Waitstaff Wisdom

In Feature Stories, September 2018 by Raleigh MagazineLeave a Comment

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By Lauren Kruchten and Adrienne Fouts

A great restaurant experience, like a culinary masterpiece, is more than just the sum of its parts. But ask any chef—each individual part is pretty darn important to getting that dish or dessert to taste just right. At restaurants, it’s the servers, like the ingredients in a chocolate soufflé, that must rise to the occasion to make dining out exceptional. The chef gets the glory, but what good is a seared tuna steak or filet mignon cooked to perfection if it’s served cold, or worse, without that glass of Pinot Noir you ordered 15 minutes ago? For our annual dining issue, we spoke to the folks who make the restaurants of Raleigh tick. They’re taking care of you from the moment you arrive at your table to the second you sign off on your check and, often, they’re going above and beyond to make sure you enjoy every minute of your meal. These 30 servers, some veterans of their respective restaurants, some just a few months into their jobs, share their tips on tables, top dishes and some memorable experiences they’ve racked up along the way. So drop in and see them sometime soon; and please, don’t forget to leave them a tip of your own.

Lara Townsend Nofo

After serving at Nofo for 15 years, server Townsend has racked up a plethora of experiences. One memorable story that sticks out to her was when a man from out of town left his wallet, and upon returning to Nofo to get it back left $100 as a thank you for saving it. Additionally, one of Townsend’s favorite people at the restaurant is the owner, Jean, whom she calls the matriarch of the Nofo family. Townsend recommends Nofo not only for its amazing food, but for the drinks as well, especially fun Southern items like the Five Points Mule and the Elderberry Lemonade. 2014 Fairview Rd.; nofo.com

AnnMarie Valea Margaux’s

Valea, who’s been serving at Margaux’s on and off for 10 years, reveals a secret menu item known as the “Lupton Tuna,” a white-and-black sesame seed-seared yellowfin tuna sushi dish that’s never on the menu but is always available for order. Valea recommends enjoying it at Table 32, a booth close to the fish tank that lends a private space to guests with views of the chefs on the cooking line in the back preparing the food. Valea’s favorite part about working at Margaux’s is the staff, which, she says, is a super close and supportive team that interacts positively. She also enjoys sharing her insider menu knowledge with curious customers. 8111 Creedmoor Rd.; margauxsrestaurant.com

Kyle Schultz Vivace

Vivace’s prominent location in North Hills has kept Schultz serving there for around five years. He says he loves its laid back atmosphere, supportive managers and friendly customer base, which includes a range of local celebrities, from Carolina Hurricanes players to WRAL anchor David Crabtree, and a steady stream of regulars. His favorites, though, are the customers with interesting stories to tell about the history of Raleigh and how it has grown and changed throughout the years. When you come into the restaurant yourself, Schultz suggests taking a seat at Table 12, a booth that lends privacy while allowing you a good view of the space. For dinner, order the Pappardelle Pasta with Bolognese Sauce, one of his favorite dishes. 4209 Lassiter Mill Rd. #115; vivaceraleigh.com

Nicholas Finley Saint Jacques

Finley, a server at Saint Jacques of about a year and a half, can confidently say he thinks the restaurant has the best food in the city. Some of his favorite dishes are the Foie Gras, Escargot, and the Filet Mignon—a delicious local beef served with potato croquettes, creamed spinach, foie gras and a black truffle sauce. Finley’s favorite customers are the ones who branch out of their comfort zones and are willing to try new and unfamiliar foods. According to Finley, serving is a noble career, one that he takes very seriously; he does his best to give all his guests a good experience. 6112 Falls of Neuse Rd.; saintjacquesfrenchcuisine.com

Bhriel Perniciaro Royale

For the ideal Royale experience, ask for the Dealer’s Choice upon making your reservation, suggests server Perniciaro, who’s been with the bistro for over a year. The dish comes with something from each section of the menu, and Perniciaro says the chef will sometimes even get creative with off-menu items. Perniciaro also recommends sitting at either Table 35 or 53, which are intimate outposts within the lively restaurant, as well as prime for people watching. Royale’s great energy is owed to Chef Jeff Seizer, who, Perniciaro says, sets the tone with good spirits and great playlists. She loves serving energetic customers as well, who get excited about the food and are open to trying new things. 200 E Martin St.; royaleraleigh.com

