Waiting tables at Eating Establishments isn't the most glamorous job in the world, but to many, it's how they make a living. Unfortunately, it seems as though many writers and actors have been on the receiving end of bad service one time too often, and as a result, the portrayal of waiters, waitresses and other members of the service and catering sectors generally isn't flattering.
Being a waiter or a waitress is about as far a fall from grace as it's possible to get in TV-land. If a hero or heroine finds themselves in this job, it's a signal that they've hit rock bottom. Alternatively, if they start out in such a situation, they're the resident Cinderella and will soon rise above their humble beginnings.
The reason for this is probably that these jobs are as close to "servant" class as is believable in the modern world; waiters and waitresses aren't supposed to answer back, "service with a smile" is all but mandatory, and the wages aren't particularly good, so they're forced to bow and scrape for tips. An angry or rude member of waiting staff is jarring, because they're not "allowed" to talk to the customers like that. Interestingly, people who deal with alcohol rather than food get given a higher status, with bartenders and pub landlords given more power, personality and frequently wisdom, than their table-waiting equivalents.
The portrayal of the service sector is highly gendered, and is rather unforgiving towards women. Waiters are often shown as if their job is something that they chose to do, and they're usually pretty good at it. With waitresses, they're usually in a dead-end job, lacking the skills to do anything more "prestigious," while being almost totally useless at waiting tables at the same time. This may be due to the greater percentage of male food servers in 'classier' venues — consider what mental images arise when you think of the word 'waiter', vs the word 'waitress'. This is arguably inverted at the very bottom of the scale — although the percentages are more even in fast food (since they'll take anyone they can pay the least, gender-irrespective), Burger Fools tend to be male.
Waiting staff are seldom members of the main cast. Most are walking plot devices, employed to highlight an aspect of a more important character's personality. If the waiter is rude and the heroine doesn't fight back, we know the heroine has trouble asserting herself. If a waitress trips up and is rescued by the hero, we know he's a nice guy. If someone leaves a big tip, we know they're generous (if not necessarily a good guy); if not, we know they're mean. Still worse than not the non-tippers is anyone who is rude to the waiters. The restaurant and those who work in it are only there to show off the important people, the staff aren't important in themselves.
What characterization waiters and waitresses receive depends largely on what type of restaurant they're working in:
- Posh/Exclusive Restaurant: The waiting staff are usually all male and extremely competent and well-spoken...so much so, in fact, that they look down on the customers. If the Naïve Everygirl finds herself invited here, or the loyal-but-ordinary secretary accompanies her boss to a deal-breaking dinner in such an establishment, odds are at least one of the waiters will look down his nose at her and make it clear that she's not classy enough to belong here. Often, especially in comedies, this waiter will be French (twirly moustache optional but preferred). Waitresses here are rare, and when they are present, they will be picked on by the other waiters and/or spill something and be fired, often in order to give the hero an opportunity to show what a nice guy he is by standing up to the manager on her behalf. Piss off a waiter at your own peril; they're often sadistic to customers for no reason, and expect items that were accidentally left behind to end up 'missing' or in a bin full of leftovers.
- Diner / Family Restaurant / Malt Shop: Totally different story. The waiting staff are usually all female, for a start. If they're young, they're The Ditz, and possibly an aspiring actress as well. While not really that good at their job, being prone to spilling things and tripping over, they are willing to lend a friendly ear, occasionally give half-sensible advice and volunteer as a Girl of the Week or other temporary love interest. If a young waitress isn't The Ditz, then she's usually unpleasant and rude to her customers. The other type of waitress found in a diner is the bitter, middle aged matriarch who feels life has passed her by. She slams the food down on the table, intimidates the customers and acts as if she owns the place...and she's been working there for so long, she practically does.
- Greasy Spoon: While the above types also apply here, the most common one is female, middle-aged (between 40 and 50), usually somewhat portly, cordial and maternal (...although she takes no shit from anyone) and knows all the regular visitors of the diner by name; she's seen it all, and has a philosophical view on life. If anyone should try to rob the diner, she may well beat the jerk with a broom, depending on the tone of the story. Usually married multiple times from a combination of divorce and widowhood, and her children are all grown up. All of these diner ladies may or may not be chewing gum while working, either cracking the gum or blowing bubbles.
