Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Service Announcement

When you read about a restaurant in a newspaper, magazine, or book (or blog), it's almost always all about the food. So naturally all of the attention falls on the chef. Yet the arduous task of dealing directly with the diners-- finicky, allergic (fake and real), demanding, (un)reasonable, obsessive, or some combination or permutation thereof-- falls on the servers who memorize the specials (or sometimes the entire menu), explain the food, the concept of the restaurant, and coordinate the food and wine, all the while juggling the demands of the tables, the kitchen, and the bar, and the timing of service and clearing. As Frank Bruni of the New York Times recently observed firsthand, this is no easy task. Me, I would be fired in less than an hour into dinner service.

The difficulty for a kitchen is to execute the same dish in the same way every time multiple times in a single evening (except when someone pulls a Sally, and I guiltily admit that I am often one of those diners). The difficulty for servers is that every diner is different. Some people want to know every single ingredient of every dish on the menu; some want servers to materialize instantly the moment they even think about wanting another drink, a different appetizer, or whatever; and others treat servers as though they were a drive-through microphone and want them to disappear once the food has been delivered. Then there are those who seem to have no issue with keeping a poor server at work even after every other person in the restaurant has gone home. (I've only done that once, maybe twice, I swear, and I felt really guilty when I realized it.)

The server is the one responsible for communicating the diner's desires to the kitchen and vice versa ("Get that f'in four top to make up their f'in mind!" = "The chef requests that you place your order for entrees and appetizers at the same time for the best result.") The server is also the one who placates the diners and/or the kitchen when there is a breakdown or mishap in the communication process. The server is the conductor who maintains the equilibrium between the front and the back of the restaurant. Seriously, I would be fired in less than an hour.

Servers can transform a dining experience from a function of nourishment to theatre and entertainment. They know which is the best cut of beef, the freshest fish, what the kitchen does best, whether the special is really special (or something that the restaurant is trying to finish off-- hey, I read Kitchen Confidential), and often know the wine list as well as the sommelier. When I think back on the great meals I have had, they are almost always inseparable from great service-- Kiki's Bistro and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, Perry Street in New York, Gary Danko in San Francisco, to name just a few.

In the restaurant summaries I have posted in this blog, you will note that I am just as picky and critical of service as I am of the food. I have great admiration for servers. I cannot do what chefs do but I appreciate their accomplishments. I definitely cannot do what servers do, and while I will still be nitpicky about how wine is served, when flatware is replaced, how drinks are transferred from the bar to the table, how napkins are replaced (versus refolding used napkins, but I know that is my individual psychotic idiosyncracy), etc., I appreciate their responsiveness and their reserves of patience. I would be fired in less than an hour.

My default gratuity is 20%-- 25% or higher for good service, 15% when it really misses the mark. Although I am a high-maintenance diner, I hope that the servers I have encountered meant it when they told me they enjoyed having me at their table and to come back. Me, I would be fired in less than an hour.

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