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What is Table Service?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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“Table Service” is a restaurant industry term that can mean either the presentation of food to patrons by waiters, or the place settings present on each table. Restaurants without either are usually referred to as “counter service” establishments. Most fast-food chains fall within this category, as patrons must place their orders, collect their food, and pick up any needed utensils at a centrally located counter. Table service establishments are usually more expensive, but more work is involved on the restaurant’s part both to set and clear tables and to present food to order.

Service as Place Settings

When taken to mean place settings, service typically consists of utensils, a napkin, and a water glass or goblet. After customers order food, a filled dish is added to complete the place setting. Depending on the type of meal typically served, much more may also be included.

Traditional Western table service has several types and sizes of spoons, forks, and knives. Larger spoons are for soup, while smaller ones are used for eating dessert or stirring coffee. All place settings have a standard-sized dinner fork, while smaller forks are used for salad and dessert. Steak knives as well as duller, butter-type knives for bread may also be included.

Cultural Variations

In some restaurants, such as a Vietnamese pho eatery, a bowl rather than a plate completes the place setting since the main fare is noodle soup. Chopsticks and a spoon rather than the typical western place setting of a knife, forks and spoons are used in the table service of many Asian restaurants.

Table Delivery

In all types of table service restaurants, waiters deliver patrons’ meals directly. Specialty dishes may come individually, but it is more common for entire tables to be served at once. This often involves the use of trays or carts.

Both trays and carts can create challenges. It is not always easy for waiters to hold a food and drink-packed tray upright while weaving through dining tables and watching out for other patrons. A wheeled cart can hold more than a tray and is likely to be sturdier, but unless the establishment is large, it can be difficult for waiters to find enough space to maneuver around the dining room. Waiters must often spend a lot of time practicing in order to ensure flawless delivery.

Table-Side Cooking and Presentation

Some restaurants distinguish themselves by actually cooking food directly at a patron’s table. This practice is often known as “gueridon service,” and typically involves a portable burner or sizzling hot skillet. Only certain types of dishes lend themselves well to this sort of preparation, though some, such as cherries jubilee, create quite a spectacle. Cherries jubilee is a flaming dessert that a waiter sets on fire during cooking.

Gueridon service, though time intensive, has several advantages. First, it can help make patrons feel that they are being particularly well cared for. In an expensive restaurant, this is often very important. Second, it attracts attention — customers are surrounding tables are all part of the action, which can create an energetic, fun restaurant vibe.

Cost and Ambiance Considerations

Many restaurants spend a great deal of time thinking about the message their table service sends. Preparing dishes directly in front of the customer typically takes more time per dish, and is costly in terms of staff attention. If it helps promote a certain ambiance, however, it is usually worth it.

The same is true with wait staff appearance. Servers who are dressed well, in tuxedos or formal wear, often project a certain image that is lost when they come to the table in jeans. Usually, restaurants design all aspects of their table service to reflect the sort of ambiance they want to create.

A family diner type of restaurant may have well worn cutlery and plastic drinking cups as its table service, while expensive eateries tend to have more elegant tableware. The decor in restaurants is also crucial as patrons are often eating not just for the food, but also for the overall experience. Everything from the quality and color of the tablecloth to the presence of flowers and overall durability of flatware and goblets plays a part in projecting the image and feel of the establishment.

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Discussion Comments
By anon993981 — On Jan 04, 2016

I've always wondered why some restaurants are so much more expensive than others. In some cases, it's obvious -- there's a lot more that goes into a fine dining establishment than counter service establishment.

By andee — On Oct 31, 2012

@write79 -- I know exactly what you mean. I have never worked in food service but I don't think there is any way I could balance those huge trays of food. I just know I would trip or stumble and all that food would end up on the floor, or even worse, on someone's lap. I would probably lose my job for sure.

I assume most of the wait staff go through table service training and practice this before they ever have to do it, but I think it would still be hard.

Many times they don't have much space to work with and there are also a lot of other wait staff who are running around with large trays as well. I think this would be a hard job and always like to tip well when I have received good table service.

By julies — On Oct 31, 2012

I don't know about anybody else but whenever I am in a situation where there are a lot of different forks and spoons, I am confused. I understand what a soup spoon is, but if there is a lot of other cutlery, I don't know where to begin.

My first experience with this was on a cruise and the waiter, in a very polite way, told me which one I was supposed to be using. I guess I need to brush up on my place setting etiquette so the next time I am in a situation like this I don't embarrass myself.

By myharley — On Oct 30, 2012

When I want to go out to eat at a nice restaurant and have a chance to relax and visit, I will always choose a restaurant that has table service. Being waited on and eating off elegant dishes is a real treat and one that I like spending the money on from time to time.

By write79 — On Feb 03, 2011

I am always impressed by the table service provided in crowded restaurants. Sometimes, there's barely room for simply walking between the dining room tables, without carrying trays full of food and drink! But the servers make it all look so easy! I'm sure I would be bumping into people and dropping things left and right!

By geronimo8 — On Feb 01, 2011

I've always wondered why some restaurants are so much more expensive than others. In some cases, it's obvious -- there's a lot more that goes into a fine dining establishment than counter service establishment.

But in some cases, the difference is not so obvious. I've never considered the quality of the table service, but the type of dishes and silverware a restaurant uses would definitely be an issue in the cost of running a business, which would in turn effect the price of the food.

I'll try not to complain about the cost of restaurant food anymore, without considering all of the small details that we take for granted, like the table service.

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