What qualities are important for a waiter?

The four-page application penned by an unemployed waiter was sent courtesy of Dorothy Frisch. The accompanying note said she had found it while clearing out her office prior to the sale of the restaurant she'd managed since 1982. There was a time when Frisch had a stack of such applications. A time when Seattle's too-few restaurant hot-spots saw little or no turnover.

Back then, waiters with years of experience were known to go restaurant-to-restaurant, dropping off resumes and filing applications only to be left waiting weeks, months -sometimes forever - for prospective employers to call. I was once one of those waiters.

New to town, I arrived toting a resume flaunting more than a decade of fine-dining experience and a letter of recommendation that should have knocked the socks off anyone who came within six feet of it. Dressed, pressed and full of myself, I attempted to cadge a job at some top-notch spots. (No dice, no dice.) I recall how, with financial resources dwindling, I set my sights lower and hit the corporate outfits, smiling my way through group interviews at afternoon cattle-calls. And waited.

Eventually, I took a tip from a working waiter who suggested I apply for a job at an as-yet-unopened restaurant and joined a cast of hundreds in an empty office high atop the Washington Mutual Tower. There, I managed to impress the owner, who offered me a job on the spot. One that wouldn't start for at least six weeks.

I cried "broke" and said I couldn't wait that long, so I was offered temporary work at his already established Italian restaurant.

How times have changed. I now field frantic phone calls from restaurateurs in search of qualified help. I now have physical proof that a waiters' "buyer's market" once existed. It's a four-page application dated Sept. 8, 1988, with a familiar name printed in faded blue ink across the top: mine.

The extensive application asked many questions, such as: Are you willing to commit to more than six months? Yes. Any restrictions on hours worked? No. Why are you applying at this restaurant in particular? I prefer small, classy houses with good reputations (Snow job!). It also included a short test. Among the questions: White Burgundy is made from what grape? Chardonnay. What are the three most important abilities a waiter needs to be successful? Organization. Knowledge. Humor.

I got the job. It introduced me to many of the people I now call my closest friends. It was a job I loved.

Last week I called Dorothy Frisch my friend and former boss, and asked her why she'd pulled my application from her fat stack and given it her stamp of approval. She said she remembers distinctly why she hired me, and it wasn't my years of experience, or the number of correct answers to her test that bought me that coveted position. "I hired you," she said, "because you told me I'd be a fool not to."

Today, I'd be a fool not to wonder and worry about how the dearth of qualified servers affects the dining experience in general - and my restaurant criticism in particular. In this white-hot, restaurant-happy economy, with the pool of qualified servers stretched over too large a market, the folks who do the hiring are being forced to settle for warm bodies instead of a knowledgeable, professional, seasoned waitstaff. And all too often it shows. Anyway, I've been thinking about the service issue more than usual, lately. And I've been thinking that now, more than ever, is an appropriate time to engage you in another reader/writer conversation.

Sure we could rage about bad service, but I know, as you probably do, that the "good-help-is-hard-to-find" situation is a casualty of our economy. With that in mind, I'd like to ask you to share stories of your favorite waiters: the ones who make dining out a pleasure. What are their names? Where do they work? Why do you request their sections? What is it that puts them at the top of their game? Do tell! I promise not to sell their phone numbers to the highest bidder.

Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail address is: nleson@seattletimes.com.