In the hope of making 2019 kinder and gentler in my corner of the world, I reached out to some of the most welcoming hosts I know around the country, standard bearers who excel at making diners feel at home in their dining rooms. Just hearing how much they enjoy their work reminded me of the role restaurants play in providing quality of life. May their best practices spur competitors to reach for the stars.
Hospitality is a two-way street, however, so I included a little plea from each restaurateur on how diners can make their hosts’ load a little lighter.
Eyes on the prize: guests
“Making people happy is why we’re here,” says JoAnn Clevenger, the mistress of ceremonies at the beloved Upperline in New Orleans, a city that knows hospitality like few others. “We want to nourish.” When the snark of Yelp reviews started wearing her down five years ago or so, she started wearing her Girl Scout pin again. Among other things, the ornament reminded her to “stand up straight.”
Eye contact with guests is crucial, the restaurateur says. “People don’t look at you” on the street or in the CVS anymore, she laments. If Clevenger notices a patron gazing at one of the many paintings in her art-filled dining room, she views it as a chance to engage with them, and share its story. She might also ask people where they’re from. “Pittsburgh! That’s where the [three] rivers run together,” she has been known to say to visitors from there, breaking any ice there may have been.
Clevenger doesn’t remember names of returning guests as much as she recalls where they sat and what they wore, a detail I can vouch for when she brings up in a phone conversation the Swiss bracelet I wore to dinner at Upperline — more than three years ago.
Even the best establishments make mistakes. The staff at Upperline is taught to quickly acknowledge an issue, apologize and recover. “Do you like gumbo?” the owner might ask when someone’s dish is late, or missing. A gratis taste, served in a demitasse, helps smooth the lapse and give the kitchen time to make amends.
Ultimately, says Clevenger, she wants her customers to leave her establishment feeling “self-enhanced: stronger, braver, kinder.”
What diners can do to make her job easier: “Point out staff that have been particularly helpful, because I can’t be everywhere, hovering.” P.S. She also loves the “tiny notes” customers sometimes leave.
Plan, then improvise
Canlis restaurant in Seattle plans a seating chart for every service, based in part on copious notes the lead reservationist has taken while talking to guests on the phone. But the whole arrangement is subject to change once customers show their faces at the host stand.
“Service is a gift,” says Mark Canlis, co-owner of the alluring midcentury-modern restaurant bearing the family name. “We’d like to know the people we’re giving it to.” If a group of well-dressed women comes in, for instance, they’re apt to get a prime table. It’s a reward of sorts for their having taken the time to show the restaurant and fellow diners they’ve put some thought into making the night special. Cultural considerations play a factor, too. All things being equal, a group of businesspeople from Japan, which places a premium on symbolism and protocol, will get the coveted window tables over a group of American executives.
Newcomers to the restaurant, which overlooks Lake Union and the Cascade mountains, are surprised not to get a ticket when they surrender their cars to the valets. They’re surprised again when they step outside to find their vehicle waiting out front. In its 68-year history, Canlis has had only three head valet parkers, the last two trained by their predecessors to remember which face goes with which set of wheels.
Note to the Instagrammers of the world: Canlis doesn’t mind customers snapping photographs, but he wishes they wouldn’t “disappear” from the table conversation, either. “There’s a real lack of humanity” right now, he says. “We secretly crave it.”
What diners can do to make his job easier: “I encourage diners to let the restaurant in a tiny bit.” The more information the restaurant has about why a customer is there, the better the establishment can do its job.
Making a list, checking it twice
Danny Meyer oversees the Union Square Hospitality Group in New York and wrote the book on service. Literally. It’s called “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.” You bet he has a thing or three to say about the subject.
For starters, Meyer uses hugs, real and otherwise, as a metaphor for what he expects his restaurants to deliver. The idea is for each establishment to “go beyond what’s expected” and “let customers know it’s not just a financial transaction.”
One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to doling out thoughtfulness. Meyer says restaurants need to customize the attention, say, remembering that a left-handed guest prefers her coffee served on the left.
The hospitality maven gets a list of the next day’s reservations and sends out five to 10 emails or texts, welcoming guests ahead of their lunches or dinners. He then follows up with the appropriate chefs and managers to see that the experience is made special. Meyer sees the personalized notes as “a tiny effort” toward the ultimate goal: “Most restaurants want you to leave happier than when you came in.”
What diners can do to make his job easier: “Please cancel reservations” if you can’t make the date. Not doing so deprives wait-listed guests of a table and represents “real money in real people’s pockets.”
Remember to meditate
“We practice all year for the holidays.”
That’s Bobby Stuckey, the co-owner of the esteemed Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo., talking. He knows that not everyone has the luxury of a Hallmark-style Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Eve. Families can be complicated. It’s up to his team to make everyone as merry as possible.
Pre-service meetings at Frasca Food and Wine can last up to an hour and involve “meditating” on what the evening’s guests might need.
Managers go over reservation lists, noting who’s coming from where and what extras they might require. Thus the guests making the 30-mile trip from Denver in snow might get an extra helping of TLC than the couple who have walked just a few blocks. And the business types from New York might have their meal slightly subtly accelerated, to accommodate the time difference. “We’re collecting the dots, then connecting the dots,” says Stuckey.
What diners can do to make his job easier: Show empathy for the people taking care of you, especially on a holiday. They’re probably not with friends or family to make your day more memorable.
All the restaurant's a stage
Good service is anticipating diners’ needs before they even know what they might want. Consider the sedate Marcel’s in Washington, D.C., which has at the ready a tray with eight pairs of eyeglasses, in different strengths.
The way general manager/sommelier Moez Ben Achour sees it, service begins the moment you place a call to a restaurant and extends to the time you step into your car. Any initial phone conversation helps the restaurant collect information on diet and special occasions. He views dinner as an “event,” and his staff, whom he coaches to “walk with grace,” as actors.
Diners shouldn’t be embarrassed to say they don’t care for something. If a wine isn’t to your liking, the bottle can be sold by the glass, used by the kitchen, “or I’ll drink it,” jokes Ben Achour.
The entire staff is empowered to take action to address needs the moment they’re known. Since they’ve tasted the menu and know the list of wines by the glass, even a bus boy or service assistant can follow through on, say, a request for another flute of champagne. Expensive as it might be, such education helps workers “explain and sell” better.
What diners can do to make his job easier: “Come in with a smile.” Aim to have a good time, in other words, and chances are the restaurant will meet or exceed your expectations. Also, “if you’re stuck in traffic, give us a call.”
For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.