- Coffee Shop: Staffed by teenagers/young adults (with a somewhat higher proportion of males than in diners) trying to fund their way through college—or more recently, pay off student loans because having graduated college, they can't find work in their field. Use the obligatory coffee-speak ("Is that a grande mocha latte or a regular?"), annoying the protagonists in the process. One of the few types who are shown to have ambitions beyond the restaurant, and as a result, have an air of "I'm too good for this job." They exhibit a similar pretentious attitude to that of the exclusive restaurant waiter, but without the class. Or the moustache—although if the story is set anytime since about 2010, a male barista is rather likely to sport a rather impressive beard.
- Bartender: The type who usually gets the most plot significance. World-weary and often a Deadpan Snarker, he nevertheless has a good heart and sound advice — and since he is constantly around people drowning their sorrows, he gets the chance to exercise his sagacity slightly more often than his female counterpart, the 'fourth type' of waitress. May show some level of control or authority over the protagonists as the keeper of their favorite watering hole. Since he's the one who's not drinking, it would perhaps make sense for him to be the clearest-headed in his milieu. Often engages in Obsessive-Compulsive Barkeeping. Although most commonly male, women can also serve in this role. If this character is black (or otherwise a member of an ethnic minority), the writer should be careful lest they end up accidentally writing this character as a Magical Negro.
- Pub Landlord/Landlady: A British version of the Bartender, but has some important differences. As they actually own the pub, they have even more power. They're generally rougher around the edges and keener to get involved in arguments and fights; they may be patriotic to the point of nationalism and its attendant bigotry. Their advice isn't as reliable as their American counterparts, but they do get more personally attached to their "regulars," becoming more emotionally involved than the bartender, who watches from the sidelines — they're more likely to be major characters, and as such can't be allowed to have the unimpeached wisdom of the bartender. Despite the fact that they identify themselves as British, they're nearly all English - Scottish, Welsh and Irish landlords/ladies are comparatively rare.
- Barmaid: the people below the Landlord/Landlady. Will generally be surly and display quite a bit of cleavage.
- Breastaurant Waitress: A fast-casual type of joint where the selling point is the waitress corps of young, perky women in revealing outfits. Expect the waitstaff here to be bubbly Brainless Beauties between 18-28, though one or two may have Hidden Depths, while the cooks are pathetic, frustrated men kept out of the public eye. This setting is the ideal place to show off a lot of tropes; to put the main cast's Ms. Fanservice into something both titillating and embarrassing, for example, or to show that one or more male character is Not Distracted by the Sexy.
- Outdoor Vendor: Commonly seen in shows set in New York, Philly, etc., they can run either extreme of being super-easygoing and frequently chatting with the characters (generally making them a mobile version of the Pub Landlord or Bartender), or they will be surly and impatient Seen It All types (this tends to show up when the characters are holding up their business by holding a conversation in front of their carts, or flat out complaining about or being slow about paying for their food.) Nearly always male; if set in a contemporary US or European city, likely to be a Funny Foreigner, especially if the cart is "ethnic" (e.g. the "Halal carts" ubiquitous on the US East Coast, generally run by Arab or Turkish immigrants).
- Burger Fool: Usually a teen in their first job, the employees at a fast food joint are usually stoned, humiliated, or indifferent. Except for the Stupid Boss manager and the power hungry assistant manager. See Burger Fool for details.
- Cafeteria Worker: Usually female, especially if the setting is a school lunchroom. Middle-aged or older, hostile, hates the students, expresses said hatred by slamming food onto trays and responding less than sympathetically when they ask if there's anything else to eat. Virtually always a Lethal Chef, carrying on the tradition of horrible school food, and for some reason often a Funny Foreigner. In non-school settings, such as prisons, the same may apply, or the job may be filled by a younger male convict on work-release, with visible tattoos and piercings, who's not happy about having to wear the hair net and apron. For comic effect, he may care deeply about the quality of the food.
- Suck E. Cheese's: Possibly the very lowest rung on the ladder is working in a Chuck E. Cheese's or fictional equivalent thereof, because of the added humiliation (not to mention questionable hygiene) of having to dress up in a giant grotty old animal costume and sing/dance/emote for the entertainment of bratty kids. Like Burger Fool, this is usually the job of a teenager, and its pointless and cloying nature will contribute to his/her existential high-school angst.
