My friends and I had a great meal at a restaurant last week, marred by an unfortunate oversight at the end. Was it really that big of a deal? I’m not sure.
This is an account of that experience, and it includes a lot of hospitality nitty-gritty. If you like that sort of thing, this might be a treat for you.
“The first 90% of a project is a lot easier than the second 90%”1
Starting things is easy.
Joining a gym is easy; getting to the gym is a little more difficult.
Have you ever moved residences? (Of course you have.) After an hour of moving beds and dressers and china cabinets the house seems empty, but there are still two or three hours of work to do.
As a restaurant server the first 90% of waiting tables is mandatory. You can’t escape (for very long) greeting a table and taking an order. But there are other steps you can sort of get away with skipping, such as checking in with your guests, or saying goodbye. Performing those are conscious decisions to do the right thing, to elevate and complete guests’ experiences. The next 90%.
In love all over again
Dan and I met working as servers in a restaurant (I did my trailing interview with him and in large part because of his enthusiasm, I consequently took the job); years earlier, we each had made a conscious decision to enter the industry (he at 30, I at 29) because of a passion for hospitality and food.
In New York City my main form of exercise was pursuing this passion – eating out, checking out new and hopefully exciting restaurants, revisiting long-time favorites.
When I moved from New York to Boulder CO, I stopped eating out regularly. There were fewer options, and I wanted to save money. Also, six months before I moved I stopped drinking, which previously was a motivating factor for getting out and about.
And maybe I stopped going out because although Boulder has some good restaurants, for some reason I didn’t feel the same energy I had felt in New York.
Los Angeles has reignited my love for dining out.
In October, I had been in Los Angeles for a month when I met a friend out at 8 pm on a Monday night. I walked into the restaurant she chose and it was happening, completely full, super sexy design. Just another Monday in Venice CA. Food was merely good (90% of the way there?) but I was hooked.
Unlike dining out, my love for Dan hasn’t seen a hiatus. So when he visited me in LA I put aside vanlife for a few days for a restaurant tour.
(Italiania isn’t the real name of the restaurant described below. I have mixed feelings about using the real name; overall our experience was great, marred by the gaffe at the end. Despite that, we would all go back.)
The Tuesday Dan got to town, he, Giuliana (friend and lodging host), and I went out to a late (for LA) dinner. We walked down a dark downtown industrial street, nothing lit up or open for blocks. Up some wooden deck stairs into a restaurant at 10:30 and…it was vibrating. Once we sat down every seat of the rustic-sleek dining room was filled.
Our server was on-point, casual, and matter-of-fact, what I like to call “eye-to-eye.” Peer-to-peer. No affected speech patterns, not subservient, not a gatekeeper. Like when you go over a good friend’s house and they get you a glass of iced tea without making a big deal about it, and if it’s some sort of special iced tea maybe you talk about it because you both care about that kind of thing.
We ordered three dishes: farro salad with diced kohlrabi, dried apricots, and crème fraiche; roasted purple, white, and green cauliflower with smoked paprika aioli; and spaghetti with crab and a tomato cream sauce (my wording, don’t remember the official description). The first two were exceptional, the pasta was very good, maybe great.2 We added one more savory dish after that, also very good, citrus segments with yogurt and bitter greens.
Nothing was crazy fancy, the restaurant served new-classic Italian-style cooking. I had a strong sense that every single thing on the menu was probably very good at the very least. In any restaurant this is a huge feat.
Bonus for me: I learned something about how to be a gentleman.
Many people reading the following will probably think “no kidding,” in the same way that for me any guest- or customer-facing representative saying “no problem” is a no-no (because it implies possible imposition by someone you’re supposed to be taking care of) but in case I can help one soul as hapless as I am…
Our server asked if we wanted to see dessert menus. I looked at Giuliana, deferring to her decision, knowing that Dan and I could take dessert or leave it. The server then also looked to Giuliana for a decision, so in effect I had put Giuliana on the spot.
She said we’d look at menus. It was no big deal. But I realized that if I didn’t know if she was interested in dessert then I didn’t know if we as a table were interested and I should have simply said, We’ll look at dessert menus. In our private world we could then discuss.
We ordered one dessert, sharing what the restaurant called a creamsicle torte. This was a layered semifreddo that tasted like a creamsicle and therefore accomplished what great desserts often accomplish: it caused us to laugh and it took us back to our childhoods. For an instant I was bicoastal and bitemporal, existing in 2017 Los Angeles CA while eating Good Humor sitting on a log in our family’s front yard in late-70s Caldwell NJ.
Back in reality…
Our server had been, as I mentioned, on-point the whole meal.