Edie Sebastian Winston’s Grille

Sebastian has been a server at Winston’s Grille for nine years, a job she takes great pleasure in. Winston’s is like home, Sebastian says, and the people she works with are like a second family. She delights in seeing the same customers every day and getting to know them and what they like to eat and drink. Sebastian also enjoys going out on a limb for those she serves, with a personal mission to make her customers feel important and leave a good impression. One of her favorite menu items is the Healthnut Salad, which she orders sans goat cheese, or the Chicken Pasta.  6401 Falls of Neuse Rd.; winstonsgrille.com

Chris Marks Angus Barn

Marks has been at Angus Barn for 31 years and it’s a job he says is gratifying in terms of making memories and in exceeding customers’ expectations. Marks’ personal favorite memory is getting to see Pink Floyd, who came in one year to have dinner while the band was touring in the area. Marks takes pride in Angus Barn’s wine program and menu selection, which, he says, sets it apart from other restaurants. His favorite dish is the Filet Mignon and Baked Onion; it’s prepared by coring an onion and coating it in brown butter and sugar, and baking until it’s soft and sweet. 9401 Glenwood Ave.; angusbarn.com

Gregory Martinez Crawford & Son

You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you passed up Crawford & Son’s dessert menu, according to server Martinez, who’s been with the restaurant since it opened in October of 2016; he claims the restaurant’s pastry chef, Krystle Swenson, is a “culinary goddess.” Martinez also has praise for the rest of his fellow staff members, whom he boasts comprise a superbly talented group. One of Martinez’s favorite parts of serving is recommending dishes to guests that they normally wouldn’t order and end up really enjoying. Martinez says the ideal customers are those who are kind, unpretentious and open to new experiences. 618 N Person St.; crawfordandsonrestaurant.com

David Kracke Death & Taxes

For a stellar view at Death & Taxes, server Kracke recommends sitting at Table 45, which allows guests to see the bar, kitchen, outside and the overall “show” of service. He also recommends ordering the Octopus with Rice Beans, Parsley, Pine Nuts, Castelvetrano Olives and Red Pepper, a dish he boasts melts in your mouth and is never chewy. Kracke’s love of the food has kept him at Death & Taxes for almost three years. One of his favorite past customers is Pam Blondin, owner of Deco across the street, who he served during a Christmas party. Kracke enjoyed getting to treat one of the restaurant’s neighbors to a celebration and was lucky enough to get a hug from her at the end of the night. 105 W Hargett St.; ac-restaurants.com/death-taxes

Jacob Huther Mura

Working at Mura is not always easy—between its two kitchens and language barriers—but according to Huther, a bartender, the people he works with and the crowd he serves makes it all worthwhile. One of Huther’s favorite memories is when a drink he created, Black Magic (made with bourbon and blackberries), was featured for a month; a year later, Huther’s day was made when a woman asked him about a delicious drink she remembered that wasn’t on the menu—it turned out to be Black Magic. The sushi is obviously a highlight at Mura, with Huther’s personal favorite roll being the Sin City, featuring a variety of flavorful fish. Not on the menu, but extremely popular, is the uni, or sea urchin: Mura gets it on Friday evenings and it almost always sells out that night. 4121 Main St. #110; muranorthhills.com

Kayla Jastrow Vinos Finos Tapas & Wine Bar

Jastrow loves working at Vinos Finos, where she’s been for over a year now, thanks to a helpful and friendly staff that she says has become like a family to her. Jastrow is also fond of the loyal regulars who come in and says they are always supportive and make for great nights of good food and service. Jastrow says you’ll never be disappointed with Vinos Finos’ weekly specials menu that the chef devises or the Grilled Avocado Halves and Seared Tuna Nachos. They’re best enjoyed with a good view at Table 16’s window spot, away from the busy bar and kitchen areas. 8450 Honeycutt Rd. #110; vinosfinosypicadas.com

