What are the things that matter most to you when you dine out? They include ambiance, location, pricing, quality of food and service. The best restaurants provide all of these elements, although sometimes there are certain places which we frequent, but aren’t exactly sure why. The French would call this the je ne sais quoi factor.
When polls are taken in the major food and wine publications, service is often at the top of the list of important issues noted by diners. By the time folks arrive at a restaurant for dinner, they’ve usually had a long day pursuing their endeavors and are ready kick back to be pampered. The best service staffs recognize these needs and always remember the little things, such as recalling the customer’s name, where they like to sit, what they ate or drank on their prior visits (thanks, Open Table), etc. This attention provides a comfort zone, and some customers return several times a week, even though they’ve eaten every item on the menu numerous times.
At the same time, there are certain people who come into a restaurant ready to rumble. They bark curt orders and find fault in everything, refusing to be pleased. Most truly abusive diners are really nothing more than common bullies, and as such are generally quieted when met with polite, emotionless passivity, such as the Sicilian dead-fish stare (learned on the NYC streets).
Levels of service can be taken to the extreme. I’ve visited two- and three-star Michelin restaurants in Europe, not always just to dine, but sometimes just chat about Wine Guy stuff with my fellow sommeliers. There was one establishment in particular in London I remember. They sat about forty covers per night yet they had three, count ‘em, three sommeliers and a gaggle of waiters for each table. This rigid phalanx would hover in proximity, responding to each twitch or gesture instantaneously.
I’m uncomfortable in such settings. Although these restaurants are often beautiful and offer incredible fare, I respond poorly to over-attentive servers and stiff surroundings. When I go out, I expect to have fun; I like to eat, drink and be merry. I guess I have trouble being merry when I know the bill for two will top $400. It’s something I hope to conquer.
The type of service that impresses me, the type I look for, is what I call “apparitional” or invisible service. These ghosts float effortlessly around a table, picking up plates, replacing flatware and pouring wine in a quiet and elegant manner, and then disappear. It’s an art form to be admired, and for those of us in the business, aspired to.
And now here’s the kicker. Despite all that’s been said heretofore, the bottom line is this: As much as good service counts towards the overall enjoyment of a night out, it’s the quality of food that matters most. I like to believe I’m a pretty decent sommelier who can always be counted on to bring out a good bottle at a fair price, but without a strong kitchen behind me, my efforts are negated.
I’ve driven an hour to eat in places where the plate was tossed like an Olympic discus onto my table by some three-toed sloth with his cap on sideways. And it didn’t matter one iota, because the food was exceptional and the price was right. Conversely, great service, inventive decor, convenient location and reasonable pricing all go out the window when the food is lousy. It’s just that simple.
Pork Cop says
For me knowledegable, attentive and unpretentious service is important.This combined with good/great food will make me return over and over again. In most restaurant reviews service is hardly (if at all) mentioned.I wonder why that is.
Remeber the famous side by side review in the NY Times? The first visit, the staff didn’t recognize the critic and the experience was awful. The second time they did, and everything was perfect. She wrote each experience as a seperate review and had them published side by side. Overall a subtle hint that you should try and be mistaken for the Times food critic if you want a good experience.
We know that virtually all of the newspaper reviewers in town are easily recognized by restaurant staff and that many even call to announce they are coming to visit. No wonder they never have to write about service, they get it.
The rest of us are on our own, until a publication in town gets serious about REALLY reviewing restaurants.
Jess the Prep says
While it seems that everyone in Portland works in the service industry – including myself – the general level of service I have encountered here is incredibly poor. Maybe it’s just that we are so mellow, as a town, that the hustle required to provide great service is simply not in the water.
Whatever the reason, I really don’t mind. The quality of the food available here is so outstanding, and the prices so reasonable, I couldn’t care less. For example, I’ve recently dined or drank at the Wonder Cafe a few times. Each time, I’ve been served by a woman who gives off the impression that the last place she worked was a dive, and she’s not quite sure how to be nice to her customers. But half a roasted draper chicken costs 10 bucks less than it does where I work, and she mixes a fine Tom Collins. Why should I make a fuss?
Now, if I got the same service (or food, for that matter) at Paley’s, I’d blanche. But, after moving from LA, where a population of unemployed actors provide cloyingly great service, as they hope to be discovered, while slinging overpriced, mostly mediocre food, I’ll take what Portland has to offer any day. Food comes first.
