Great Service Can Mask Flawed Food, But It Doesn't Work the Other Way

A few weeks ago I tuned into an NPR broadcast out of DC. The Kojo Nnamdi show featured local journalists, and they discussed the state of dining in the nation's capital. Tom Sietsema, food critic for the Washington Post, made reference to a survey that determined diners were more inclined to return to a restaurant that had good service and mediocre food than they were to return to a restaurant that had great food but terrible service.

I happened to be working at the time on my review of Mr. Mesero, which runs in this week's paper. Over three visits to Mico Rodriguez's new spot, I found the service to be almost flawless.

Not only was the staff polite, professional and knowledgeable about the menu, but they all had distinct and big personalities. While my food was fine -- some dishes certainly shined more brightly than others -- the meals I ate at Mr. Mesero felt like a great use of my time.

The food can never be terrible. But mediocre food can seem pleasurable when it's served by someone who feels like a real friend. I think that's what irked me about D Magazine's inclusion of The Commissary on its list of 2011's best restaurants, with the caveat that service was "like an old joke: it's so bad, it's good."

Bad service is never a joke. It sullies great cooking and ruins completely serviceable meals. On the flip side, Mr. Mesero's menu is a fine one, but the staff makes it worth going back to.