchair next to the passenger side door. “OK,” I said to myself. “Never seen anything like that before.”

The guy, who sported a silver cowboy-style buckle on his belt, finished his meal in about five minutes then got up and left. I went over to the bartender and said, “Did you see that? That guy left his wife out at the car when he came back in.” She chuckled and said, “Yea. I saw that. She was smoking. They were weird.”

And so it goes in a job I sometimes describe as like being the restaurant quarterback. Basically, I’m positioned at the front door taking the snap (the diners). I greet them with a smile and say “Hey there,” then take them to the appropriate table, where I put them into play and hand them off to the servers. In reality, however, there is more to getting the non-moveable feast downfield than one might expect.

Example: If you walk in by yourself talking on your phone, expect me to pull a 180-degree spin move and scramble off to clean a table or stand around in the kitchen. When I return to the line of scrimmage in less than 60 seconds, if you’re no longer gabbing on your communication device, I’ll happily take you and your phone to a table.

Having to scribble down a waiting list under pressure is the worst. You get about 10-15 people hovering over the host stand, and half of them will be staring at you like a tensed up dog waiting for a treat. Some will be leaning forward at you, as if projecting their hungry aura will do any good. The rest will just slink off to a corner if they are lucky enough to find one, where they will stare dejectedly into space.

Usually, tables are in fact available, but I have to start a waiting list for any of a few reasons. Most times, someone will point out, “But there’s a table right there,” to which I’m tempted to say, “Yea. And it’s not yours.” (Note: a friend suggested that line.)

For the record, the reasons hosts start waiting lists when tables are sitting there in plain sight include: The kitchen staff is running slow and when people sit down at a table they have an expectation to receive their food ASAP, so don’t let them sit down; the servers can’t handle the volume of diners I’m hurling at them and are freaking out; and other reasons I can’t think of right now.

Random advice: If you don’t want to lose your phone, don’t remove it from your purse or pocket and place it on the table or even worse yet, don’t put a newspaper on top of it.

Another aspect of the job is this: Hosts must find a balance between seating guests at the best possible table that meets their needs and desires, and putting them in the correct section so that the server workload (and tips) are evenly distributed.

Other self-imposed rules for hosting: I try not to seat people next to tables that are infested with screaming babies and kids; when the restaurant is really busy I try to save the table closest to the kitchen for parents with kids because the kids don’t care where they sit; when people ask for a “quiet” table I take them to the farthest corner, which doesn’t offer any relief from the piped in music but at least it’s far away from crying babies, and loud talking and laughing. One table at my restaurant is sort of secluded, so I try to save it for young couples on dates.

A few people when I sit them sort of turn up their nose as if to say, “I suppose this will have to do.” But most people don’t. Almost everyone says “Thanks.” I know I’ve scored a touchdown when I take them to their table and they say “Perfect.”

Lynn Burton lives in Carbondale.