Monday, November 14, 2011

Service can make or break a meal.

When a professional kitchen puts out good food on a consistent basis, the success of every meal becomes the responsibility of front-of-house staff. A great bartender, a knowledgeable server, efficient service, all these make for a memorable meal. When bartenders give a little attitude about a drink they don’t know how to make, when a cold dessert spoon is brought to the table for a hot soup, when a cocktail is placed on the table and the glass is chipped, these things obviously have a negative impact on a meal. On the other hand, when a bartender is not familiar with a drink but still says, “sure, we can figure that out” and asks questions about the ingredients or looks it up on a smart phone, when table service is so efficient and flawless you hardly recognize the presence of wait staff, when small mistakes are acknowledged and corrected quickly, these are signs of a great restaurant that pays attention to detail.

After eating out twice this weekend I experienced both ends of the spectrum. A fantastic meal with stellar service from the moment we walked in the door to the moment we left, and a meal rife with service gaffes from start to finish with some pretty good food in the middle.

While I don’t ordinarily write negative reviews I know this restaurant can do better, and has done better during several of the previous times I’ve dined there. I’ll first tell you about the less than favorable experience I had at Sel de la Terre Natick. My wife and I arrived early; we were meeting friends, so we went to the bar for a drink and an order of SDLT’s famous rosemary fries. It was at least a few minutes before either bartender acknowledged our presence and when one finally did, she was certainly friendly, waving from halfway across the bar like we were old friends as she came over to talk to us.

I asked if she could make an Old Cuban, my favorite cocktail at the moment and one I was introduced to at Eastern Standard. The bartender said she had no idea what it was and when I mentioned that I’ve had it at a few places in Boston and maybe it’s a Boston thing, she responded with what I perceived to be an attitude saying, “well I’m from Boston and I’ve never heard of it.” She made no effort to inquire about its ingredients and that was that. So, I asked for a cocktail menu and asked her to put in an order of fries. J and I order a couple drinks, and waited for our friends to arrive, the fries never did and we settled the bill, no fries, to move to a table in the dining room.

Our server at the table was nice, telling us about the specials and taking orders for another round of drinks. I ordered a martini, when my drink arrived I noticed the rim of the glass was chipped, after I took a sip. I informed our server and he replaced the drink right away with a fresh one. That’s great but the glass should have never made it to the table – the service bartender or the server should have noticed the chip. The next gaff came when the soup I order arrived at the table, without a spoon. I asked the server for a spoon and he disappeared for a couple minutes. He finally returned to the table from the kitchen with a spoon, an ice cold spoon which I presume he grabbed from a reach-in cooler where spoons intended for dessert are stored. There were a couple other issues with the meal that can be chalked up to miscommunication but I feel like a more attentive server would have cleared things up with questions before it go that point. At the end of meal the food was good, very good even, and we enjoyed a side of the rosemary fries that we ordered at our table. With better service this would have been a very enjoyable evening, instead, we talk about how the food was good but the service really fell short. With that said I would still go back to Sel de la Terre Natick because I know from personal experience they can do better, they have done better, and the food is quite good. Although I must say they outsource their bread service now and the quality has really suffered.

Now on to the better dining experience of the weekend, dinner at The Regal Beagle in Brookline. I’ve heard good things about the Beagle since they opened two years ago. Arriving around 7:30pm, our party of four was told the wait would be about an hour so we headed to the back where the small bar was crowded. One of the two bartenders saw us right away and handed us cocktail menus. After looking at the menu for a moment I asked the bartender if he knew how to make an Old Cuban, he said, “no but we can figure it out, we’ll make you whatever you want.” I think he overheard me describe the drink to one of my friends and I also think he looked up a recipe on his iPhone. Either way, he figured out it, recommended making the cocktail with a 23 year old Ron Zacapa rum from Guatemala and managed to make a fantastic Old Cuban. I was very impressed by his willingness to make something new to him and at how great it was. Score 1 Regal Beagle bar, 0 SDLT bar. After a couple more cocktails our table was finally ready. Once seated, we were greeted right away by our server; she was friendly, knowledgeable of the menu, and willing to make suggestions and help us make decisions when we asked. All four of our meals were excellent, appetizers and entrees were great. And, we were having such a great time we had some desserts too, equally as good. The one slip up that our server made was that she forgot to bring a green tea we had ordered with the rest of our dessert, and when reminded she quickly returned with the tea saying that since she forgot the tea was on her. She acknowledged the mistake, took responsibility, and made it right. Well done!

So two different restaurants, both with very good food and clearly very qualified kitchen staff, however one meal was okay and the other was outstanding. Service can make or break a meal but can never make up for bad food. Do you agree?

Are you in the restaurant business? How do you make sure your staff is ready for anything? Do you empower them to make decisions that could impact the restaurants bottom line?


  1. YES, service can absolutely make or break an experience at a restaurant however, I think the experience depends on the guest AND the server.

    Bad food is bad food, regardless of the service.

    I also think the level of restaurant you're eating in dictates your service, as does the night of the week. I wouldn't go into Bugaboo Creek expecting white glove service like I would get a French Laundry, that would be absurd, but I think people have those expectations. Also, Saturday nights are generally busy, your table isn't the only one in the restaurant. People think that because they are paying $xx for their meal PLUS TIP so they should be treated like a king.

    In my experience, how you are treated by your server is how they treat you back. Act like an asshole? Get ignored! You catch more flies with honey, right? And, yes, you are PAYING someone to server you, but they are not your servant. Be logical - if everyone else is ordering a drink, order yours then. If you have crazy dietary restrictions, let the server know. Just like any relationship, the more you communicate, the better.

    There are things that irritate me as a server(people not having a go-to drink is my new one), and some that irritate me as a guest (waiting for new/clean silverware).

    re: drinks - I love when a bartender tries to make something that I've had before at another restaurant. if I find a drink I love I either take a pic of the menu, or write down the ingredients..that helps. saying "this bartender in Key West made a drink called a frozen strawberry nipple slip on the boat" can you make one of those too? it, again, absurd.

    I currently (well this is my last week) work as a server in a restaurant. I've seen it all, I could tell you stories for days. Yes, I can admit that sometimes I have given bad service. I am tired, irritated, have 9 other tables to deal happens. We're only human. But in general, most of the people I know in the industry in Boston and people I have worked with, try their hardest to give a guest the best experience they can.

  2. I totally agree with you! I worked in restaurants for four plus years while in college and just after, waiting tables, expediting, even as a host a couple nights. Because of my experience I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to servers when its clear they are having a bad night and I always treat them with respect. I try to have fun WITH them too, not at their expense. I want to make it a positive experience for everyone.

    With that said, I also notice little details that others might overlook. Although I hope everyone would notice a chipped glass should it make it to the table (restaurant staff should be trained to check glasses before bringing them to the table, don't you think?)

    The stories I have from working in a restaurant will stay with me forever. Those were the good old days!

    Thanks for your thoughtful input Betsy!!

  3. I've never worked in a restaurant but have certainly visited a good amount of places in and out of Boston. I agree with you that service can really heighten or dampen an experience. I too have had stellar service at Regal Beagle (and at Church, same chef) and so-so service at SDLT Natick (but great service at SDLT Boylston). If that happened to me I would def still go back, but also I would've told the server about the dessert spoon...