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In service of excellence

In a town where it seems every waiter is an actor waiting to happen, there is a breed apart: the career waiter. Devoted to their art, they elevate the dining experience.

January 14, 2004|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

Even from across the crowded courtyard at Spago in Beverly Hills, all it takes is the lift of an eyebrow and Oscar Rios is at your side.

Orchestrating a team of servers -- back waiter, captain and sommelier -- Rios waits for the right moment to have each course cleared, to have wine glasses refilled and tepid water replaced with cool, fresh glasses. Fish knives are delivered one beat ahead of the line-caught striped sea bass with black truffles. Slightly nibbled parmesan cracker bread is replaced with crisp new triangles before they've gone even slightly soft in the damp night air.

And, because this is L.A., Rios has to sustain his clairvoyance while shifting gears between tables of stiff-suited businessmen, movie moguls dressed in T-shirts and jeans, tattooed basketball stars and the ubiquitous finicky movie star glammed out for a night on the town.

Rios has made a career of making sure that, at least for the few hours they spend with him, none of these people wants for anything.

He's a waiter.

Practicing a dying art in a city served by undiscovered actors, Rios has risen to the top of his field, serving the prized inner circle of heavy-hitting regulars who command the coveted tables in front of the courtyard fountain at Spago.

Waiters are born, says Spago's Wolfgang Puck. "We can teach technique," he says. But seriousness and extreme dedication to their work? That's another matter.

And although plenty of delightful wannabe movie stars have done a smashing job of delivering chef Lee Hefter's foie gras mousse on quince tartlets at Spago, there is something special about a waiter who aspires to be the best at that job.

Career waiters are the backbone of the fine dining experience at gastronomic destinations such as Bastide and Sona, where well-traveled diners have experienced the high-level service common to Europe's and New York's finest restaurants. The pros may be even more valuable at middlebrow showbiz hangouts like the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills, where how you're treated speaks volumes about your place in the world.

Naturally, L.A. has its own definition of great service. It's less formal than it is in New York or Paris. And there's more room for personality. But there are certain qualities that a consummate waiter in any town possesses. Speed, certainly, along with sensitivity to the rhythm of the room. But beyond that, and more important, a great waiter has to have the psychological acuity to read a table -- to know, somehow, whether to offer an aperitif before handing over the menus or whether the table is anxious to get on with it; whom to chat up and whom to give some space.

The top waiters -- overwhelmingly male -- have little in common beyond taking pride in delivering a memorable meal. They may come from New York with resumes as long as Valentino's wine list, from Paris or a small town in rural North Dakota. They may have trained on the job, working their way up from a coffeeshop, or attended a tony service school in Switzerland. In any case, without them, L.A.'s restaurant renaissance would quickly fade.

A diner's perception of a restaurant begins at the door but is sealed at the table. Certainly it's important that the food be outstanding. But the dining experience -- which is largely defined by one's interaction with the waiter -- lets you focus on the pleasures of the table. That pleasure is diminished if the waiter is trying to slip you his head shot.

"I'm committed 100% to my waiting job," says Rios, 38, who initially chased restaurant work for the quick money he needed when he arrived in L.A. at age 20 to check out the music scene and "to improve my English." A few busboy shifts at Michael's in Santa Monica led to a management job there.

To get his foot in the door at Spago when the Beverly Hills location opened in 1997, he went back to busing tables. But within a month, Rios again was climbing the ranks, this time sticking with the most lucrative work, waiting tables. Rios not only mastered English, but his French pronunciations now are spot on. And he knows enough about wine to suggest a Chateaunef-du-Pape with the spicy beef goulash.

At restaurants like Spago where service teams do not pool their tips with other teams, the rewards for top-notch wait staff can be substantial. Rios makes as much as $100,000 a year. "That's how you keep the best waiters," says Puck.

Speed and personality

Career waiters know that every restaurant has its own service style that suits its clientele. At lunch at the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills last week, Warren Beatty and media mogul Barry Diller were entertaining Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) when in came deposed California Gov. Gray Davis, sans reservation. With such wattage already commanding the coveted booths, Davis was relegated to no-man's land in the middle of the restaurant. How to salve the pride of the former governor? The Grill sent James "Big Jim" Marx to be his waiter.

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