Joe and Craig were doing and having a good time on the job. Both servers at Portland’s Great Lost Bear on Forest Avenue, they were tag-teaming in a far-back room of the cavernous restaurant.

Doing it with attentiveness and humor, their job performance became as interesting as watching the Wisconsin-Oregon March Madness basketball game. In my mind, Joe and Craig were out-performing the Badgers’ own Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky in overall job performance. Watching them work their own court was madness of a different kind.

Rearranging the back-room tables to accommodate my blue-eyed Yankees fan (he’s a southpaw), we had settled in with a few beers and some nachos. As he started color-commenting every officiated call, my attention flickered back and forth between missed baskets and our two servers. Call me crazy, but more than simply appreciating good service at face value, I found myself analyzing just exactly why their service was so good.

Propensity to scrutinize comes from years of looking inward at my own table-side form and function. Stressful serving experiences, mistakes and big wins layered on top of one another have become subconscious resources for looking at the waiting world. In turn, evaluation of other servers has became a second nature. Everything from body language, to how trays are carried and set down, to doodles on a check come into play.

The obvious expectations like eye contact, making sure everyone has a menu, and taking drink orders ASAP are broad-brushed Server 101 basics. I’m scouting deeper for the kind of server or bartender level of proficiency (and of course, effortless comfort) that reinforces my belief that really great service trumps just average food in return-visit decision-making every time. Without a replay of the details, that belief holds true for this visit to the GLB.

Back to all-star servers. It isn’t just that we were greeted promptly (an expectation), but in what fashion were we greeted (a defining moment in server style). Did our server say “you guys,” which no matter how casual the setting, makes my skin crawl? Did our server make eye contact when passing the table with a stack of dirty dishes, and smile ever so slightly just to let us know we were on her radar?

Craig and Joe are not the only servers in town who have that certain something reaching beyond the obvious. Others who come to mind are David Lacy, a longtime server at Fore Street; Melissa Lombardi, Friday-night bartender at the Blue Spoon; Allison MacWilliams, of Duck Fat; Ryann Chamberlain, of Artemisia Cafe; and Kim DePaulo, of Casa Novello in Westbrook. I know of many others, but this list is diverse enough in server age, background and style of restaurant to give people an idea of what I consider server bracket-advancement worthy. And like the best of the best on the basketball court, everyone has a special move.

In Joe and Craig’s case, other hospitality professionals should be on the receiving end of their service when feeling cynical and burned out. Simultaneously irreverent and professional, I was amused to see one of them wearing an El Rayo T-shirt. There’s not a server on the planet who wouldn’t find this funny.

“So, your boss is cool with you wearing that shirt?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Joe replied with a grin. “It’s like a support local thing, you know? We’re local, they’re local. It’s a pretty relaxed dress code I guess.” Laughing at the fact I was buying into an explanation that would have most restaurant managers screaming BS (and insisting on a change of dress immediately), I liked his chutzpah.

If Joe wasn’t so accomplished and good at what he was doing (lots of actual waiting tables, running food, refreshing drinks, smiling and busing was going on), it would have been another cocky, dime-a-dozen server situation. Instead, it was a cut above and I put those two on my list of champions.

Peas & Q’s

Q: A restaurant in my neighborhood has added a service fee for take-out. It isn’t a lot, but should I still leave a tip in the jar on the counter? Seems like a double-dip. — B. Simmons, Portland.

A: My guess is the house has added that charge to cover the cost of paper goods and packaging. The counter kid wrapping and bagging your order won’t see a dime if that’s the case. I suggest you ask directly. Perhaps the new fee is pooled and divided as tips. However, that’s wishful thinking. If you can swing it, put a little something in the jar.

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Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to [email protected], and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalieladd.

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