In real life, it's worth bearing in mind that the annoying things that waiting staff do, and TV parodies of same — such as the infamous "Have a nice day" or in the case of Kitschy Themed Restaurants, the particularly embarrassing renditions of "Happy Birthday" — are probably twice as irritating to the waiters and waitresses as they are to the recipient. Especially considering how many stupid customers they encounter on a daily basis.
- One of the early arcs in The Sandman takes place in a diner, where the waitress is a friendly matron-type who inserts the people she sees into her stories. It's later revealed that she had a son who ran away from home, became a male prostitute in New York, went to prison for knifing his pimp, and continued selling his ass behind bars. An on-off relationship of hers reveals that while he was doing time, he screwed her son. The rest of the clients aren't better.
- Deconstructed in Mildred Pierce. Mildred takes up a waitressing job after her divorce. Her spoiled eldest daughter Veda finds this degrading, but Mildred finds she has a knack for it and enjoys the work - even using it to eventually own a restaurant of her own.
- The depressing scenario in Sliding Doors had the heroine fired from her job to become a waitress/delivery girl for a sandwich bar, much to the delight of her boyfriend's "other woman", who revels in exploiting and insulting her, knowing that her rival can't fight back.
- The Waiter in the classic movie/play Victor/Victoria startes out as the waiter in a hole-in-the-wall Parisian eatery (with some excellent lines), works his way up to being waiter at a ritzier semi-gay-bar, until at the end where he is working at one of the classiest joints in Paris.
- Spider-Man Trilogy:
- Reservoir Dogs: we discover in the very first scene that Mr Pink doesn't tip, because he doesn't believe in it. The other crooks all press him to defend his decision and he is eventually shamed into tipping, but the actual waitress is never even seen. Mr Pink's actor reappears in Pulp Fiction playing the waiter. Due to the nature of Tarantino movies and the ambiguity of Pink's fate it is actually possible that the waiter is Pink.
- Subverted in the movie The Game. The slightly incompetent waitress that Michael Douglas feels noble and nice about is far more important than she first seems.
- Waiting... is a behind-the-scenes look at the waitstaff of a T.G.I. Friday's type diner. Being an R-rated movie, it's not pretty. Protip: Do not piss off the waitstaff.
- In The Blues Brothers, Alan Rubin, the trumpet player, is found working as the Maitre d' in a posh restaurant. It's a bit subverted in that he's shown to be the most successful of the former band members and he refuses to come back to the band until Jake and Elwood begin acting as boorish and crude as possible and tell him that they'll eat at his restaurant for every meal until he agrees to come back.
- In Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, basis for TV's Alice (1976), the titular Alice is reduced to being a waitress in a small town diner from ambitions of being a singer.
- The World of Suzie Wong has a scene where Robert takes Suzie to a fancy restaurant, and the waiter of course looks down his nose at Suzie for even being there - especially when it turns out she can't read and orders a vinaigrette at random.
- X-Men: First Class - Charles Xavier is studying at Oxford and picks up another student with a similarly posh accent. His stepsister Raven arrives over there and is asked what she studies. She irritably replies "waitressing".
- Any British Soap Opera will have its Landlord- or Landlady-in-residence.
- Coronation Street has a heartwarming subversion when Vera Duckworth - the resident sassy older waitress at cafe Roy's Rolls - hurts her ankle after a tumble down the stairs and is unable to work for a few weeks. Frankie Baldwin, the 'lady of leisure' wife of rich businessman Danny, offers to fill in for Vera to fend off her fears of being replaced by a potential agency worker. There's even a cute scene where Frankie Squees over how nice she looks in an apron.
- Al Murray's comedy character, The Pub Landlord (used as a stand-up persona as well as a character on Time Gentlemen, Please), is a send-up of the negative traits of the stereotypical landlord: obsessive "Britishness," hatred of the French and misogyny are all played for laughs.
- Friends used the "reduced to waiting tables" plotline for half its main cast. At the beginning of the show Rachel, who has just decided to be independent of her father's money, has to accept a job at the coffee shop where the characters all hang out. Later Monica, after a period of joblessness, is forced to take a job cooking at a 1950s theme restaurant, where she also serves food, in costume, on roller skates. Later still, Joey has trouble getting acting jobs and has to become a waiter at the same coffee house Rachel worked at. Both Rachel and Joey were terrible at their waiting jobs, and all three characters rebounded, becoming an executive at Ralph Lauren, head chef at a snooty restaurant and a cast member of Days of Our Lives respectively.
