The server who performs from memory is either a virtuoso or a show-off — and more likely the latter, experience suggests, with muffs and miscues an almost certain result. On Saturday last, we shepherded some out-of-town guests to the Napa Valley, where, between stops at the Hess Collection and the Mumm champagne works, a latish lunch was had at Bistro Don Giovanni, a 13-year-old Italian restaurant on the north side of the town of Napa, in a roadside building that, from 1991 to 1993, housed Jonathan Waxman’s heralded but troubled Table 29.
Our server knew that much, at least. Years ago we had eaten at Table 29 but couldn’t summon the name from memory; he pulled it from the top of his carefully coiffed head. On the other hand, he couldn’t remember what we had ordered; he nodded attentively as we spoke in turn, but petitions for soup (a puree of roasted tomatoes and red peppers, as I recall) and a mojito vanished into the ether, which was pleasantly scented by the wood-burning oven and did have a mollifying effect, it must be said. An iced coffee was produced only because we were given an opportunity to ask for it a second time, when he prodded us to order coffee or liqueurs with dessert. To his credit, he picked up on the iced-coffee flub and did not put it on the bill, but he seemed quite unaware of his other two misses, and we let them go, in part from fear that we would seem to have been keeping score. But then, we were keeping score, for that is what people do when they order this or that in a restaurant and the service staff forgets to bring it.
Writing orders down doesn’t automatically eliminate this problem. The server returning to the table to clarify an order — due to illegible handwriting or having written down the wrong thing, or nothing — is not an unfamiliar experience. It is embarrassing and sometimes a little irritating, but at least the server in question has a script to work from. The would-be memorizer who returns for a refresher ought to be handed a notepad, but at least there is the return. Setting plates of food before the wrong people is an easily corrected faux pas. The would-be memorizer who forgets having forgotten, on the other hand, is a blithe idiot, a discredit to servers everywhere.