While in Chicago recently I had the opportunity to check out several restaurants during an extended stay. I don’t just walk into a restaurant hoping the chow will be good. I do my research and ask around, so by the time I get to the restaurant, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a good meal. And I usually do. One thing I don’t usually check (like the youngsters on Yelp) is service grades (which may explain why I’m often bitching about poor service in this column).
No bitchin’ this month, kids. I was blown away by how congenial hostesses, servers and others were in the restaurants I visited. And I’m not just talking about well-trained front-of-the-housers delivering well-trained, mechanical service. I’m talking genuine smiles, helpful suggestions and attitudes that said, “Don’t worry, don’t rush. You’re going to have a good time here today (tonight).”
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve been noticing a lot more of that these days, even in restaurants with so-called celebrity chefs. For too long it’s been all about the chef and the precious, special, mind-blowing fill-in-the-blank-food he or she serves. And a lot of that has been good for the industry. The public is having a mad love affair with restaurants. But all the hype, all the Entertainment Tonight, pop-culture crap surrounding restaurants has gotten exhausting.
Most of us just want a good meal with good service. We don’t need to kiss the chef’s ring. We don’t care about the paparazzi. And we really don’t give a damn about how good the food is if the service is demeaning or dreadful.
Much was written recently about New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, specifically its maitre d’, who Googles the names of all guests to gather information that will be used to sweep them off their feet. That means a guest will be greeted at the door with a “happy birthday,” of if he or she is from Montana, and the restaurant has a server from Montana, they will be paired together to create a better experience.
The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about “a warming trend in restaurant service,” and quoted Gabriel Stulman, who has several Manhattan restaurants. His servers, bartenders and hosts can drink on the job, play their own music over the sound system and wear what they like. Team members are encouraged to offer a drink or a dish on the house every day. “How much fun can you have as a diner if everyone around who’s serving is miserable?” Stulman told WSJ.
I’d like to point out one other item in that article. Fifteen years ago only 5 percent of the students at the Culinary Institute of America planned a front-of-the-house path. Today, that number exceeds 20 percent. Hopefully, this signals a renewed focus on restaurant service. Most of you don’t have a celebrity chef to rely on. Your one big point of differentiation from your competitors may be how much better your service is than theirs. If service is improving in general, then you’d better step up your game, too. Are you? Email me with your thoughts.
Michael Sanson, Editor-in-Chief