Is This Cafe Table or Counter Service?

Words by Clinton Barnes

We sat at a table, looked around nervously, sneakily scanned other people's tables, tried to get the eye contact of the staff, and searched for a menu—be it on the wall or in handheld form. No, we weren't casing the joint, just people trying to work out if the cafe we'd wandered into was table service or order-at-the-counter.

The staff seemed so smug. They were busy and distracted, yes, but there was a smugness in the way they just expected you to know what the deal was.

After a couple of minutes of thought and discussion about whether it was table service or not, my friend approaches the bar and steals a menu. The smiling face on the guy at the cash register was confirmation that this was what you were meant to do. He returned and we perused the menu. Slightly sheepish now since we had been sitting and waiting for a few minutes for something that was never going to happen: table service.

But damnit! There are no signs and very little indication as to what kind of cafe it is. And I should know.

I've worked in casual cafes, fancy cafes, casual restaurants, fancy restaurants, and even cafe-restaurants. One tried to transition from order-at-the-counter to table service. Obviously, this was a disaster.

Being the barista, from behind my counter I would tell people to please be seated, and we promise to come collect their order. While I sympathised with their expression which said, 'yeah but I'm here now, can I just tell you I want a flat white?,' I defiantly thought to myself, 'no! We are table service. And how dare you?'

You see, when you're a table service cafe, you're a cut above. You're fancy. It is a personal affront to who you are, your life choices, and your social status for people to think you're working at an order-at-the-counter (OATC) place when you're, in actual fact, of course, how-could-you-not-guess, working at a table service cafe.

counter waiter canva

As such, here is a list of things that can help you identify the difference. You must keep in mind that it is a combination of these factors that needs to be considered, and not one in particular.

1. Prevalence of Bar Stools Means Order-at-the-Counter (OATC)

Don't get confused here. It's the prevalence, not the mere existence, of bar stools. It's only if the number of bar stools surpasses the number of regular chairs that it is likely to be OATC.

2. Location of the Menu

The location of the menu is one of the strongest indicators.

Is it already at the table? Likely to be OATC. Because if there wasn't a menu, someone is required to bring it to you and begin the dance of table service.

Is it on the wall? Usually OATC. Having your own, personal copy of the menu is fancy. If it's simply splashed on the wall, it's a bit more rough 'n' ready.

Are menus stacked in an obvious, and accessible, place? Like on the edge of the counter, facing customers? OATC. If you can easily access the menu, then you can come to the counter. If it's hidden where only staff know, then it's for them to deliver the tablet of prized secrets.

3. The Number of Staff and Their Movements

Is there a lot of staff? Table service is labour-intensive. They're coming all the way to your table! Just to get the news that you would like the eggs poached, the juice cold-pressed. If there's staff walking around, potentially even demonstrating the taking of orders, you can rest assured about resting at a table.

If there's only a few staff clustered around the bar, one being the barista, another the cashier, and another fluffing about in a no-doubt important but indecipherable exercise, you are likely at an OATC establishment. Or OATC 'joint', as the case very much is.

4. The Size, and Proximity of the Counter to the Entrance

A counter right near the entrance, being easily accessible and difficult to avoid, likely means OATC. Because it's right there. How could you not? A small counter, out of the way, and buried inside the building likely means table service. It's hard to get to. You're not even sure where it is. And that's because it doesn't matter as the waitstaff will come to you. That's what table service aficionados are trying to subtly tell you with their counter positioning.

Of course, this could all be fixed by someone at the cafe simply saying 'hello, welcome, order at the counter when you're ready / take a seat'. As with most things, politeness resolves the problem. But who wants that?