The Downside of Counter Service

Not so long ago, counter service was reserved for cafes and bars and coffee shops, places where you would order your drink or sandwich and then take a seat at whatever table you liked. At more traditional restaurants with longer menus and more expensive food, you could pretty much always expect to have a waiter.

Increasingly, that’s less and less true. I understand that the fast-casual dining trend might be bringing better food to more people, and I agree that’s a good thing. But I do think there’s a downside to the change: counter service.

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For one, counter service can be quite confusing for the customer. Yes, in many cases you’ll walk in, see a line already formed, take the clue, and hop on in. But unfortunately it’s not always that simple.

I can think of at least one restaurant in town — Phoenix Public Market — that alternates between counter service and table service depending on whether it’s lunch or dinner. On top of that, there’s a bar where you can seat yourself. I came in for an early dinner with friends and the three of us were left lingering by the door — per the “please wait for the hostess to seat you” sign — only to be eventually instructed to go up to the counter…so we could be seated at a table.

At other restaurants the space and layout of the restaurant just don’t lend to a long queue of people. In case you don’t already know from firsthand experience, having a fellow restaurant patron’s butt right next to your table makes the dining experience significantly less enjoyable.

It also seems less than ideal for a restaurant with a rather complicated or long menu to go the counter-service route. Ever been to Flower Child? Unless you already know that you’re going to get the same thing you ate last time, that menu is going to take more than a hot minute to navigate. And while you’re busing deciding between organic mashed potatoes and kale slaw, there’s a huge line forming behind you. True, the service there is usually helpful and patient, but the setup is a recipe for problems.

For me, the biggest issue with counter service comes down to tipping. When you’re dining for the first time at a counter service restaurant it’s hard to know how much to give when you’re paying up front. Will the server be bringing you your food and drink? Or are they going to call out your name and make you go get it? Both are perfectly acceptable, but lend themselves to different amounts of tip. When you have to pay, and therefore decide a tip amount, before the dining experience even begins, it’s hard to know the proper etiquette.

Of course, you could side step this problem by always carrying cash so you can leave a tip on the table. But that seems a bit impractical for those who are accustomed to paying with plastic.

What it all boils down to is that fast-casual, counter-service dining changes that way you experience the food. It’s hard not to feel rushed when people are standing over your shoulder waiting to nab your table as soon as you get up. That sense of urgency in turn makes it hard to fully appreciate what you’re eating — and who you’re eating it with, for that matter.

I can accept that the counter service trend is only going to continue growing; it makes too much sense for restauranteurs to cut labor costs and keep prices low. But at least sometimes, when I want a more special dining experience, I think it’s worthwhile to shell out a few extra pennies for the privilege of skipping yet another lunch line.

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