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Welcome to Banff, home of service with a vacant stare

A view of Mount Rundle, visible from the Rundle lounge patio and useful to contemplate while waiting for your summer waitperson not to bring your drink.

Ian Brown

Before the summer's over and it's too late to do anything about the scourge, someone has to say something about service in tourist towns, and especially about restaurant service in Banff. Banff! - gateway to the Rockies, a town that has a hallowed-if-complicated place in every travelling Canadian's heart. No one can argue with Banff's beauty, its suggestive, valley-filled vistas, it's clustery Canadianity.

I'm talking about the service. Perhaps a few examples are in order. Take this waitress before us now, at a fine-dining establishment I will not name for reasons of self-protection, who, while waiting to receive everyone's drink orders, actually says "Can you hang on a sec? Because, like, I really have to pee?" She takes our stunned and open-mouthed silence as agreement, and hops off to the ladies'. I don't care what Albertans say about easterners and the National Energy Program: waiter/waitresses do not say such things in the East. We like to separate church and state, dinner and toilet.

Nor am I picking on an isolated instance. Three nights later, in another restaurant, our waiter was a young man - he had a romantic Irish cast to him, all dark curls and eyebrows and a faraway look, the kind of guy who can turn a 17-year-old girl to goo. (Actually, the 77-year-old father of a friend of mine took one look at him and said "Well, there's the most beautiful boy in the world," so perhaps his appeal was more universal than I imagine.) I happened to be talking at that moment with a colleague about a particular yoga pose that evaded me, due to a congenital lack of flexibility (in all things, restaurant expectations included). The move, I explained to my friend, entailed clasping one's hands behind one's back, and flipping them as far forward over one's head as was possible.

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Pretty Clancy happened to be tableside, refilling water.

"Actually," he interrupted, "I think I can do that." He then put the water jug down on the table and was about to demo the move when I said "No, no, that's okay." Further conversation revealed that he was double jointed in his shoulders, another fact I didn't need.

The server is under 25, and therefore incapable of contemplating anyone's happiness but his or her own. Unless you're starving in Darfur. They can bring themselves to care about that, because it makes them feel good.

Or there was the evening we reserved a table for seven at Giorgio's, the oldest Italian restaurant in Banff, and a ferocious argument erupted, complete with pouting, between the three (3) summer hostesses who were attempting to seat us. That was the evening we were asked to follow her (and her and her), only to loiter upstairs, betwixt and between tables and diners, for 10 minutes while they sorted the confusion.

And I'm not even talking about the Standard Wait that accompanies any and every public alimentary function in Banff, whether it is reserving or ordering or waiting to be served or waiting for the bill or waiting for your change. It takes five minutes for a summer waitress or waiter in Banff to even register your existence, even if you are standing directly in front of that waiter or waitress and making faces and waving your arms. Maybe it's the altitude. Maybe it's sex blindness. One assumes they are all having sex.

The problem, of course, is that it's Banff, and therefore filled with students - kids who are living in Banff for the summer to hike and bike and drink and copulate, and who are working as waiters because that's the only way they can make money. (There are so many waiters in Banff the town supports a store devoted to restaurant uniforms. The best wine store in town sells a handbook devoted to telling new wait persons everything they need to know about wine.) They don't really care about your meal, or customer satisfaction, or the fact that your precious day of vacation is dwindling before your eyes as Jessica Your Server Today checks her messages for the eighth time in an hour before fetching your now stone-cold rib eye. They only care about their plans for the evening after you bugger off.

Nor do they undergo the rigorous pre-dinner run-through that takes place in a circle, for instance, every afternoon at Calgary's River Café, in which the sommelier briefs the aproned (full-time, professional) wait staff on the evening's menu; specials (including how many of each he has, what to push and what to soft-pedal); exotic ingredients (lovage, sage foam, fish salsas enhanced with chrysanthemum and tuberous begonia leaves), not to mention the never-ending components of the meals, where they're from and how their raised and grown and cooked and served. Not to mention the wine list and the featured wine of the evening.

It's like memorizing and reciting the active ingredients on every medicine in a hypochondriac's bathroom cupboard. The average server in a resort town is not unfamiliar with pill bottles - Banff was for many years known as STD, Alberta - but has focused as few brain cells as possible on your happiness.

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Why? Because the server is under 25, and therefore incapable of contemplating anyone's happiness but his or her own. Unless you're starving in Darfur. They can bring themselves to care about that, because it makes them feel good.

If you want to experience this self-absorption in full bloom, try to get a table on the patio of the Rundle Lounge, the famous bar and centerpiece of the Banff Springs Hotel, with its newly renovated and sadly ruined main hall. The routine, followed religiously, is as follows:

1. Stand at the sign that says Please Wait to be Seated, waiting to be seated, for as long as 10 minutes. Do not under any circumstances actually occupy one of the many, many empty tables.

2. Wait until the head waitron approaches you and says "Can I help you" without audible inflection or obedience to the question mark that, traditionally, marks the end of that sentence.

3. Have the following conversation:

"I'd like a table for eight please, so that we can spend a fortune at your bar on drinks."

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"Will you be eating."

"We will not."

"Wait just a moment please. I'll have to see if we have a table available."

4. Wait for the waiter to walk to Siberia and back. Do NOT point out that 80 per cent of the tables on the patio are unoccupied. That will only make the wait longer.

5. When the Wandering Host finally returns to your increasingly panky knot of would-be money spenders, wait for him to say "Excuse me," and insist that you part as a group, so he/she can walk directly to his/her host podium, rather than reaching around and getting the menus he/she needs, as any reasonable person would.

6. Wait for your host to say (all dialogue is guaranteed verbatim)

"I'll set up a table for you." Say in return, "Can we sit at the table while you do, as we've been standing here for 15 minutes now?" Listen quietly and nod as your host replies, "I'm afraid not, that's not our policy."

7. If applicable, listen as your host then says "And you are sure you do not want to sit inside? That if I set up a table, you will not become too cold, or be bothered by mosquitos, so you won't change you mind and want to go inside half an hour from now?"

8. At this point it is imperative that you not pick up said host and throw him over the cliff wall of the patio down to the glaciated valley below.

Admittedly, all these are temporary irritations. Come the end of summer, the summer staff will be back at high school and university, and neither they nor we will have to put up with one another for a good long 10 months.

At that point you can fly to Rome or Paris, and put up with the scorn of permanent waiters, who despise tourists because they are so dependent upon them. But that's another story.

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