Speaking of twin reviews, I really enjoy this tale from Robb Walsh of the Houston Press. FD also posted it in the “Reviewing the Reviewers” post awhile back.
Food Dude says
Hmm… two comments about Wonder Cafe, and then I come across notes about them that had fallen behind a drawer. I think I should put them on my review list.
pollo elastico says
Porkcop hit it – unpretentious is important. Nothing worse than being treated to a scowl or a smirk when you’re paying for the experience.
A baseline of competence cannot be underestimated as well – I can understand reconfirming my order or a companion’s special request if it means getting it right.
A bit of communication goes a long way – if you’re out of something or if there’s a forty-top queueing up on the plating line that’s going to deep-six my order, let me know. If a particular dessert takes half an hour, or if there’s a substitution for a menu item (say, cod for flounder) I want to know these things before I place an order.
Also, a bit of humility goes a long away. Many of us have waited tables at some point in our lives, and know how hard it is to get everything right, and we can be understanding.
Don’t ignore me. If I make eye contact with you it’s not because I’m secretly lusting after you – I most likely need something. It particularly doesn’t mean at this very moment, but if I’m raising my hand it’s pretty urgent. And for godsakes, if you place food at my setting and my drink is half-way through, or if you don’t offer salt on your tables, come back in a moment to make sure everything is ok!
And as a customer I promise not to:
* linger over coffee after a 6:30 seating
* talk endlessly to my tablemates while you are hovering nearby waiting to explain the specials
* send something back just because I’m “disappointed” without being specific
* monopolize your time by asking inane questions about bands/art/friends/family/career/movies/politics
* hit on you
* tip less than 18%
I have nothing against surly barmaids; in fact, I love ’em. But outside of the dive, it’s a mystery to me why people in the service industry don’t provide the best service they can, which includes not being grubby, making eye contact, being cheerful (but not cloyingly so), and making sure the customers’ needs are met. If they don’t want to do these things, they should get a job where these things do not matter.
Apropos to the subject: the best service I’ve had in Portland has been at Park Kitchen, perfect and graceful in every way. It’s also where I’ve eaten the best food.
Pork Cop says
I’m gonna go out on a limb here……I’ve lived and worked in Los Angeles and found the food to be far, far superior to Portlands. The higher end food is obviously much more spendy. I can’t speak to the quality because it was too expensive for me(except for a few occasions). The low to mid is the same or cheaper and much better in quality(a lot of bad as well). The service is as described above.I’d rather have cloying fakeness than the hipster vibe. Please feel free to crucify me for my words. I know how unreasonable people can be in regards to anything Los Angeles.Ready…..set……go!
It’s funny that you mention that, because at lunch today with my wife I mentioned that my past experiences with LA have been mostly bad (used to work for a LA based company so trips were for business and was trapped downtown) but that it might be really interesting to live there because there is so much to explore (both food and otherwise). Even if it does take 20 hours to drive there :).
Nancy, I would have to agree wholeheartedly about park Kitchen. It is still my favorite restaurant in town. The service is great and the food is superb. I also hear that they are going to kill brunch sometime soon.
I’ve never heard of Wonder cafe. Where is that?
Pork Cop says
I actually hated Los Angeles less than I thought I would.The people are really friendly in a shallow “lets get through this encounter” kinda way.Not a place to make life long relationships. It was fine for a year or so.
For what it’s worth, the last time my wife and I ate at Wonder Cafe, the server was so competent, friendly, and efficient that I actually thought about finding the manager to tell him to give the guy a raise. Just goes to show that sometimes it’s personality driven.
Pork Cop says
I really like Robb Walsh.I like Stephen Lemons from the Phoenix New Times.Gustavo Arellano from the Orange County Weekly is hilarious. Why is Portland so devoid of talent in this field?
Pork Cop says
The thing about being a good server is the ability to read each guests personality almost immediately.Some guests just want to be left alone. Some want you to chat them up.Some want to know your life story…..Everyone is different and a good server responds to these differences in a positive way.At the end of the day its all acting. Some people are good actors and some are bad.
Just want to thank The Food Dude for posting my columns. As far as this Good Service piece is concerned, I was wondering what on factor of fine dining do Portland’s consumers place the most emphasis? Is it service, ambiance, price, or mainly the food (as I’ve mentioned in the column)? And what about wine service? It’s certainly something I’d be interested to hear about.
