Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dueling Bloggers: Service

Peter: When dining at a restaurant, the food is the end all be all for me. If the food sucks, then I don't care if Brooklyn Decker is spoon feeding me while I drink from Waterford crystal. That being said, I do believe that average food can be elevated in the mind of the diner if the service is superb. I have dined at two 3 star Michelin restaurants: Restaurant Bocuse in Collonges, France and The French Laundry in Yountville. The high level of service was a major, integral factor in those dining experiences. I will never forget when the captain rolled out the cheese cart at Restaurant Bocuse or the grandious presentation of the white Alba truffles in a jewel box at TFL. The food at each restaurant was superb, but would the Oysters and Pearls or Scallop of Foie Gras tasted as exquisite had they been served without all of the bells and whistles? Probably not.

Rene: If service didn't matter all restaurants would serve food out of a window carved out of an abandoned building. There would be no waiters, food would be served on paper plates, and the wine would gush out of a hose into a slightly cleaned Anti-Freeze canister. About 20 months ago, Tim and Nina Zagat were in town to release their eponymous guide. During the presentation, Mr. Zagat mentioned that the number one comment or criticism from respondents across the board, be it a Stella! or Liuzza's, concerns service. A restaurant is a complete package in my book, there needs to be a level of service that matches the food and ambiance. When all of those things are in harmony, a restaurant can truly shine.

Peter: Where I take issue is how Michelin and other notable restaurant raters only reward their highest ratings to fine dining establishments. It' unfair to rate all restaurants by a singular scale, especially if you take into account service. Po-boy shops should be rated against other po-boy shops, while Antoine's, Arnaud's, and Galatoire's should be lumped together with their peers. If expectations are adequately disclosed to prospective diners, I don't see why 9 Roses, Parkway Bakery, and La Boca can all earn the same number of stars/beans/smiley faces in their respective categories.

Rene: Well then it is a good thing we invented the Blackened Out Rating System, which adapts golf scoring to restaurants. Great segue for a plug, Peter! I'll tell you what I have a problem with: the homogenization of restaurant service on the fine dining side. Michelin, the New York Times, and other guides are looking for a specific set of criteria when awarding the big beans. Who makes the China? What is the staff to guest ratio? Is the Captain conversant in the winemaking techniques of Chile? Does unobtrusive, yet pleasing violin music whisper in your ear? Mario Batali has said before, "The three stars make sure rich people can eat the same food in the same setting anywhere in the world."

Personally, I enjoy variances in service and ambiance from the familiar, hustle and bustle of Galatoire's, the scholarly sophistication of Stella!, the calm professionalism of Herbsaint, and yes, even the raucous "Let's take a shot" of Jacque-Imo's. Again a restaurant to me is like a beautiful women. She should resemble other dames but have a style, grace, and substance that sets her apart from all the rest.

Peter: What the question boils down to is a diner's expectation of value. If you are paying a lot of money for a meal, then you expect and deserve a certain level of sophistication in service. But I don't need white table cloths and plush leather chairs. Give me excellent food, and the surroundings and service fall out of focus unless either is markedly terrible. Snark and/or arrogance will never be tolerated, but if the kitchen puts out an exquisite seared duck breast then I don't care if I had to ask twice for my water glass to be filled. Table settings are even further down the line as determining factors in my level of satisfaction. And I don't think that I am the only one who feels this way. Just look at the Le Fooding movement and food truck phenomenon. In today's dining world, pomp and circumstance are no longer as important as what's on the plate... or wrapped in white butcher paper...or plastic serving basket.

Rene: I've been reading a lot lately. A lot on Thomas Keller, by the way do you still have all those Ruhlman books I lent you? Anyway in one telling passage of Soul of a Chef, Ruhlman asks Keller where his drive for perfection comes from. Keller relates how every morning he had to clean his bathroom to his mother's exacting standards. Eventually, you get to a point he says, where you carry that over into everything. You do everything in the best possible manner as that is the only way to ensure a result that will even approach perfection. So to answer your point, I find it hard to believe that a restaurant whose front of the house staff can't execute the basics could sear a duck breast perfectly. Which would be on medium-low heat for about twenty-five minutes, skin side down, skin scored and seasoned 12 hours prior, then flip to flesh side for a few moments. Now of course, anything is possible, but I like restaurants to pay attention to details. If the kitchen is going to the trouble and expense to source ingredients and cook them with soul, waiters need to know that and show pride and ownership in the meal they set in front of a diner. The hallmark of a great dining experience is whether or not the server, be it a Diner Darling or High End Hank makes you feel welcome and well taken care of. End of story.

What say you readers?


$1.25 said...

Dining out is an experience that includes food and serivce. With the explosion of cooking shows, professional appliances and the such, many meals (even the fancy ones) can be duplicated at home.

A restaurant is about an experience, whether it be being tended to at Commanders or ignored at Juan's Flying Burrito. This all mixes in with the ambiance of the building and the food being served to create a unique dining experience. Otherwise you would have saved yourself the money and eaten at home.

If you're going to discuss box mac and cheese, can we keep it to the stuff with the suace and not the powder?

Barryfest said...

New York Magazine (at least their print edition) has a great restaurant rating system that separates places that offer modest, causal fare from fine dining establishments so they are not competing for the same "stars".

Whether it is something like they do or Blackened Out's "par" system, it is important to have some device to account for the different genres of restaurant experience. A 5-star po-boy may not be "as good" as the tasting menu adventure at Bayona, and the service at the lunch counter may not be as refined, but sometimes you just want a 5-star po-boy.

But please do not let this prevent your from talking about the Blue Box.

jshushan said...

"If you're going to discuss box mac and cheese, can we keep it to the stuff with the suace and not the powder?"

I would have to disagree. My niece and nephew, ages 4 and 7, will only eat the blue box with powdered cheese. They say anything else is "weird." If mac and cheese is the next issue, please include the blue box with powdered cheese. Thanks.


Donnie Boy Riguez said...

One of the authors also has a book of mine. Is this some type of Library?

scoopadventurer said...

I think I am on team Rene for this one. I believe restaurant service is an important part of the entire dining experience. I have been a server myself, so I believe I am a fair judge of competent service. Maybe I am just distractable, but if the service is horrible I can't seem to concentrate on my meal and thus enjoy my food less. If the food is disappointing and the service is great, I may consider giving another menu item a chance. Give me poor service and average food and I will not be back.

Fat Harry said...

Drink refills (even booze) and getting/paying the check are like pulling teeth at well over 50% of restaurants everywhere. Never understood why this is the case.