Q & A

Danny Meyer:
Danny Meyer: "Let us in on your agenda." (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Danny Meyer has strong opinions about hospitality, as well he should. For more than 20 years he has used that focus to build an 11-restaurant empire in New York.

Meyer sees a difference between service and hospitality: "Service is doing what you say you're going to do, delivering on your promise," he says. "Hospitality is a measure of how [the customer is] made to feel, regardless of how something was served." If there is one thing he wishes customers would do more of, it's communicate, whether that's asking in advance for a particular table or even letting the waiter know that a dish didn't thrill them.

The restaurateur was in town recently for a signing of his book "Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business" (HarperCollins, 2006, $25.95), now in its seventh printing, and for meetings organized by the anti-hunger agency Share Our Strength, in which he is active. Over coffee at Acadiana, he indulged our hypothetical questions about diner-restaurant relations.

Let's say I get a salmon dish at Union Square Cafe, and it's not too salty, it's not under- or over-cooked. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but I'm disappointed with how it all comes together, and I think, "eh." What should I do?

Tell me. Please tell me. And have the confidence to accept my suggestion for a solution. I have a choice. If it's a $25 entree, I have $8 or $9 invested in it. Would I rather save that $8 or $9 and have you go tell the world "eh"? Or do I make sure you leave the restaurant raving? You may say [that] "eh" doesn't rise to the level of a mistake, but I say that it does. Nothing is worse than to just "whelm" somebody.

What if it's a more concrete mistake?

Over the course of two hours, a restaurant is going to make about 20 mistakes. Now, hopefully you'll never be aware of 18 of them, but you probably will become aware of two. Please don't take the mistake personally, but please mention it, and judge the restaurant based on how it responds to the mistakes.

Okay, let's say I come into the Modern, sidle up to the host and slip him $50, whispering that I'd like a really good table. Is that cool?

You should not need to do that. I think the right thing to do, if where you sit matters to you, is to let the restaurant know when you make the reservation. At the root of every dining experience is an agenda: Sell somebody something, seduce somebody or just have a good time and treat yourself well. Let us in on your agenda. Tipping is lovely after the fact. It's less lovely before the fact.

How else can you get into really popular places?

It's not that hard to become a regular. Take an interest in the restaurant, and the restaurant will take an interest in you. Come in, sit at the bar, talk to the maitre d' about the menu, and ask for a reservation. Do that a couple more times and see what happens.

All right, one more: I come into Eleven Madison Park with a 5-year-old, and I can't control him. What should you do? What should I do? Should I have even brought him?

Absolutely. I think one of the greatest gifts you can give a child is to expose him or her to a good restaurant. I remember meals when I was 7 years old, and nothing would make me happier than to create those kinds of memories for others. In your situation, I'd take him out of the environment until he calms down, and then come back in and try again. The restaurant should see that you're having a tough time and express hospitality by saying, "Tell us what we can do to make this easier for you."

I heard that you do a great job with kids at Blue Smoke, where the kids decorate their own cookies.

It's based on something I saw in a restaurant in the Caribbean. We do pig-shaped cookies, three kinds of sprinkles. And it keeps them occupied, and they also know that if they behave and make it through the meal, they'll get it back after it's baked: their particular one, just for them. That's hospitality, not service. All people are kids. They want to be delighted, and they want to know you did something for them.

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