He did so much right! He checked in right after we sat down, he was charming and affable, he made ordering easier by affirming our selections, he made two pleasing wine recommendations, and when we asked if the restaurant was busy like this all the time, he settled in a bit and gave us an explanation as to why it was in fact like that every night.3
He marked us for dessert.
After we had two bites of the creamsicle torte
(sound three ominous notes)
a woman we had never seen before stopped by our table and dropped the check.
We never saw our original server again.
In-depth dissection of point of service number one: Let the check…mmmmmm…drop
We’ll talk about the check first because even if it were to be classified as an error, it’s by far the less egregious of the two.
There are opposing views on when it’s appropriate to drop the check. The classic stance is that the server shouldn’t present the check before a guest asks for it.
The New Casual4 allows for an unrequested check-drop when it’s clear the guests don’t want to order anything else.
After a long, stubborn time, my position has shifted away from the old school towards the NC.5
In a busy restaurant getting the check and paying can be drawn out wayyyyyyy longer than anyone would like. It’s so many steps for such a simple thing:
- Guest asks for check (maybe even having to catch the busy server’s attention)
- Server brings check (and leaves the table)
- Guest puts down payment
- Server picks up payment
- Server returns with credit card slip or change.
Five steps! Bringing the check unasked (when the guests are clearly finished) preempts the first step, leaving the guests with greater control over their own departure, sometimes to the restaurant’s benefit in terms of turning the table.6
Tip for expediting check payment: placing your tendered form of payment in a visible place (not buried in the check presenter) is a helpful visual cue for your server.
In-depth dissection of more important point of service number two:
Never Always say goodbye
Along with a hungry baby crying, it’s the most natural thing in the world – when people leave a restaurant where they’ve had a great meal they they look around for someone to whom they can say thank you and goodbye. Watch the front door of any restaurant.
Ideally they should be given the opportunity to thank the person who took care of them all night (and that person should be out-thanking them right back, hopefully not taking for granted even for a second even in a non-stop busy place that these guests chose this restaurant on this night in which to spend their time and money).
A distant second-best option would be for the departing guests to interact with someone dedicated to saying goodbye, not just whomever’s eye they catch (Dan caught the bartender’s: “Thank you!”). In more than one restaurant in which I’ve worked, the host or hostess was asked to live up to the job title. She or he stayed until the last guest left.7
It’s a classic restaurant paradox: service falling through the cracks just when there’s time and space for it to be at its best – at the beginning and end of the night, when a server only has a table or two. It’s a mindset, and in all likelihood, someone pointing it out would probably be enough to shift it.
I used to think that there’s no way a server should handoff a table at any point in the guests’ meal. And that’s not even what this is about, although nothing more clearly states “Despite the theatrical pretense, I’m working while you’re relaxing and enjoying yourself.”
Over the years I’ve conceded (compromised? or just relaxed a bit?) that a server leaving mid-shift might be more hospitable for everyone: the server finishes a little early and remains a more satisfied, engaged employee; the restaurant saves a little money on one of it’s largest expenses; and, if the handoff is done properly, the guests become friendly with another face of the restaurant, enhancing their experience.
But the handoff is key. Slipping out the backdoor is unacceptable.
I mean, where’d you go man? We thought we had a real connection. And now, before we even leave the restaurant we’re getting the real message, the same way we would if we were your date and you didn’t text or call the day after – we were just a means to an end, and that end wasn’t connection for you the same way it was for us. Our experience was emotional; yours was transactional.
One more minute would have changed everything. Not even 10% more effort, more like one percent. Even if it was a super trite one percent: “I’m headed out for the night and I’m leaving you in the capable hands of so-and-so.”
At our table you and your stand-in would have been greeted by an enthusiastic chorus: “Oh, cool Thanks so much You were great Yeah so great Have a great night See you next time Everything was awesome!….”
Give us a chance to gush, because
See what I mean?
- That quote came to me in an email newsletter, attributed to someone named Tim Sweeney. ↩︎
- My friend Clinton and I were texting recently that it must be nice for anyone who hasn’t had a pasta at Lupa, or dell’anima, or Convivio, or probably a handful of other restaurants in New York or the world. The innocence! The ability to have a bite of pasta and think, This is awesome! ↩︎
- It was as much reminder as explanation: people want to be out to be with everyone else. There was a palpable energy in this place created by the collective, and, if nurtured properly, it becomes self-perpetuating. ↩︎
- Made that up now, what do you think? ↩︎
- And just like that it’s an abbreviation. ↩︎
- Wow we could talk for hours about control over the dining experience as well as the balance of business and hospitality. ↩︎
- I looked up host to see if it was gender specific, i.e. do you have to call a female host a hostess. As I googled “host gender” the top autofill was “host gender reveal party.” Whoooooaa, I had no idea…… ↩︎