Maryland's Waiter of the Year finds that excellence lives in the details.
Those little forks, for example. Recently crowned Waiter of the Year Dana Dineen of Annapolis always remembers that one of his regulars, lawyer and lobbyist Ira Cooke, uses a salad fork and nothing but a salad fork.
This greatly impresses Cooke.
"His great strength is his anticipation. He knows what people want," said Cooke, who stays at the Loews Annapolis Hotel during the 90-day legislative session and often entertains legislators in the Corinthian restaurant, where Dineen works.
"I don't use big forks," said Cooke. "I never use big forks. He sees me coming in, I get two salad forks."
Dineen aced them a couple of weeks ago at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Baltimore in the first-ever servers' competition, sponsored by the Restaurant Association of Maryland and the Perrier company. For his performance on a written test and in serving a meal to a table of eight -- including restaurateurs and one food editor -- Dineen topped about 50 other servers to be named Waiter of the Year. He won a week in Aruba, which he expects to take in the spring, after the legislative session.
"This would be the first real live vacation I've taken in eight years," said Dineen. "This will be a joy."
Dineen, a 30-year-old Annapolis native, has been working the waitering circuit without a respite, shuttling between New York, Florida and Maryland and settling in at the Annapolis Hotel two years ago, a year before Loews bought the hotel. He fell into waitering after starting work as a doorman at McGarvey's Saloon in 1978.
"Nobody decides to be a waiter," said Dineen, who described himself as an "undisciplined student" at the University of Maryland. Over the years, though, he has studied his craft and accumulated a fine sense of what to do and when.
All the finer points were taken into account Nov. 28 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Baltimore, where Dineen -- who has always worked the dinner shift at Loews -- was summoned to appear at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m.
"That's not a good thing to ask a waiter to do," said Dineen, who points out that one reason he likes his work is it's "the only job I know where you can get up in the middle of the afternoon and make a living. . . . All right, the only legal business."
The contestants were confronted first with a written examination comprising 25 multiple-choice questions and six fill-in questions. This tested their knowledge of everything from German wine to health department regulations to Internal Revenue Service rules on reporting tip income.
Dineen said he did well on the test, although he muffed two wine questions. He could not name three California wine regions and he erred in trying to name an American champagne. No such animal exists -- champagne is so named because it is made in the Champagne region of France.
Despite these slip-ups, Dineen was among the 20 contestants who passed the test and were then directed to serve a meal to a tough crowd -- tables full of people in the restaurant business. The waiters' moves were appraised by judges seated at the tables, a judge roaming the dining room and another judge in the kitchen, "to see how you interacted with the cooks," Dineen said.
The judge seated at Dineen's table was Rob Kasper, The Sun's "Happy Eater" columnist. In his Dec. 5 column, Kasper gave Dineen high marks for his demeanor -- "cheerful without being a cheerleader" -- and his knowledge.
"In describing one of the entrees, chicken breast and jumbo shrimp with grilled polenta, Dineen also explained that polenta was a cornmeal porridge," Kasper wrote. "This also scored points with me, because, like most folks, I want to know what I am eating."
Details, it's all in the details. The dessert fork, for example. In serving the dessert at the Hyatt, Dineen moved the dessert fork from above the plate to the side of the plate.
That's the sort of touch that impressed another lobbyist who has dined at Loews. The second time this fellow came in for dinner, Dineen remembered that he liked his cream warmed before served with his coffee.
"That I remembered that really blew his mind," Dineen said.
He's put about 10 years into his profession and says he'll stay a few more years before moving on to restaurant management. He figures he can make more money as a waiter right now, but he's not out to make it a life's work.
"I don't want to be one of those old gray-haired guys at a deli in Washington."