Credit: Illustration by Max Kornell

Ever order a burger, no onions, with a garden salad swapped for fries, blue cheese dressing on the side, and a Diet Coke light on the ice and get only a brisk, knowing nod in response from your server—followed by a burger smothered in onions? Did you say anything, or did you pick them off? What if you were in some haute down-home joint and the burger was Kobe on toasted brioche; the onions, leeks? Servers in restaurants from ends high to low have their reasons for relying on memory: the elegance of not fumbling with a pad in a swank eatery; the efficiency of shouting orders at Steak ’n Egg.

But both types of restaurants have a lot to lose. Sure, a high-priced restaurant with a few seasonal selections—and a vibe that discourages alterations—probably makes it easier for a server to count on his noggin. But as Evan Zimmerman, a server at Alexandria’s Restaurant Eve, points out, “you’ve already got so much stuff to remember,” including the particulars of a varying, several-course tasting menu.

Expectations are high at a place like Eve, and even if servers there were allowed to rely on their memories—they’re not, according to chef Cathal Armstrong—Zimmerman wouldn’t: “especially when four people are dropping, like, 1,000 bucks on dinner,” he says.

But what about the guy spending seven bucks on a tuna sandwich? With so many choices on the average diner or family-restaurant menu—and so many opportunities for substitutions—it’s no surprise that servers in the memory camp would get particulars wrong. I once saw a friend so turned off by the residual “drool” of a tomato slice he’d tried to reject (for the third time that week) that he finally swore off a particular deli for good. Hmm, $7, three times a week, for 52 weeks.…

And even when a server gets the order right, memorizing is just plain nervous-making. True, it can heighten the rush of a niggling order executed perfectly (I still remember fondly a paperless waitress at IHOP who delivered my eggs over medium, my ham extra crispy, and my toast without butter), but dining isn’t supposed to provide the same kind of thrill as a game of craps.

It’s not like it’s fun for servers, either, when an order comes out wrong. A former server at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Friendship Heights says she used her noggin “maybe 95 percent of the time.” Most of the time, she got it right, but she cops to having forgotten or misrecorded an order about once or twice a month.

“Out of the times I forgot people’s orders, maybe half the time I would go back to the table” and admit it. Other times she’d tell a diner that the kitchen “had run out of that particular dish” and ask him to pick something new.

“Maybe once or twice that I put the wrong order into the computer,” says the server, she’d claim there was “a mix-up in the kitchen.” She’d plead with kitchen staff to push her corrected order to the front and get a free round of drinks for the table, claiming: “It’s on the house, because of the kitchen screwup.” Suffice it to say, these unauthorized giveaways were against restaurant policy.

“We don’t have a formal policy” on whether servers write down orders or memorize, says Ron Ryan, area director for Maggiano’s. “But we teach them to write it down.” Forgetting orders, he says, would be considered a performance issue, and servers can be dismissed for performance issues.

Even close calls and wrong orders don’t scare many servers into picking up paper and a pencil. Neither do skeptical customers. It wasn’t uncommon for a diner to express disbelief that the Maggiano’s server could remember a table’s order, she says. She was able to soothe most diners with confidence and a joke, but for those who became insistent, “I had a pad in my pocket, so I’d kinda pretend to write it down,” she says. “I’d just sorta scribble on it.”

It all sounds like more work than just writing everything down to begin with, but a busy server attending to dozens of customers in a night can become fiercely protective of her method. And for those who’ve been at it long enough to feel confident in shortcuts, these justifications are tinged with some amount of insider’s insouciance and pride. “I totally think it’s a right of passage,” the server says. “There are a lot of rights of passage when you’re waiting tables: How many plates can you carry, how many glasses? How many tables can you turn over?”

Those at the top of the food chain—and the patrons who keep them there—couldn’t care less about such milestones. Chef Geoff Tracy has a write-it-down rule at all three of his area restaurants. “I have always been taught—from my first days as a busser in Hartford, Conn., to the service instructors at the CIA—that servers who memorize are the most likely to bring you exactly what you did not order,” he says. “A little memorization is OK when it’s a table of two who start off with two iced teas, but beyond that, I expect it to be written down. It’s good business and good hospitality.”

It’s also a bit of common sense that, like global-warming, will always invite its share of “debate”: People have different ways of learning; memorization staves off Alzheimer’s; faces are valid visual cues. Sorry, but nothing can convince me that visual cues get much better than the characters of the alphabet.