- The waitress of the "Waffle Haus" (an American diner decorated as... well as the American idea of a cozy German eatery, famous for their waffles with syrup) in the TV series Dead Like Me is a middle-aged motherly black matron. Considering that all the main characters meet for breakfast and lunch at the Wafflehaus nearly every episode, that waitress is a recurring character, and one that often offers advice and always has a smile when someone feels down.
- Naturally, Roseanne is chock full of this. Roseanne herself serves as the surly, middle-aged waitress during her long stint at a department store's in-house diner. In a first-season episode, when she escapes a particularly stressful night of child management and overtime at her factory job, she meets an even more surly, but sympathetic widow at a random crappy diner.
- The prototype for all TV diners is Mel's Diner, the setting for Alice (1976). Complete with sassy waitress Flo ("Kiss my grits!").
- The main characters of Mad About You are almost always waited upon by Ursula, a dim-witted waitress who often forgets orders. She eventually became a Recurring Character on Friends as Phoebe's twin sister. (Both characters were played by Lisa Kudrow.)
- The cast of Murphy Brown frequent Phil's bar, whose owner seems to be in on every scandal and conspiracy in Washington DC.
- Sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look did a sketch that parodied the idea of the Posh Waiter. Said waiter admonished a young couple for asking for the house red, before declaring "We're back - the incredibly posh people who are still unaccountably waiters!"
- Extended into clothing retail and, erm, the priesthood.
- Charlie Andrews from Heroes is a subversion of the diner waiter. She is charming and friendly, not to mention serving as Hiro Nakamura's first love interest... and she has a perfect memory.
- Subversion: In an episode of the UK series The New Statesman, the viewer meets an associate of protagonist Alan B'Stard whose "hobby" is getting inoffensive waiters fired, simply because he can. Just to double the humiliation, one of his victims comes after him with a knife, and is summarily defeated.
- Adam Sandler's "Lunch Lady Land" from Saturday Night Live is an ode (I guess) to cafeteria workers, complete with Chris Farley as the Lunch Lady in an interpretive dance!
- Penny from The Big Bang Theory, while only ditzy in comparison to the rest of the cast, is the typical young diner/Family Restaurant waitress who hopes to make it as an actress. After gaining some character depth, she's upgraded to bartender. Subversion with her friend and colleague Bernadette, who works at the Cheesecake Factory to pay her way through microbiology grad school.
- Max and Caroline represent a mixed bag of these stereotypes in 2 Broke Girls as they work to save money to start a business.
- A sign that Buffy has hit Rock Bottom is when she's forced to work in the service industry. She works as a waitress in "Anne" (her 10-Minute Retirement after Angel's 'death') and as a Burger Fool in Season 6 in a general indication that she was caught in a rut.
- Ernie, owner of the titular juice bar Ernie's, and Hayley proprietor of Hayley's Cyberspace in Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and Power Rangers Dino Thunder respectively may well be subversions in that Ernie appears to love his bar and his customers, and Hayley's is well respected in Reefside.
- Married... with Children: When Kelly Bundy becomes a waitress, one of her former teachers uses this to scare girls into doing better in class than Kelly did.
- Quark of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine plays with the Bartender stereotype. He runs the Ferengi bar and gambling establishment on the Promenade, is conniving, greedy, sexist, (occasionally) cowardly, and selfish — all traits highly admired by the Ferengi — and is constantly involved in some sort of shady deal using his bar as a front. He does try to keep up the appearances of the friendly neighborhood barkeep, and is an offerer of (occasionally) useful advice to the rest of the crew. Here and there, however, he reveals that he actually is a Jerk with a Heart of Gold, and genuinely does care about his patrons' well-being (of course, that's also a Rule of Acquisition: good customers are to be treasured).
- Conversely, Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation plays the bartender role perfectly straight. A mysterious alien with centuries of experience and unusually keen perception, she manages the ship's lounge and is a frequent source of wisdom for troubled crew members. It helps that she's played by the namesake of the Whoopi Epiphany Speech.
- Cheers had a few of these. Sam was the Bar Owner for most of the series and when he wasn't, Rebecca filled the role as manager. Diane was the "reduced to waitress" variety of Barmaid, while Carla filled the surly (to say the least) variety. Coach and Woody were Bartenders, but were more of The Ditz, than the standard TV bartender.
