Two people who started serving in the 1980s reflect on how the city’s dining scene has changed.
“There weren’t many restaurants,” said Evans, who’s since built a 20-year career working at the Bamboo Cafe. “I remember when Davis & Main opened [in 1987] because that was such a huge thing, because there was a new restaurant in town.” New restaurants now open on a monthly basis.
Less competition meant restaurants in the mid-to-late 1980s were busy night after night. “Now it doesn’t seem that way,” Evans said. “It isn’t like it used to be.”
Back then, people happily waited long stretches of time for a table. “They would sit at the bar for over an hour for a table,” Evans said. “I don’t think people would do that now because there are so many places to go to.”
The scarcity of local restaurants in the late 1980s also meant servers didn’t need to go the extra mile to please diners. “Because we were so busy and there weren’t that many places to eat, [servers] weren’t as kind to our customers,” she said. “Because it was like, ‘Yeah? Screw you’ There’s no place else to go.”
“Now [restaurants are] on every corner.”
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Sarah Gaskin also began serving in the mid-1980s and has also seen the proliferation of local restaurants.
“There are so many more restaurants, and Richmond seems capable of supporting them,” said Gaskin, who works at Bellytimber Tavern and Pasture. “It’s amazing to me how many restaurants open and, by and large, it seems like most of them are successful.”
Correlating with the uptick in restaurants is an uptick in diner expectations. “I think that customers expect more from restaurants than they used to,” Gaskin said. Not only with the food itself, but with the kitchen’s ability to adjust the menu, whether it’s for the Atkins diet or gluten-free. “It’s a little trickier now, but in a good way in that people are happier with the product that they get in restaurants now.”
That’s good for Gaskins and other servers. “It’s always been very hard for me to tell someone they can’t have something they really want” because of the kitchen’s inability (or unwillingness) to alter dishes or come up with something on-the-fly for customers, Gaskins said. “There are so many restaurants that are [now] producing food in house that they can accommodate people.”1
Better ingredients is something Elizabeth Evans has also seen improve over the years. She recalled, decades ago, when Joe’s Inn served a Captain’s Platter, a smorgasbord of fried shrimp and fried flounder that tasted like the sea creatures had spent more hours in the kitchen freezer than in the ocean. For a time, that was the norm and customers gobbled it up. “They ended up getting fresh seafood,” Evans said about Joe’s. They had to in order to compete.
Like Gaskin, Evans has noticed diners becoming more perceptive about what constitutes good food, she thinks because from the popularity of cooking shows on TV, blogs, magazines, etc. “They’re just more knowledgeable that way,” she said. That’s not a complaint. Both Evans and Gaskin like perceptive diners, because meeting (or exceeding) their expectations means those diners enjoy their experience all the more.
Gaskin: “I like the way things have evolved in that I feel a lot of pride in what I serve, and that the ingredients are really good, and the whole restaurant scene, at least locally, includes more fresh ingredients.”
How diners indulge in those better dishes is another change Gaskin’s seen over the years, namely the small plate boom. “We do have a whole lot more sharing than we used to. Definitely,” she said. “It used to be something that would happen if you went to an Indian restaurant or a Thai restaurant. Now people seem more comfortable with getting small plates and passing them around.”
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While so much has changed in the city’s restaurant scene, certain things have stayed the same. Sometimes a group of diners will grow frustrated with how long their meals take. But that group forgets how long it takes them to order because they’re chitchatting or catching up. “Since they’ve been [at the restaurant] for a long time, they don’t realize the correlation,” Evans said. “People should just relax and enjoy [their restaurant experience] and remember it’s not fast food. It takes a while for things to come out sometimes.”
Credit and debit cards have given servers added difficulty in recent years. “Not saying you’d like separate checks from the outset of the order” throws a wrench in your server’s already hectic workflow, Gaskin said. And while she’s happy to bring an extra item with your meal, say, ranch dressing to go with your side of fries, it’s better to ask for that ranch when you order. Not after the food arrives. “It’s nothing terrible,” Gaskin said. “It’s just having to take even seconds can mess up your rhythm.”
But perhaps the biggest misconception diners have is looking at career servers with pity. “I think most people don’t realize that people who’ve been in the industry for a long time are in it because they enjoy it,” Gaskin said. “It’s not necessarily something you’re ‘stuck’ doing.”
“I don’t think people realize…that I actually like my job.”
Having worked at Bamboo for 20 years, Elizabeth Evans has waited on young families, only to eventually serve the children alcohol after they reach legal drinking age. “It kind of makes you feel really old, but it’s kind of neat at the same time,” Evans said.
Serving regulars year after year means a great deal to her. “I know people’s lives,” she said. “I know what they drink and what they eat and where their children are.”
“And they know all about my life.”
photo by KittyKaht
- The increased competition also makes it more difficult to say no to reasonable requests because the customers are “probably not going to come back, or [they’ll] Yelp about it,” Gaskins said. ↩