WAITER OF THE YEAR

ONE RECENT EVENING, at a trendy local restaurant that will remain unnamed, I witnessed an empty table covered in butcher paper catch on fire after a gust of wind from an open window blew the corner of the paper into a lit candle. There were multiple waiters standing nearby who apparently lacked the peripheral vision needed to notice such a conflagration, so my dining companion and I took it upon ourselves to extinguish the fire with our napkins. Despite the looks of alarm on neighboring diners’ faces and the smell of burnt paper beginning to fill the room, not one of the servers acknowledged what had happened until a half hour later, when one of them finally changed the charred tablecloth—a potent example indeed of the sorry state of restaurant service in Portland.

It’s also a metaphor for what makes the job of a waiter or waitress so challenging. Both literally and figuratively, they’re expected to keep fires from igniting in the dining room and to put out the conflagarations that do flare up—be it preventing a picky eater from throwing a fit or appeasing a customer who’s unhappy with his hanger steak. They’re also responsible for making sure that everyone’s dining pleasure is continually tended to, all without the waiter appearing to try too hard.

It’s a difficult job, yes. But that’s no excuse for not doing it well. And since the majority of servers in Portland don’t do it well, it behooves us to honor those who do. This year, while the service at such restaurants as 23Hoyt, Hurley’s, Country Cat and the Heathman has been especially impressive, no server distinguished him or herself more than SAM GRAYSON AT CASTAGNA.

It’s not just the little things that Grayson does well—serving from the left and clearing from the right, placing the cork on the table after he’s opened a bottle of wine, refolding our napkin while we’re off at the loo—it’s the natural grace with which he performs his job that truly impresses.

He’s talkative without being annoying and attentive without hovering; he recites the specials as though he’s just prepared them himself; and he moves about the dining room with a confidence that’s rarely seen among the young, self-conscious, often awkward army of waiters and waitresses that permeates Portland’s food scene. And he seamlessly manages to keep up with the rhythm of at least a dozen different tables and the kitchen staff, ensuring that our meals are brought out in a timely, elegant manner, while still hot—you’d be surprised at how many places don’t get that particular detail right—which makes our meals all the more satisfying.