Conrad Most Vidrio

The Braised Short Ribs and Charred Octopus are the two favorites Most can’t decide between at Vidrio, where he’s been serving for a year. Like all visitors of the space, Most enjoys sitting in the dining room facing the beautifully decorated glass wall, but says that the front bar area is the best place to sit for people watching. He appreciates Vidrio’s many regulars who keep the doors open by coming back again and again. Most takes pride in working for Vidrio by always being there for customers and standing behind the food he sells. 500 Glenwood Ave. #100; vidrioraleigh.com

Cliff Elliott Bida Manda

There’s a tiny detail you may have missed at Table 9 at Bida Manda, according to server Elliot, who’s been at the restaurant for a little over five years: a drawing of a hummingbird by artist Mathew Curran adorns the wall, a beautiful work of art, Elliott says, that signifies good luck, and thus makes his favorite table the lucky one in the house. For lunch, Elliott suggests the Lao Breakfast Baguette, “the stuff of savory dreams,” and the Chicken Fried Rice, arguably the best chicken fried rice in history, according to Elliott. He also takes pride in Bida Manda’s emphasis on hospitality and kindness—you’ll always receive it from him at the restaurant.  222 S Blount St.; bidamanda.com

Rusty Seal 18 Seaboard

18 Seaboard’s open-air, rooftop mezzanine is the prime location to dine, according to Seal, a server who’s been with the restaurant for a little over three years. Seal suggests ordering the Pork Shank with Shrimp and Grits, or the Crispy Carolina Crusted Cornmeal Catfish, which, he jokes, can definitely be a mouthful to say. Seal enjoys meeting new people through his serving job and finding out what makes each of his customers happy. One of his most notable customers was former state Gov. Jim Hunt, who, Seal boasts, put his arm around him as he walked him to his table; he also got to fetch the governor a hot tea. 18 Seaboard Ave. #100; 18restaurantgroup.com/18-seaboard

Allen Ferguson Glenwood Grill

Diners can expect professionalism, maturity and commitment to the restaurant from Glenwood Grill’s bartenders and servers, according to Ferguson, who has worked there for six years. As far as where to sit, Ferguson recommends Table 7, located at the front window and set apart slightly from the other tables. Although Ferguson thinks that Glenwood Grill’s menu is strong from top to bottom, his current favorite is the Seasonal Pan-Seared Halibut. Thanks to a request from one of the restaurant’s previous guests, you can also order your seafood “country coastal,” substituting the usual sides for grits and collard greens. One more tip: ask Ferguson to take your table’s photo— he likes to sit and take the picture level with diners instead of standing over their table, to get a better angle and better lighting. 2603 Glenwood Ave. #151; glenwoodgrill.com

Allison Miller Irregardless Cafe & Catering

The strong relationships that employees often develop with their customers, as well as the care that owners Arthur and Anya Gordon show for the restaurant and its staff, has kept Miller serving at Irregardless Cafe & Catering for over a decade. The restaurant’s farm-fresh, vegetarian-focused menu has influenced Miller’s lifestyle, she says, naming the California Falafel Pocket Wrap, which is full of vegetables from Irregardless’ garden, one of her favorite items on the menu. Miller says her ideal customer would be someone who has never been to Irregardless before, so she could show them an amazing food and service experience. She recommends sitting at Table 10, a corner booth that gives diners a great view of the whole restaurant. 901 W Morgan St.; irregardless.com

Carly Kiser J. Alexander’s

Kiser’s favorite customers are the food enthusiasts, the ones who have the same passion for food as she and the rest of the staff members do. Serving at J. Alexander’s for over a year now, Kiser has racked up memorable experiences with customers at the restaurant, including a guest who surprised his then future wife with a proposal over dinner. Kiser enjoys the people that she gets to work with every day—they make it easy to come into work and have a great time, she says. Some of her favorite dishes are the Prime Rib and Crab Cakes, made with jumbo lump crab and no filler. 4600 Crabtree Valley Ave.; jalexanders.com

