Dave Barry once said, "A person who is nice to you, but rude to a waiter, is not a nice person." As one who spends a lot of time scribbling in coffee joints and restaurant nooks, I can tell you this is one of the most astute character observations ever made.
The waiter/diner relationship is probably the lowest-stakes relationship you'll ever undertake: You have nothing in common with your server. You're only together for a short time. And your waiter/waitress has no tactical trump card: They can't guilt you like a relative or nag you like a spouse. Yes, they can impale you on silverware, but that sort of thing gets noticed, unless it's the lunch rush.
Without life's natural checks and balances, people tend to be themselves around waiters. The results can be horrifying. In Chicago, I watched a man go Pagliacci over a missing condiment. "I ordered tomato!" he bellowed. Then he struck a tragic pose in the silent diner, waiting for tomatoes and grief counseling. I wanted to serve him a summons just then, to see if his head would explode.
Men and women tend to handle waiters differently. Women usually tackle midrange oversights. ("Did you forget our waters?") Guys hold their fire for larger matters. ("There's a bug in the salad!" "Fondue guy set me on fire.")
It's easy to distinguish between those who have, and haven't, waited tables in the past. Former waiters are more likely to excuse gaffes ("She didn't see us." "She's got this whole section to herself.") than build an indictment. ("That's the third time she's passed me and I still don't have chips!") If your entire dinner consists of judging your waitress like a short-form figure skater, you need to revisit those unresolved approval issues. Or get a Gameboy.
That's not to say all waiters are saints. Some are dimwits. Some are apron-bound train wrecks. I was a bad waiter, briefly. Flushed from the prep kitchen during a dinner rush in '85, I approached my first table with lots of nervous energy. I wasn't aware of the tomato guts on my cheek, or the fact that the pen I held was actually a small steak knife. ("Hello, my name is Sweeney Todd. May I start you with an appetizer?") But, like most waiters, I was trying my best.
For most folks, waiting tables is a pass-through profession. You'll never have to see your server again, so there's no practical reason to be patient or nice. But it says something good about the human condition when you are.
The "I ordered tomato!" guy will die one day. I hope he passes into heavenly bliss. But first, I'd like him to pull a lunch shift in a city diner, where the platters are heavy, the customers are rushed and the cooks are bristling with attitude.
He'll be surprised - and grateful - that he got his tomato on a plate.