Why Service Matters As Much As What's On the Plate (Or In The Glass)
"Service is 60% of a diner's experience," a chef said who I'd met at a midweek happy hour. The guy having a couple of beers on his night off is a Brit, a starred Michelin chef who's now working on a boat. Why? "The money is insane," he said.
I tend to agree with him about service. When it's polished, it elevates a casual dining experience from good to great. It bumps the reputation of a terrific restaurant to legendary.
While working at fine dining Restaurant Eve in Virginia --a divine restaurant that recently hosted Obama and his wife-- owners demanded seamless service from their employees. Diners who made reservations were greeted by name. Servers took food and wine quizzes and were required to know every ingredient in every dish, and how every dish was prepared. Saying no to a customer request was not an option.
Such service seemed far away the night I met the chef, when our beers were empty and service was neglectful. Once we found a server, we asked about a pickled vegetable in a dish, to which he replied, "I don't know. Make it whatever you want it to be." You'd think this is a rarity but it's not. After going out to dinner nearly every night, I'd say it's closer to the norm here.
The thing is, most diners (and critics) blame it on servers when in fact it's as much or moreso because of management. "The place is too big and service is notoriously bad in this area, especially at lunch," said a chef I'd been talking to about service issues at a big Fort Lauderdale restaurant.
There are strategies for a tight ship, whether it's pooling tips or rewarding people by assigning them busier sections. It may be something as basic as daily staff meetings before shifts to articulate service priorities, past mishaps, and kudos.
Providing good service means not allowing four bartenders to congregate in the center and twirl their hair, while customers at the edges flag desperately for attention. Good service requires management to provide consistency and support.
The best service I've had in the area so far is where I'd least expect it: Martorano's at the Hard Rock. I usually get hives at casinos and malls, but I happened to be nearby so I thought I'd try the meatballs.
If you haven't been, you could probably guess that diners are greeted by life sized portraits of Frank Sinatra, sparkled up by prisms from a disco ball. Saturday Night Fever meets Billy Joel was the evening's soundtrack. In this kind of place, drinks are a requirement for me, anyway. I was waiting, hoping for something I'd like at this restaurant helmed by the white Mr. T.
And then we were greeted by a terrific server team: one who took orders and another who cleared. One who served and another who ensured we had full drinks, proper silverware, and clean place settings between courses. Both knew every ingredient, where things were imported from, and every detail of how meatballs are prepared (they're essentially poached). They knew which pasta is made in house and how.
It wasn't just this pair, it was every pair, I'd noticed as I walked around the 7400 foot space. I had even asked a bartender serving a party if he could take care of a birthday. He was more than gracious, as was the team of servers from the who came around to ask about the occasion.
Even the garde-manger cook was hospitable, walking through with us what he was up to as he assembled cold dishes or cut prosciutto in the fancy meat slicer.
"Wow, that was great," my family swooned as we left. We hadn't planned to go to Martorano's; it was an impulse choice. We'd only ordered a Caesar salad, mussels, and bucatini with ricotta and meatballs, and yet we were charmed because we'd been taken care of, educated, and entertained. It made what could have been an ordinary experience into a memorable one. Good food is important, but good service is the clincher.
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