Haute Hurling: How the Country’s Best Servers Handle Dining-Room Disasters

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Ready to blow at any moment. Photo: PYTHON PICTURES/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Dining at an exceptional restaurant is a study in theatrics. Servers’ moves are choreographed with the precision of a ballet. Greetings are rehearsed, dishes are explicated in colorful language, cutlery appears and vanishes as if placed by Houdini. Vexations such as food allergies or blubbering children are handled with grace and dignity. But occasionally, someone throws up.

When you combine copious amounts of super-rich food with a similar bounty of booze, things are bound to go awry. And they do, more often than you might think. The staffers we talked to were more than happy to (ahem) cough up details on projectile puke, heart attacks, paramedics, uncivilized drunkards, and the occasional seizure.

“I had two pukers in one weekend,” says Mindy Segal, the James Beard Award–winning owner of Hot Chocolate in Chicago. We've heard tales of restaurant vomit before, of course, but two people in as many days is news: “I’m not talking about throwing up in the bathroom, either," Segal assures us. "I’m talking about the dining room." The first victim was a man dining with his wife, who had too much red wine. "We served a steak at the time that had a foie gras butter, and he must have taken a big bite that was just the foie gras. He immediately pushed his chair back, far from the table, and puked on the floor.” Segal says her staff cleaned it up within seconds. “The best part was, his wife had just opened up a bottle of wine. After he threw up, she said to him, ‘Oh, we’re not leaving. We just opened a new bottle!’ He sucked it down as best he could.”

The next day, a little girl also had too much to drink — of Segal’s signature hot chocolate, that is. “People inevitably get sick if they eat a lot of food and then drink too much hot chocolate,” she explains. The girl projectile vomited on the floor, and the very same team materialized to clean it. “Business continued as usual,” says Segal. “We are very graceful, we clean up secretly, and we’re very quick on our feet."

Another James Beard nominee, Louis Risoli, is the longtime maitre d' at Boston's L'Espalier. His special talent is skillfully dealing with problems before they devolve into disaster. “You need to pick up on subtle cues that something is amiss and then treat the guest with respect, realizing that we're all human,” he says. Most woes are manageable — a botched proposal, a customer who drank too much and fell asleep at the table ("When he woke up, we found him a cab"). But even he can't make every issue magically disappear, like the night a diner had a mid-meal heart attack at the table: “We cleared the dining room, called 911, and asked questions later,” Risoli recalls. He and his staff somehow whisked everyone to an adjacent lounge (drinks were on the house) while paramedics went to work. Of course, the mood for many was ruined. Risoli says most people understood, although one patron called later to demand a refund. “Of course, we obliged,” he says. “You have to take your ego out of the situation.”

That last point is particularly important when projectile vomiting is involved — just ask Helen Johannesen, director of operations at Animal and Son of a Gun in Los Angeles. “At Son of a Gun during lunch, someone had a seizure and threw up," she recalls. "Mind you it's lunch, so it's bright and it's not pretty. Our hostess and our chef de cuisine rushed over with rubber gloves. Someone else ushered him away." Johannesen says that wasn't the strangest part. "Nobody at the table seemed to care. It must have been a normal occurrence. The table was so rude. They didn't even acknowledge that someone had seized and thrown up everywhere. They just kept eating.”

Sometimes, though, intrepid customers are even more problematic. Scott Carr manages San Francisco’s very much of-the-moment Prospect restaurant. “We had a large group of ladies coming in for a special event, and they had been out before and having cocktails," he reveals. " One of the women needed to go to the restroom. She left the table and made her way into the kitchen instead of finding the correct hallway.” It was downhill from there: “She slipped and fell, and then she peed on the floor in the kitchen. Luckily a couple of us caught her and were able to get her into our ladies’ employee bathroom to wash off. We actually provided her with a hair dryer, too.” The guest, soaked in both booze and urine, wobbled back to her table without incident. “We just acted as if nothing had happened,” Carr says. “She was more embarrassed than anything else.”

Not everyone is cut out to be part-magician, part-social-worker. What's the magic ingredient (besides a Teflon tolerance for the occasional eruption of bodily fluids)? Johannesen sums it up this way: “It’s incredibly unpredictable. We hire and train people who have heavy emotional intelligence. It’s not just about reading a table; it’s about responding. An insecure server might read a table as, 'They hate me.'" But a true pro just dons their rubber gloves and smiles.