With Art Cummings' thumbnail head shot

I love going out to eat.

Whether it's fine dining at the Hopkins Inn, the Rooster Tail Inn, Lucia's, Joey's, Jim Barbarie's, the Fife'n Drum or Tivoli, or more casual fare at The White Horse, Italia Mia, Chuck's, Two Steps, the Rustier Nail or American Pie Company -- or a number of other excellent area restaurants -- I enjoy the food, the relaxation and the ambience.

I also enjoy the interaction with the restaurant staff and particularly the waiters and waitresses.

Maybe it's because my father, Daniel Cummings -- my role model as a restaurant aficionado -- always kidded around with the wait staff and treated them nicely.

Maybe it's because I have walked a mile in their shoes, having waited on tables (and worked in the kitchen) to help earn my way through college.

Maybe it's because most waiters and waitresses are good, earnest, hard-working people.

Maybe it's a combination of those factors.

But I thoroughly enjoy the give-and-take between my party and our waiter or waitress.

As in most professions, there are great servers, there are good ones, there are fair ones and -- although they don't usually last too long -- there are poor ones.

Based on my observations of top-flight waiters and waitresses in action, here are some tips (bits of advice) for others in the service industry they can turn into the other sort of tips (cash).

1) Welcome customers promptly and in a warm, friendly, genuine manner.

2) If the customers are regulars, greet them by name. If they are not, ask their names for future reference. It's a nice personal touch that makes people feel important.

3) If the host or hostess has not already done so, drop off menus and take drink orders soon after the party is seated.

4) Get a feel for the pace at which the table of customers prefers to dine. If they are in a hurry, adapt to that requirement. If they want to relax, talk, read or do some paperwork at the table -- as I do when I dine alone -- accommodate that preference.

5) When a customer asks your advice as to what to order, be honest. Do not say, as a waiter once did when waiting on my group, that everything on the menu is "world class." Instead, steer customers to the better choices, and everyone will win -- the diner, the wait staffer and the restaurant.

6) When a customer asks for something not on the menu -- a glass of water, extra napkins, a clean fork, whatever -- be sure to bring it. I always ask for water, and a majority of the time I have to ask at least twice.

7) When a customer makes a special request -- extra cheese on the French onion soup, salad dressing on the side -- be sure to pass that message along to the kitchen staff. And doublecheck to make sure the dish has been served properly before delivering it to the table.

8) Be sure to maintain a clean table. Snag dirty dishes and silverware as soon as the food has been eaten, and always pick up small debris like straw covers, sugar wrappers and dirty napkins to create a pleasant appearance on the table.

9) Don't hover, but be readily available. And keep the water glasses filled without having to be asked.

10) Throughout the meal, be friendly, be polite, be interested in your customers, be yourself.

11) Don't bring the check until you have asked if the customers would like anything else. And unless your boss orders you to do so, don't say, "You can pay this when you're ready" -- which is when every customer will pay whether you say it or not.

12) Offer sincere thanks to the customers and tell them you hope you will see them again.

Waiting on tables can be a tough, sometimes thankless job. But all waiters and waitresses who live by most or all of the guidelines above are likely to have a pretty pleasant experience with their customers -- and have some very nice tips to show for it.

Art Cummings is editor emeritus of The News-Times. He can be contacted at 203-731-3351 or at acummings@newstimes.com.