Erin Lile Midtown Grille

The Crispy Brussels Sprouts are a staple at Midtown Grille, according to Lile, a server who’s been with the restaurant for a year. She also boasts that the Braised Beef Short Ribs and Scallops are always cooked perfectly by Chef Marshall, an incredible chef, she says, who might be the best chef she’s ever worked with. Lile recommends dining at Table 81, a tucked away window spot that makes for a bright and quiet lunch or dinner. While Lile says serving is hard work, she loves the people that she works with at Midtown Grille— especially the owners, who, she says, are like parents to the rest of the staff. 4421 Six Forks Rd. #115; themidtowngrille.com

Kate Duval Hayes Barton Cafe

After working at Hayes Barton Cafe for 17 years, Duval knows that, while the dishes may not be on the menu, regulars know to order the Chicken Picatta or Shrimp Scampi when they come in for dinner. But what Duval loves most about the restaurant is the diverse people she’s had the privilege of working with. She says her coworkers include musicians, artists, dancers and writers, a talented, intelligent and thoughtful group of people. She also enjoys the customer base at Hayes Barton, especially the ones who like to joke around and have fun and appreciate the work that goes into the food business. 2000 Fairview Rd.; facebook.com/HayesBartonCafe

Lewis Williams Whiskey Kitchen

The cauliflower at Whiskey Kitchen can be described as life changing, at least for Williams, who’s served there since it opened in 2016. Williams says he never liked cauliflower before, but after tasting the fried version at the restaurant, his perspective changed. He says that being at Whiskey Kitchen has taught him a lot about food in general, as the owners are big on educating the servers about the menu so that they can then share their knowledge with the guests. Williams also appreciates the mentality of the Whiskey Kitchen head staffers, who, he says, really strive to take care of all of the employees. 201 W Martin St.; whiskey.kitchen

Michael Boose 42nd Street Oyster Bar

Server Boose owes his five-year work stint to the family feel at the restaurant, with staff members who care for one another other both on and off the clock. Additionally, Boose has accumulated a bunch of wonderful experiences engaging with regular customers and getting to witness memorable engagements, anniversaries, birthdays and other celebrations. When dining at 42nd Street, Boose recommends sitting at any of the island tables at the oyster bar, which offers steamed oysters and a laid back, coastal feel. Though Boose says the oysters are outstanding, one of his favorite items on the menu is the Blackened Bacon Wrapped Scallops dish.  508 W Jones St.; 42ndstoysterbar.com

Jeff Stender Mulino

If you’re looking for an education on Italian food and culture, visit Mulino and see Stender, a server who’s been working there for over a year. He says he loves sharing his knowledge on real Italian food with his customers and being able to engage with new people every day. Stender also enjoys working in Mulino’s large, versatile space, which often hosts events and is reorganized almost every night. He says the best spot in the house is outside, at the tables located under an awning with fans, providing an ideal atmosphere that doesn’t get too hot and can be enjoyed even when it’s raining. 309 N Dawson St.; mulinoraleigh.com

Vanessa Smith Iris

At Iris, server Smith is comforted at work by the beautiful art that surrounds her within the NC Museum of Art. Smith says Iris is more than just a place to eat—it’s a destination. During her eight years serving at the restaurant, Smith has interacted with many guests, including singer Clay Aiken and a couple that got engaged there on Friday the 13th, and has come in every Friday the 13th since. The job has taught her patience, Smith says, but she enjoys the opportunities it provides to meet new people. When it comes to the food, she says the Scallops are her favorite dish by far. They’re prepared with lemongrass, riesling, curry and black rice. 2110 Blue Ridge Rd.; ncartmuseum.org/visit/dining

Joshua Fridge Second Empire

Server Fridge was able to meet one of his literary heroes, John Grisham, when Grisham came in to Second Empire for his daughter’s birthday. Fridge says that Grisham was “every sense the gentlemen.” But what’s kept Fridge at Second Empire for three years is its environment, full of structure and a constant aspiration for greatness that he says trickles down from the executive chef to every other employee there. That, in addition to the phenomenal Duck Breast, Lamb Rack and daily-featured Filet Mignon and Foie Gras, which, he boasts, showcases artistic presentation and flavor at its finest. Fridge appreciates when guests are willing to try new things and expand their palates at the restaurant. 330 Hillsborough St.; second-empire.com

