Most of us recognize outstanding service instantly, whether in the form of an act, such as unfolding a napkin and pulling out a chair, or a record of self-sacrifice--like spending a few weeks in the National Guard.
A set of handy idioms ("the customer is always right," "have it your way," "wanna lap dance?") reinforces our definition of service as something critical. Americans attach a great deal of importance to feeling good about a transaction. Without someone showering us with compliments, nodding obsequiously or providing happy endings...whatever that means...we presumably would never whip out our credit cards.
Despite the importance placed on flawless cuisine, an amiable atmosphere or potent drinks, encouraging people to spend is the true art of restaurant or bar management. The trick is to keep all that cash coming back on a regular basis.
"That's where a strong waitstaff is vital," says Scott Sharrer, manager of Candle Room. "If I don't have the right staff, this place doesn't work."
The Burning Question crew tested Sharrer's theory on a couple of visits. One busy Friday night, a crew member demanded cucumbers to accompany her martini. A staff member promptly rushed across the street to Cuba Libre and returned with a freshly sliced specimen. Another time, when a crew member refused to drink anything but Ace pear cider, bartender Shawn Egerton asked us to "hang on for a moment," ran to a liquor store and purchased a six-pack.
It works. We picked up an even greater appreciation for Candle Room.
Indifferent standards also affect patronage, of course. We no longer drop by Flying Saucer after once waiting 40 minutes for a beer. And one Saturday afternoon, as we sat at Pappasito's collecting our thoughts after a lengthy night of "research"--the entire crew suffering from an unusual malady, which left us with pounding heads, parched throats and uncertain stomachs--we witnessed some stunningly inept service: 20 minutes for desperately needed chips and salsa; no silverware; ice tea instead of hot tea; empty coffee mugs begging for refills; and so on.
"Good service can repair damage," says Al Biernat, owner of Bob's Steak...just kidding. He's really the owner of Al Biernat's, as unlikely as it seems. "Bad service? Well, you can't have any one person screw up."
So where don't they screw up?
Expect flawless service at Avner Samuel's small spot Aurora. "They are executing the Michelin three-star team concept very effectively," notes Jim White, critic for Eatsanddrinks.com. That means five servers tending to about 15 tables, a backup for each staff member, an extra (just in case) and food runners. They cater without interfering and rarely butt in to ask if a patron has finished with his or her plate.
"The guest is never supposed to need anything," explains Greg Minella, Aurora's manager. "It's to be anticipated."
Kent Rathbun's restaurants, Abacus and Jasper's, rank alongside Aurora when it comes to refined treatment. "Their training is apparently superb," White points out, "and they all seem to 'get it' in terms of the diner being a guest and not an adversary." Waitstaff at both places are courteous, of course, but their ability to describe menu items and offer appropriate recommendations really sets them apart.
To achieve this level of knowledge, staff members regularly sample new dishes. "We're lucky, because we get to taste everything," says Frank Fox, a veteran waiter at Nana. "Plus there's a wine tasting every Friday." At Pappas Bros., servers learn wine and food pairings on a daily basis, with a more intensive wine fest on Saturdays, which perhaps explains why the place closes on Sunday. Managers at the massive steak house also hand out pop quizzes.
"We have a training manual," Biernat reports, "and we watch them and correct their mistakes."
The payoff is a decent income and a successful establishment. The folks toting trays at Ciudad rake in $100 per night, and general manager Jes Smith considers their take "on the low end" compared with other restaurants. Indeed, Pappas Bros. servers generally bring home $50,000 or more annually.
That's $15,000 in mid-April dollars.
It's no surprise, then, that places like The Mansion, Nana, The French Room, Al Biernat's, Lola and Pappas Bros. also feature outstanding waitstaff. Ciudad ranks up there, too. Not far behind are a few unexpected locations, including Alfredo Trattoria, Addison Café and Iris.
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Only a couple of bars stack up in terms of attentiveness, and the Burning Question crew visited a number (there's a shocker) just to confirm this.
The staff at Sense share Candle Room's dedication to extraordinary customer service, yet with greater elegance. "There has to be a real graciousness to succeed at this level," contends manager Dan Riley. "Our people have to have the ability to provide four-star service. They are mature, educated and refined."
They also have ample cleavage, and that transcends anything else he might have mentioned.
Hey, we all have needs.