How about some service?
Anyone who’s ever watched professional chefs on television knows the pivotal moment before a dish is sent on its way – a final primping of a garnish, a swipe around the edge of the plate and a bellow of ‘service’. Generally, this is followed by the plate being placed in front of an appreciative diner who proceeds to happily tuck in. All’s well that ends well.
Well, unfortunately that’s not the end of the story. What actually passes for ‘service’ in a lot of restaurants these days is a very relative concept. Front of house seems to be struggling to keep pace with kitchen standards; the notion of ‘hospitality’ is passing by many wait staff and restaurant managers.
Interacting with a great waiter or sommelier adds so much to the dining experience. They are the communicators, the educators, the publicists for the chefs slaving over a hot stove. They are advisors, confidantes, even mediators, when you make a request for a dish to be altered or substituted.
But increasingly they are frazzled, distracted and disorganised. One wonders if the advent of the service charge rather than tips is responsible for a distinct decrease in the level of care and attention lavished upon the diner. Now, this is absolutely not true right across the industry but, for people who eat out regularly, it is a growing and alarming trend.
Restaurants invest a significant amount of money in their front of house staff. At most fine dining establishments, there appears to be a small army of them, ready to attend to a diner’s every need. Undoubtedly there are diners that sorely test the patience and good humour of many wait staff – bearing the brunt of a litany of complaints, boorish behaviour and general pains in the proverbial. But equally, there are wait staff who don’t want to engage with their patrons, communicate poorly and, basically, don’t do what they’re paid for – tip or no tip.
There seems to be a trend in top-level restaurants to have a group of wait staff to attend to a table. This is particularly annoying for the diner when it comes to achieving a consistency of message. Choosing a wine is a major case in point. How often is the diner asked to choose a wine before they’ve chosen what they’re going to eat? Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband often prefer to sip champagne with all the savoury courses of a meal but there are times when a wine and food pairing, suggested by a skilled sommelier or waiter, provides an extra dimension to a meal.
But, again, this is less successful if the level of communication isn’t up to scratch. Our last degustation meal at the excellent Loam, sadly now closed (this blog was updated in May 2013) was absolutely the most exciting wine pairing Greedy Girl has ever experienced, enhanced by a brilliant sommelier who explained how the flavours would interact – and he was spot on.
There are a great many generous wait staff who treat diners as guests. Developing that rapport takes effort though and isn’t easy to achieve when you don’t have a designated person looking after you. In Budapest last year at the delightful ‘Tigris’ (see the blog Tigris – a must do in Budapest), we were looked after by the head waiter who was so genuinely pleased we loved their cuisine, he kept bringing us extra things to try.
At Prague’s Le Terroir (see the blog Subtle, surprising – Prague’s Le Terroir), gluttonous husband chose matching wines while Greedy Girl told the friendly sommelier that she would just stay with champagne by the glass. That wasn’t good enough for our sommelier, who volunteered a tasting of each paired wine – because he didn’t want her to ‘miss out’ on a key part of the experience.
Then there are wait staff who see diners as ‘cost centres’. At a noted Melbourne restaurant a couple of years back, Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband were effectively ‘turned over’ with blinding speed. Pre-dinner drinks were not offered and a request to choose one was met with barely-disguised exasperation. It was almost impossible to get to speak to a sommelier to recommend a bottle of wine.
Our courses were unceremoniously plonked on the table in front of us, presented straight after each other, despite us asking for the pace to be slowed. We were in and out of the restaurant inside an hour and a half – a table for two, on a Saturday night, the week before Christmas, was obviously valuable real estate and we weren’t paying enough rent for the restaurant’s liking.
In New York in 2011, Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband had the pleasure of dining twice at the excellent Eleven Madison Park where our wine waiter explained the different qualities we would experience by not placing our champagne in an ice bucket. At the end of our meal, we were invited into the kitchen for a ‘special dessert’ – an amazing peach sorbet and marvelled at how quiet and focused the chefs remained, even at the height of service. We were then directed to a small lounge, offered coffee, petits fours and a bottle of cognac (complimentary) and told to ‘take our time’. It was an exceptional way to treat diners when you have another booking and need to turn over their table.
When we visited the noted Number 6 in Padstow, the wait staff were extremely consistent in enquiring after our enjoyment of the food but in such a robotic way, any sense of actual communication with them was completely lost.
At London chef Jason Atherton’s new Singapore restaurant, Pollen, in the spectacular Gardens by the Bay, wait staff were not trained to recognise how most polite diners indicate they’re finished with a dish – placing the cutlery side by side in the middle of the plate. The moment a fork was placed on the edge of a dish, a waiter moved to whisk the plate away. We ended up having to tell our eager beavers that we’d let them know once we’d finished a dish. At the end of an evening full of very tasty food, the Maitre D’ sought us out for comment on our experience – we asked him to reel in the enthusiasm of his team.
It’s said you reap what you sow. In terms of restaurant service, that’s not always the case. Top restaurants in particular should look at the way they manage patrons – especially where they are trying to achieve multiple sittings. Good diners truly appreciate great wait staff. Great wait staff should truly appreciate what their restaurant is trying to offer and promote and their customers.