During the summer of 1996, I waited tables at one of the country's 614 Olive Garden restaurants to pay for beer and college. At the OG, everything comes with a free refill and a smile. And the answer to all customer requests must be a resounding "yes." But wherever a server works, catering to a hungry public is often tough to swallow.

Books like Kitchen Confidential and restaurant reality shows have exposed the often crass and crazy world of the kitchen, but the front of the house is equally unpredictable. Sure, servers make mistakes, but the most unpredictable factor in the dining room is the patrons. Here's what I mean:

Lauro's chef de cuisine, Jen Buehler , once worked as an Olive Garden server, too. She remembers one lunch shift when she served a rotund patron seated in a "Larry chair" (that's the name OG gives to the oversized armless chairs reserved for large guests—named after the first fat guy to receive the treatment).

The diner had polished off his fourth bowl of pasta fagioli when he vomited his entire lunch onto the table. All smiles, the staff cleaned the table and handed the diner a wet nap. But no one likes a quitter. He asked for another soup; then put away two more bowls. "One can't possibly describe what a disgusting thing that was to see," says Buehler. It gets worse.

While employed at the Portland City Grill, Wayne Lee spotted a male and female patron entering the empty Jefferson room, a boardroom-style chamber with a city view and a giant wood table. Peering between the doors, he saw them undressing and immediately fetched the manager, who caught the couple fully engaged in the act of naked congress. When the manager angrily told them to leave, the gent asked politely, "May I finish first?"

Former ripe queen-pin Naomi Pomeroy —who will open her new project, Beast in October—has seen her share of demanding customers. "Some people go out just so they can be rude." She remembers one couple who came into the Gotham Bldg. Tavern, and, after many drinks, loudly propositioned their attractive female server. "We showed them the door," she said.

Elizabeth Scott of Minneapolis, a friend of a friend, seated a four-top and placed crayons and a kids' menu in front of a child-sized patron, only to realize she'd given the kid treatment to a middle-aged woman—a midget. "I was horrified, and she wasn't too pleased, either."

So why do servers put themselves in this unpredictable, unpleasant environment?

"For the good money and a schedule that allows us to pursue our true interests," says local server Spring Snyder, who once creatively quit an inhospitable serving job using a series of Post-it notes.

Here's to our servers. Tip 'em well—they earn every dollar.