Friday, August 24, 2012

Service to a Smile

I remember this one episode of The Cosby Show, wherein Vanessa announces, out of the blue, that she has been engaged for like six months. She brings her fiancee, Dabnis Brickey, to dinner to meet Cliff and Clair, and of course, hilarity (as well as a choice array of Cosby-faces) ensues. In his eventual and inevitable man-to-man conversation with Dabnis, Cliff waxes poetic on dinner service:

Cliff: Do you have a favorite food, something you really LOVE?
Dabnis: Oh yeah, on occasion, I enjoy a nice, juicy steak.
Cliff: Steak! Steak, there you go! You got a steak. Just imagine you got a porterhouse and no white lines in it at all. Now, what would you like to go along with it?
Dabnis: Uh, some crispy potatoes!
Cliff: No problem! Now, you got mushrooms, you like your mushrooms.
Dabnis: Yes, sir.
Cliff: You can smell it, can't you? Smell the potatoes?
Dabnis: Yes, sir!
Cliff: Smell the mushrooms!
Dabnis: Yes, sir!
Cliff: Sauteed!
Dabnis: Yes, sir!
Cliff: MMM, boy! Huh?
Dabnis: Yes, sir!
Cliff: All right, now, I'm going to present it to you, right? I go over now...I don't get a plate, I take the garbage can lid, and I turn it upside down! After taking it off the garbage can, I take your steak, your potatoes, your sauteed mushrooms, and I give it to you! Not too appetizing, is it? It's in the presentation. THAT'S how she brought you over here, "on a garbage can lid"!

Oh, Cosby Show, with your infinite wisdom and your family-friendly, primetime-appropriate comedic situations. Cliff Huxtable makes an excellent point here. No matter how creative, delicious, and well-executed a dish may be, it can all be brought down by bad service; conversely (did I use that correctly?), an average meal can be elevated by great service. 

Now I know that 
on more than one occasion, I have been guilty of underemphasizing the role service plays in one's dining experience. I have definitely made the assertion that at the end of the day, it's all about the food, and essentially that's all that matters; which I still assert is eighty percent true. But "eighty percent true" is like "four fifths pregnant" or "more or less dead." In all honesty, how something is presented makes a big difference in how it's received.

I suppose my often exaggerated underplay of service stems from personal exposure to its own exaggerated importance.  Having cooked in a few different Michelin-starred kitchens, I've had a behind-the-scenes look at just how much goes into service and presentation at the highest levels; and the fact that I spend all of my disposable income eating out, I've had many a front row seat to the dinner theater that is service at its highest levels. Only at the ballet will you see more graceful movements as your table is crumbed, your water glass refilled, your fork, knife, spoon, plate replaced, napkin refolded, and chair adjusted. For me, it can become overkill; my shirking of the importance of service altogether is basically a knee-jerk reaction to the overkill. I can remember a recent dinner at a fine dining restaurant where the service was so overattentive that it literally made me uncomfortable. I couldn't look in any direction without seeing a tuxedoed man hovering, waiting to refill my water glass after every sip or slightly adjusting the position of a share plate, assumably to maximize the ergonomic flow of the food on our table.

I know that these standards didn't form themselves, and I assume there are plenty of people out there who enjoy such painstakingly detailed attention; at the risk of generalizing, these often seem to be the same people who completely ignore those serving them, and look at their server only if necessary to express dissatisfaction with something. I, on the other hand, have a hard time not saying 'thank-you' at least once or twice when my water is refilled or my plates cleared. Maybe it's because I know I have the potential to turn restaurant tabletops into Hiroshima in the way I order and eat my food; maybe it's because I have been a server. I'm not trying to make any claims of good character on my behalf, nor will I admit my tendencies as character flaws. And therein, as the bard said, lies the rub.

Service is, at its essence, a connection between people. And because every person is different, that connection has the potential to be very different depending on who you're serving. This, of course, leaves a seemingly infinite gray area covering what constitutes good service. For that reason, restaurants  have handbooks, Michelin has checklists, and servers at the highest levels are impeccably trained. But at the end of the day, proper procedure can only go so far. Most diners would agree that their most memorable good service experiences were based on a great server, not an appropriate number of place setting changes. I think this gets forgotten more often than it should; again, this may be due to those out there who prefer their dining help neither seen nor heard, but in my opinion, all the pomp and circumstance is little more than that.

Obviously, that doesn't mean I want my porterhouse on a garbage can lid. All I'm saying is that I want my food's deliciousness to be the first and foremost priority. Beyond that, there are any number of combinations and contexts within which I can enjoy said food. The lighting, the table surface, and the side on which a server stands to refill my wine glass are not hugely consequential, within reason. Don't get me wrong: I can appreciate efficient, attentive service and the positive effect it has on the dining experience; a dinner at Meadowood last year was one of the better meals I've had in my life. I just get frustrated when it seems that more importance was placed on wall art and linens than on the food; if you have to get one thing spot-on, I think we can all agree that the food is the bullseye to aim for, no? Once you've got that down, go nuts with service.

Better yet, do something different with service! We've all seen white tablecloths, a lengthy parade of course-appropriate utensils, and the shamefully stuffy men's jacket requirement. I know I'm speaking from a California state of mind, but wouldn't you rather be pleasantly surprised by your service than predictably satisfied? To take things out of abstractness, allow me to reference State Bird Provisions, a relatively new restaurant in SF. They hype has started to build about this place, and let me be the first to say, it's legit. I had the good fortune to eat there a few weeks before it was named 'best new restaurant in the country' by Vogue, which I believe was its first major national accolade. Not only is the food fantastic (I must specifically mention the life-changing, house-made garlic knot topped with melted burrata), but they have a very original shtick: dim-sum style service. You can order off the regular menu, or you can wait for one of the trays circulating around the dining room to make it to your table. These trays contain off-menu dishes created literally moments before, utilizing elements from the menu plates integrated with other ingredients and put together in real time. It allows the kitchen flexibility and utilizes the maximum amount of product, while creating an exciting and unexpected bevy of options for  diners. Though it may sound gimmicky, it's not; in fact, it's brilliant. State Bird has created a totally unique dining experience, centered on outstanding food and bolstered by original service.

I'm also inclined to mention the impending wedding of my brother and his fiancee to further illustrate my point. Due to the restrictions of outdoor seating for dinner, Jamie and Kristin discovered that their original plans for dinner service and menu could not be accommodated. Alternatives were presented, and the final decision, forced by restrictions, came out even better than the original plan: I am absolutely thrilled to say that dinner will be rack of lamb, served family style and carved tableside! Does this not sound absolutely phenomenal? How many weddings have you been to where dinner was dry chicken breast or overcooked salmon, served in rehearsed unison and looking straight out of a 1980's playbook? The table is beautifully decorated and your water glass is on the correct side, but actually eating the food just makes you sad. Granted, dinner is not supposed to be the focal point of a wedding, and yes, I have a unique perspective when it comes to food, but you have to admit, wedding meals are often shitty. We can rest assured that, at the very least, Jamie and Kristin's wedding dinner will be one that stands out in everyone's memory; and isn't that something everyone wants at a wedding?

Admittedly, I suppose that all you can realistically hope for when eating out is a smile, extra ketchup when you need it, and a prompt check drop. Beyond that, the spectrum is vast and varied; and somewhere between a garbage can lid and polished silver platter lies a very memorable dining experience. But one thing has been repeatedly proven: diners will tolerate poor service in order to get amazing food; the converse (still correct?), however, is certainly not true. As long as that remains the case, I believe things are right in the restaurant world.

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