"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
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
"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,
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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.