Photo by star5112/FlickrCC
Scene from our CafÃ© des Artistes, a few years ago: a group of people was being led to a table on the mezzanine, when, all of a sudden, one of the women gets a tight grip on the handrail leading up the stairs and bellows, "You are NOT taking me to the back of the restaurant while all of the important people sit in the front!" Everybody who was in the restaurant at the time will remember that moment.
Whatever happened to the days when everybody knew his or her part in the restaurant dance? You went to a nice restaurantâthere weren't that many to choose fromâand you showed up on time, you were seated as soon as you got there, the captain greeted you and took your order, the waiter served you, the sommelier poured your wine, you drank coffee and brandy and tipped the maitre d'hotel on your way out. Everybody knew what to say and do. CafÃ© des Artistes, which my husband, George Lang, and I revived, ran together, and sadly closed last fall, was just such a place.
Then along came Union Square CafÃ© , which started the trend of what I call "not my father's restaurant" places. The food was great, the service attentive without being intimidating, and the customer could do no wrong. Customers were seduced by the lack of formality, and started to feel entitled. Chris Cannon, who owns Marea , the hotspot of the moment in New York, calls this the "Danny Meyer effect". It made diners presumptuous and aggressive. The waiters got cranky. Service started to suffer. What do we in the service business do now?
I've got a professional eye. The minute I walk into a restaurant I can assess the situation quickly. Are we going to get served well or badly? Where are the potholes in the road toward our successful meal? I know how to navigate around the potholes. One mistake I know not to make is an easy one, for instance: my dad's innocent but to me really annoying habit of always quizzing the waiter about his order. "Which would you choose? The duck or the fish?" It makes me crazy. I know too much to do something like that. The waiter will recommend whatever makes his job easierâthe dish that comes out of the kitchen fastest, for example, or whatever the chef wants to get rid of that night ("push the snapper").
I'm being unfair. He's an amateur! I have a lot of restaurateur and restaurant-writer friends who can also deal with difficult situations, so I called them for their tips, too, and to share war stories. We're a cynical bunchâwe've seen too much, but we're also diners, people who want good service.
For example, if I go into any restaurant, high-end or coffee shop, and see that a large group of people has just been seated, I know to get our order into the kitchen very fast. The cooks will be slammed trying to get the big order out, and we'll have no luck catching the waiter once he's started to serve the crowd.
Similarly, going to a popular restaurant at the height of the dinner rush and expecting perfect service is folly. Drew Nieporent, the owner of Corton and many other restaurants around the world, says succinctly, "You would try to avoid a highway at rush hour, so why would you go into a restaurant in the middle of a busy dinner and demand special service?" He adds: "You want good service? Come early and be prompt to order. Be clear in how you order, and be polite."
Just being nice goes a long way. It helps to be very, very charming. ("Nice them into submission," Clark Wolf , the restaurant consultant, says.) Everything else will backfire. Trying the "Do you know who I am?" tactic is obnoxious, and it doesn't workâit just makes the staff do an imitation of you over beers after the shift is over. And don't think restaurateurs aren't on to the tactic of reserving in the name of a celebrity (Brad Pitt, party of two) and then showing up as your own self. If you're nasty on the phone, a reservationist might make a notation next to your name in the computer: "thinks he's a big shot" or "real jerk" for all the staff to see at service time. (Another little-known fact: restaurant staff will Google a customer, if they're curious, or annoyed enough, or impressed.)
Lately, there's been a new twist: when told that the only tables available for their party are at 6:00 pm or 9:30 pm, customers have been known to book a table at 6:00, send in a "place holder" at that time and the rest of the party drifts in closer to 7:00 o'clock. Blame those people for the fact that many restaurants won't seat you until your entire party is present.
William Grimes , the New York Times writer and the paper's former restaurant critic, points out that there are times when we've all found ourselves in a restaurant that is just incapable of providing good serviceâeither they're inept, in which case the restaurant is truly bad and the staff is used to abuse because of it, or they're too hip to bother with you. In either case you're sunk, unless you can get the waiter on your side. Try something like, "They have you stretched pretty thin, don't they?" Show him you're on his side; it's you and him in the inner circle. The minute you start bitching, he'll hide from you for the rest of the eveningânot the way to guarantee a decent dinner.
Sometimes there's nothing you can do to ameliorate a bad experience. Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin , recounts a dinner he had years ago in a bistro on Madison Avenue. He was eating an artichoke, leaf by leaf, and discovered that it was filled with worms. He called over the waiter and asked, quietly, if he could have another please. The waiter started screaming at him in French ("you know how the French are," Eric told me) accusing him of wanting a freebie. He walked out. My favorite part of the story is that he actually asked for another artichoke.