Why Service Matters As Much As What's On the Plate (Or In The Glass)

"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,

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.

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Food Critic
Contact: Melissa McCart