Good restaurant service gets back to basics
What do I know about restaurant service? Quite a lot, actually. An entry-level job at 17 as a busser/food runner paid my rent and bills. Then, after university, restaurateur friends asked me to sub for their bookkeeper, who never came back. I couldn't do math, so I made the obvious move: restaurant manager. My training? An all-night poker game where I learned that a Greek gambler always sits in a corner observing all-a key skill for good management. That and a few dinners at Il Giardino, watching the pros work and learning the fine points of service. And work they did. Owner Umberto Menghi brooks no slouches.
Because of the nature of our restaurant-fun rather than fine dining-we hired on attitude and personality, sometimes poaching top staff from other restaurants. We taught our new servers how to serve, how to sell, and how to keep busy. A good waiter is always in motion, checking place settings, polishing glasses, circulating, eyes always on their tables. Customers notice. Tips follow. Everyone makes out. When servers are in the weeds and diners are waiting, a quick word, a smile, and eye contact make a world of difference.
After my dining-as-entertainment gig came one in dining as business, as supervisor of a tony private business club. Wages were pitifully low, so we hired and trained ESL students and entry-level workers, often well enough that the Pan Pacific later scooped them.
Even now, whenever I go to a restaurant, I occupy the "gambler's seat" and watch the room. So what is good service about? The basics are the same everywhere, whether you're in Le Crocodile or your favourite pho joint. Sometimes it's where you least expect it, even at now-defunct Hooters on Robson, where we encountered some of the best.
Good service starts with reception, both on the telephone and at the door. Everyone wants to be acknowledged and greeted in a friendly manner. We want to be seated quickly or, if that's not possible, given a place to wait and a drink. Keep us in the loop: if the wait's 60 minutes, don't say 10. Once we're seated, get menus in our hands instantly. Don't leave the table without a drink order, even if it's just tap water.
I spoke to several restaurateurs who agreed across the board that personality and attitude are what matters. If servers can bring those to the table, that's 90 percent of the game.
Who teaches good service? When I was hiring, if a potential employee's résumé mentioned McDonald's-seriously-or Earls, I knew that they'd been trained and trained well. If those coveted qualities were there, they worked the next shift.
Christina Mackintosh, general manager of Earls Paramount (905 Hornby Street), started as a server five years ago, moving quickly through the ranks to take the reins of the newest outlet in the chain. "Earls is a casual dining restaurant that's always pushing fine dining," Mackintosh says. "We teach everything from wine service and presentation to the angle of a coffee cup handle when it's placed in front of the guest." New employees log 24 hours with a detailed training manual before hitting the floor to serve two tables, then four, and gradually working up to a full section.
Bistro 1734 (1734 Marine Drive, West Vancouver) is Daniel Thomas's third restaurant (Le Railcar, Chez Poulet). He's worked at others and taught restaurant service at Vancouver Community College. Thomas says good service is "good basic wine knowledge, a good personality, and knowing how and when to talk to people. How you're greeted at the door when you arrive and when you leave are crucial." Dislikes? A condescending attitude.
At the newly opened Ocean Club (105-100 Park Royal), managing partner Andre Thomas (formerly of Araxi and the Four Seasons) agrees that a good personality is what he looks for in a server. "I can teach food, wine, and service, but I can't teach personality," he says. "If they're lacking in that key area, they won't make it in the door, much less on the floor."
If you've eaten at Bishop's (2183 West 4th Avenue), you'll likely agree that owner John Bishop is Vancouver's consummate restaurateur. Service is seamless, unobtrusive, and embodied in every breath and motion.
How can diners ensure smooth service? It seems obvious, but be nice, say please and thank you, act in a civilized manner, and dress appropriately. Honour reservations or call and cancel-restaurants will thank you. Trust servers' recommendations; not everyone is out to drive up the bill. Tip appropriately. The standard for good service is 15 percent, more if the server has gone the extra mile. Let the restaurant know if something was amiss with service or food. They want to make it right, and if you walk without talking, everyone loses.