Everett Diuguid Buku

Though Diuguid has only been serving at Buku for two months, he’s super impressed with the food that comes out of the kitchen, a “museum” with the tools to make almost anything, as he describes it. Some of Diuguid’s favorite dishes are the Spring Rolls, Tuna Tataki served with Wasabi Aioli and the Bibimbap, a bowl of chile-marinated vegetables and shaved steak that’s easy to share. Diuguid also enjoys the level of respect that is maintained throughout the restaurant. After working at toxic restaurants in the past, he can say that, at Buku, the staff is made up of good people that he likes going in to work with every day. 110 E Davie St.; bukuraleigh.com

Gabi Zarate Player’s Retreat

There are lots of great places to sit at Player’s Retreat, but, according to server Zarate, who has been at PR for 10 years, the best seat in the house is Table 71 on the patio. Its location right outside the front door offers great views of the streetscape and of two of the restaurant’s biggest TVs. Zarate’s favorite menu item is the Hawaiian Burger, a combination of sweet and spicy flavors that she says is totally delicious. Zarate says one of her favorite things about PR is her boss, who has become a loyal friend and has made the restaurant feel like home. Serving has been one of her fondest experiences, she says, as she takes pleasure in putting a smile on people’s faces. 105 Oberlin Rd.; playersretreat.net 

Kathy Plunkett Mandolin

With her passion for Chef Sean’s food at Mandolin, Plunkett says her job is really easy. She loves the fact that the restaurant uses seasonal and sustainable ingredients, which has allowed her to taste many different dishes in her seven years as a server there, including some of her favorites, the Carbonara and Bass with Crab Cakes and Tomato Cilantro Puree. She’s enjoyed watching the restaurant blossom into a place that people love, with a staff that always gets along. Plunkett recommends dining at Table 33, located in the middle of the dining room underneath a pickle jar, for a private spot with a clear view of the kitchen. 2519 Fairview Rd.; mandolinraleigh.com

Scott Phillippi Garland

According to server Phillippi, longtime Garland visitors know that they still can order the Magdalena, a cherished cocktail that’s no longer on the menu, made with tequila, absinthe, tamarind, lime and a cumin salt rim. To go with it, Phillippi recommends the Bossam, a pork belly lettuce wrap plate that he boasts is fresh, delicious and filling, without being too heavy. Phillippi is proud to have represented the restaurant for six-and-a-half years, a job he says teaches him something new about food, wine and drinks everyday. He tries to get his customers to branch out and try new things from Garland’s diverse menu and to get them out of their comfort zones. 14 W Martin St.; garlandraleigh.com

Paul Hesselblad Capital Club 16

The best times at Capital Club 16 are had at its annual Oktoberfest celebration, according to Hesselblad, a server there of eight years. Hesselblad takes great pride in working at Capital Club, an experience he says has borne proof of the American Dream and provided him a lifelong list of great times, lessons learned and other achievements. Additionally, he loves the opportunity to give his guests a great experience when they come in to dine at the restaurant—to him, it’s like being a part of something that’s bigger than himself. When it’s not Oktoberfest, Hesselblad suggests taking a seat at the backbar, handmade with reclaimed wood from Luchow’s restaurant, one of Manhattan’s long lost landmarks. 16 W Martin St.; capitalclub16.com

Corey Baker Oro

Baker has been serving at Oro for six years, which, he says, is due to its great customer base, location and owners who have taught him about the business side of the restaurant. He also boasts that Chefs Chris and Brad are both “beasts in the kitchen,” capable of blowing customers’ minds with some of Baker’s favorite dishes, including the Sesame Cauliflower, Truffle Mac and Cheese and Teriyaki Glazed Salmon. Another item Baker enjoys is off the menu, an Escargot by Chef Chris Hylton, with a Beef Demi Glace and Blue Cheese Souffle. Baker takes pleasure in being a part of his guests’ dining experiences, working hard to make sure every one of his customers has a special time. 18 E Martin St.; ororaleigh.com

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