- Parodied in Growing Pains when Maggie is about to have a baby. While in the hospital, Ben worries about being replaced as the baby in the family, and laments to another patient in the hospital named Chris who happens to work as a bartender. Towards the end of the episode however, Ben begins to realize that Chris is dying. After his new sister is born, the family goes with his suggestion to name her "Chrissy".
- Saved by the Bell usually subverts it for whenever Kelly or Jessie work at The Max as waitresses, but occasionally The Ditz Ginger is shown working there too. There's an episode where Lisa overcharges too much on her father's credit card and takes a job at The Max to pay him back. When he finds this out, he bursts out laughing ("My daughter? Waiting on tables!") but they mutually agree that she'll keep working there until she pays off the debt - as of course waiting on tables is a punishment.
- Once Upon a Time - Red Riding Hood's grandmother is the owner of the local diner and B&B. She fits the imposing Cool Old Lady image down to a tee. And when her past life memories are reawakened, she arms herself with a crossbow.
- Tifa can generally be described as the World's Friendliest Barmaid...although this may have something to do with having seen/done it all, losing almost everything including her life as a kid and having nowhere to look but up, and having to put on a poker face to disguise the fact that she is a terrorist working in enemy territory.
- Lampshaded in Mass Effect 2 in the Citadel, when Shepard asks a turian bartender what was happening around the station and is promptly told to go check the news kiosks; he just serves drink. As he looks away, he comments under his breath that he has no idea why humans keep asking him that question.
- Webtoon Foamy The Squirrel features a recurring antagonist to/ victim of Foamy in the form of a coffee shop boy who insists on using the correct "coffee terminology." He should have learned by now all this results in is a vicious attack by a caffeine-ingesting rodent.
- Quite a few of the Foamy webtoons discuss (read: rant about) the catering industry. One focuses on restaurants, complaining about the aforementioned "Happy Birthday" and obligatory "Are you enjoying your meal?" questions asked by the staff.
- Webcomic Friendly Hostility has a coffee-shop girl who behaves much like the stereotypical diner waitress. That's to say she's friendly, incompetent and sympathetic (Arath: "That better not be pity coffee I smell") and she's a walking plot device.
- Averted entirely by Questionable Content. Half the cast works at the Coffee of Doom, one owns it, and the rest hang out there with a high degree of regularity.
- "We're surly because you suck!" "SPECIALS: No specials until we get some f$#king tips!" And who could forget "Bitchy Barista Babes Brandish a Bevy of Breathtaking Bean Blends"?
- And God help you if ask for a "tall," "grande," or "venti." Because no-one else can.
- "No habla Starbucks."
- Sluggy Freelance featured a posh restaurant with a waiter who's insulting attitude towards customers in general and Torg in particular went way over the top. When the restaurant burned down, the waiter was reduced to working fast food ... and was as insulting as ever.
- Gwynn has also worked as a waitress for a while, much to her embarrassment. It's not waiting tables she minds, it's the fact that the restaurant's theme requires all the wait staff to dress up and act like zombies.
- The fact that a colleague -was- a zombie did not help.
- Gwynn has also worked as a waitress for a while, much to her embarrassment. It's not waiting tables she minds, it's the fact that the restaurant's theme requires all the wait staff to dress up and act like zombies.
- In the webcomic Dan and Mab's Furry Adventures, Dan's older sister Alexi owns the Lost Lake Inn. Think of a furry version of the Pub Landlady. With a Hyperspace Mallet. Abel, the newcomer to the cast, says "She's the third scarest thing I've ever seen." And he's an incubus!
- Cecil, the maître d'hôtel of Dot's Diner in Reboot, is the classic snobbish waiter. He's also a subversion however, in that he works in a modern cosmopolitan diner, not an upmarket restaurant, and as such is a comedic character.
- The original design for Dot herself was a "ditzy waitress," but that idea was soon scrapped.
- Moe of The Simpsons is a subversion of the stereotypical bartender. Rather than be wise and helpful, he seems to be the only one worse off than his patrons, and his advice is rarely helpful. The school cafeteria worker, Lunchlady Doris, plays her stereotype straight with all the apathy and health-code violations you'd expect from Springfield.
- Superjail! has a few cafeteria workers who like to spice up the usual prison slop with snot and old bloomers.