Pork Cop says
I think it depends on what kind of restaurant we’re talking about. If it’s an upscale place all (imo) of these things are equally important. If it’s a taco shack you’ll probably need to lower your expectations about the service/ambiance part a bit. It’s interseting to note that i’ve read many bad things about Park Kitchen’s service in the past. Is this something they’ve rectified or is it simply a difference of opinion on what constitutes good service? It’s really hard to please everyone. My chefs and I often argue(goodheartedly)about the service vs. good food question. I think that most people have no idea what good/bad food is. It’s a real tough question to answer.
At this point, after receiving ‘bad’ service at so many higher-end places, I could almost care less about attitude. Just visit my table initially, give me a bit of info, take my order, deliver my food in a timely fashion at a reasonable temperature…
You know, I am sick of being comp-ed a drink or an appetizer or left a dessert; if you know the service is so bad that you feel you must leave me something, then just hire more waitstaff.
Service at most places in this city is so bad, that I would say presence is the most important factor.
Sorry for the rant, just come home from another good-food, poor-service meal!
Food Dude says
Apollo: yes, PK is ending brunch, last I heard around the end of March. I agree with you and Nancy, some of the best service I’e had in Portland, right up there with Paleys.
Pork Cop: “The thing about being a good server is the ability to read each guests personality almost immediately.Some guests just want to be left alone.” Totally agree. There is such thing as to much service – I hate feeling ‘hovered over’, makes me feel like I should rush.
Pollo: “And as a customer I promise not to:” Great list! Too bad so many customers don’t have such common sense.
Food Dude says
Kevin: When I’m dining it is food, service, price, ambiance, in that order. I’d rather have great food in a dump, than lousy food in a palace.
As far as wine service, I’ve only had two meals particularly impacted by bad wine service, one by pure incompetence of the guy opening/pouring the wine, and once when the sommelier really pushed a wine on me that I was pretty sure would be on the downhill, and then copped an attitude when I refused it.
Things I like to see in wine service:
Not being told that everything is “an excellent choice”, being asked what price range I am interested in (especially when they point – sometimes I’d rather my companion not know I am ordering a $200 bottle of wine if I’m the one paying), wine that is actually served at the correct temp (rare in Portland), decent glasses for anything above the basic house brands, I could go on and on. I don’t expect them to know every wine on the menu, but love it when they know the highlights. I forget where I was a week or so ago, I asked for a wine with very specific characteristics – he didn’t even hesitate and brought me exactly what I had in mind. Huge tip.
Jess the Prep says
Pork Cop: I just moved last fall after a seven year stay, and I heartily disagree with you. Yes, the ethnic foods available in LA can’t be beat – for price or quality. Not a surprise, given that there are larger populations of Koreans, Chinese, Thai, Salvadorian, Persian and any number of other folks than in any other place outside their home countries.
But when it comes to seasonal, innovative, ‘new american’ cuisine, LA sucks. There are no small neighborhood places that serve fine food. No Alberta Street Oyster. No Lovely Hula Hands. And too many people want to be seen more than they want to be eating, so food comes a distant third to ‘cool’ and ‘atmosphere’. And it’s universally more expensive (with the sole exception of Netty’s in Silverlake). Yes, the place is less bad than its reputation. No, the food isn’t better. IMHO.
FD: If you do review Wonder Cafe, be warned: it’s new, and it’s not The Best Thing Ever. But it is a nice little hidden discovery with a few good, and good value, things on the menu. Have at it – I’d love to know what you think.
Pork Cop says
Jess you are probably correct that L.A. is lacking in the innovative New American style. I’m not sure that there are no good ones tho’. Los Angeles is overrun with chains of all stripes and sizes (some very good and some bad) The “ethnic” food is quite amazing.The influx of great Persian restaurants (as one example) is astounding. I think it compares favorably to New York in the variety and quality. I like to read Jonathan Gold to get caught up on the unbelievable diversity of the “city”. I am personally more interested in good ethnic food. I very seldom have a hankering for good New American. Portland does very well in most categories for a city it’s size. The ingredients available to local chefs is tremendous. Attracting great chefs to cook these products is another story.
banquet manager says
For way too many restaurants, “service” is a thing of the past.
So You Want To Be a Banquet Manager