Good service is a vital part of a restaurant – its oxygen, if you will. It contributes to atmosphere, delivery and the context of your experience, and dining in a restaurant is all about context: what you pay, what you sit on, the cutlery and glassware, the linen (or not) and the environment in which all of it is set will determine your expectation for what lies ahead. The service is a pivotal part of this; how the waiter delivers the experience physically, verbally and respectfully will determine how you feel about being there. In other words, a good waiter is the architect of the dining context. This architect needs to build experiences table by table, and when you’re paying a lot of money (or not) what should you expect?
To maintain consistent standards of service requires a constant commitment to caring about customers, knowing the wine list, knowing what the chefs cook and how they cook it, selling that to the customers and timing their experience so they have the best time they possibly can and leave wanting to return. It definitely takes a certain type of person to be a good waiter.
Michael Badr has been manager of Sarti restaurant in the city for the last four years and, like every other good manager or waiter, for him service starts the minute the customer walks through the door. “Sarti is a mix of formal and relaxed,” he explains. “We balance both and that’s really important here. To work here you need experience [with] how to be a waiter [and also] how to treat people. You can train people to a point but if they don’t understand about giving to others they can’t do the job. You need to be a naturally giving person and you have to want to be here and like the challenge because that’s what it is.”
The common theme when talking to any front-of-house person is the humility and compassion needed to provide good service. Ainslie Lubbock, restaurant manager of the award-winning Attica in Ripponlea, is adamant about this. “We are lucky in that a lot of experienced waiters come to us wanting to work for us, but to work here you must have an attitude of gratefulness and humility and you must engage with the customers.”
Attica may be in the fortunate position of having staff approach them but that doesn’t always mean they get the job. “The philosophy I employ when I interview someone is how I feel in the first five minutes with them. I translate that to being the same sense a customer will get with that person. You can train patterns of behaviour but you can’t train humility.”
When it comes to the much talked about big egos in the restaurant industry, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for that front-of-house; at least, not while service is on. Kent Bell, owner of Smith Street cafe Cavallero, sets that record straight: “I’m an owner but I’m also a waiter. I polish glasses and this encourages staff and is good for customers to see that we work together.”
Whether it’s Cavallero or Attica, managers dig in and get their hands dirty, Lubbock explains. “We have no ownership (over the customer) and certainly show no arrogance. I polish cutlery like everyone else. You should never be above any of those jobs; we are a team.”
It’s this ethos that puts each one of these establishments at the top of their game for the market they’re aiming at. You don’t walk into Sarti expecting Attica service or Cavallero atmosphere. Each one of these restaurants has created their own identity and the face of the restaurants (the service) has nurtured it. But what makes an ideal customer?
Sarti’s average spend is $90 per head. Naturally, expectation of the experience is high. Badr says, “Our job is to look after you, so let us do it. The best customers are the ones who let the waiter take control. I love doing that when I go out – the waiter knows what’s going on in the restaurant, they know what’s good or what’s new on the wine list and they want to show it off.”
Bell describes Cavallero, at $30 per head average spend, as an ‘eatery’, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner in a casual environment. “We feed the locals mainly and provide sustenance to them, often daily. We offer service on many levels. If we have a whole beast in the cool room, I’ll ring a group booking and ask them if they want a cut of it to be roasted for their table when they come in and some customers are so regular they have become friends of ours.” This open dialogue with proprietor and customer shifts expectation to a very relaxed level, all the while knowing that the Cavallero culture that’s been created over time will deliver consistent quality.
At a place like Attica, on the other hand, the customer’s expectation is already sealed in many ways. “When you’ve booked six weeks in advance for a table on a Saturday night and you’re paying around $160 per head, you should expect a lot,” Lubbock says. “We’re very fortunate: we offer a ‘gold dust’ experience and our customers are very good to work with; they allow us to guide them through the experience. The hard part is that expectations are higher than ever before, but that’s part of who we are.”
No matter where you are, good service is a tale of context and expectation – realistic expectation created by professionals who know what they want you to experience and also know how to present it to you. It’s far more than carrying plates, and as a profession it’s something that’s difficult to be really good at. Hand over the reins next time you’re dining, and let the waiter take your order.