Are you being served? A short history of waiters and servers in restaurants

illustration showing waiting staff with a man and woman looking on

When you last ate at a restaurant or cafe, how was the service? Slow or fast, attentive or more relaxed? We all remember good and bad restaurant experiences – but perhaps we should spare a thought for those working in these roles.

Waiting is a profession that goes back centuries. There’s more to the simple act of bringing food and drink to the table than you might think.

Waiting staff follow rules and guidelines determined by the type of restaurant or bar in which they work. Waiting staff carry out many different tasks, such as bringing food to and from diners, greeting customers, cleaning and preparing tables in advance of new diners, polishing dishes and silverware.

During all this, waiting staff are expected to be polite, courteous and friendly.

In some eateries, waiting staff are tasked with upselling, encouraging diners to order additional or specific food.

Waiting staff first appeared in the 1620s in taverns serving drinks. Our modern concept of eating out originated wth the first restaurant opening in New York in the 1820s.

Prior to that, in most cultures, women were expected to prepare and serve food preparation.

Most early waiting staff were men, who wore white gloves to show that their fingers had not touched the food. Many served food by silver service – where waiters transfer food from a serving dish to the guest’s plate.

Nowadays, there’s a huge difference between being a waiter in a 5-star hotel or prestigious restaurant and that of a waiter in a small local cafe.

EXPLORE MORE: Read more blogs about food and food heritage

Attitudes to waiting staff across the continent vary.

In some countries, being a waiter or waitress is a perfect student job, flexible and easy work while studying or preparing for other jobs.

In other countries however, a waiter or waitress is a professional, with a level of service achieved after many hours of training and perfecting skills.

In some countries, tipping is customary – an essential way for waiting staff to supplement their income or help it reach acceptable standards. In other countries, tipping is unusual.

For some, waiting may seem like a simple enough job, but it’s not for everyone. In our Europe at Work project, we heard from Nancy who told us about her one and only night as a bartender.

EXPLORE MORE: Read Nancy’s story: My one shift as a bartender

Artists and writers have portrayed restaurants, waiters and waitresses in many ways: when they want to reflect on authentic manual work or comment on the gender and status differences between waiting staff and diners.

So, next time, you are at a restaurant, perhaps think about who is working there and how.

By Adrian Murphy, Europeana Foundation

Did you or your family work in restaurants or as waiters? Share your story and help us tell the story of Europe through our working lives in the past and the present.

Feature image: Husband and wife and two waiters, Johann Georg van Caspel, Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

2 thoughts on “Are you being served? A short history of waiters and servers in restaurants

  1. Madrid Capital del Reino de España cuenta con historias muy interesantes. Además disponemos de la Biblioteca Nacional de España, considerada como una de las mejores del mundo.
    Siguiendo el enlace podéis leer más artículos de interés.
    El restaurante Casa Botín tiene el récord Guinness de restaurante más antiguo del mundo por sus 293 años de historia. Este establecimiento lleva en activo casi tres siglos, sin cambiar de ubicación, ni cesar su actividad un solo día, ni durante la Guerra Civil.
    Casa Botín ha sido escenario de historias de escritores como Ernest Hemingway, Benito Pérez Galdós, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Graham Greene o James A. Michener.
    Madrid es cuna de míticos y destacables restaurantes y tabernas. Parte de la historia de Madrid se puede conocer a través en estos establecimientos que han marcado diferentes épocas de la capital.
    La taberna Antonio Sánchez, que se encuentra en el lugar en que en los siglos XVI y XVII estaba la posada de la Maripepa, ya estaba activa en 1787 cuando reinaba Carlos III y se terminaba de construir la iglesia de San Francisco el Grande.
    En el libro Historia de la Taberna más Antigua de Madrid puedes encontrar tanto el contexto como las anécdotas que recorren la actual taberna Antonio Sánchez.
    Historia de la taberna

  2. I too worked as a waiter. In some instances I was treated poorly. Others times, I enjoyed the work and earned good money. I admire and have great respect for waiters who take pride and are very good at their work. I’ve know a few. Being a waiter nowadays, is tough. Not pleasant. Often people, customers, look down on waiters and everyone else who has to learn a living “serving” other people.

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