I was eating brunch in one of today’s most popular new restaurants. I don’t want to mention the place, so as not to prejudice you against it. Maybe it’ll improve. I’m not talking about the food — that was already solid. A crew of five could be seen in the open kitchen operating with utmost efficiency — well, not quite perfect, because there was a backlog of unfilled orders, but the line cooks were implacable and methodical, with little wasted effort. The front of the house was another story.
I should have known something was wrong when I saw a knot of uniformed employees around the greeter’s podium. A scrum of supplicants waited to be recognized, some with reservations, others walk-ins looking for tables, or diners wanting to sit at the bar. The crowd was swelling slowly, and I couldn’t help wondering, What are all those employees at the podium doing there, if not organizing the crowd?
Inside the dining room — which was exceedingly nicely decorated and perfectly lit — there seemed to be the same surfeit of front-of-the-house employees: I counted probably 20 waiters, busboys, runners, and others of indeterminate assignment, crossing and recrossing the dining room so often that it came to be a kind of entertainment. Many seemed to only be carrying one thing, or sometimes nothing. I saw one employee ferry a pair of empty water glasses across the room and into the bar four times in 20 minutes, rather than simply making one trip. It was like a Theater of the Absurd play.
Things got gnarly as my guest and I got into our oddly paced meal. Our waiter — the soul of niceness and sincerity — was to be congratulated for not upselling the booze, and readily agreed to get us a couple of cups of coffee as an aperitif. Only, rather than simply bringing them to us, he returned to the table again and again to assure us they were on the way. From where? we wondered.
We ordered two apps, two mains, one side, and, later, two desserts. One app arrived, then a very long wait, then two mains, and finally the second app. That was a little crazy, but what bothered us more was the busing style, or lack of it. Several employees attempted to haphazardly perform that function during the course of our meal. In spite of all the attention, the table was constantly littered with discarded dishes and utensils. Sometimes an employee would come over, stare at the table, then extract a single dirty plate, stirring spoon, or rumpled bit of paper — leaving all the other detritus in place. They were less like bussers than curators maintaining a dirty-plate collection.
Once, a silverware adjuster came over and laid the new silverware amid the old, then left without taking the old away. And at no time did anyone wipe up the spilled food that accumulated on the tabletop — which included several gobs of uncoagulated egg that perpetually wiggled and glinted in the flattering light. Our table became like the aftermath of a food fight. It was anarchy on the tabletop. And it was happening everywhere — the table on our left got their shared dessert before they were finished with their main courses, had to ask for utensils, and got a single fork. I lent them my spoon.
Throughout all this, we were aware that there were three apparent supervisors surveying the front of the house as service proceeded. They didn’t step in to help, mind you. Sometimes they called a server over for a bit of stern advice. To their credit, that staff was very nice and polite, even when they were bungling the service. It really wasn’t their fault, they hadn’t been trained. It seemed as if each had been hired the hour before. We were wowed by the decor, but why hadn’t the management paid as much attention to the waitstaff as they had to what hung on the walls?
This was an extreme example, but confused and inadequate service in newish restaurants is too common. Restaurants go to great lengths to polish their food before opening, hiring line cooks weeks or even months in advance, and drilling them incessantly, then having friends-and-family periods that go on for weeks. Front-of-the-house staff is often hired less than a week in advance, and trained for a day or two at the most. Who can be surprised that the food often outshines the service?
The fact is, 80 percent of the diners wouldn’t notice if the food was mediocre as long as the service was good. So it makes economic sense to have the service angle aced before the first diner traipses in the door. By the same token, the decor can be perfunctory, if only the food and service are up to snuff. Cooks train months at culinary institutes to call themselves chefs — maybe what we need is a service institute that could train waiters for restaurants unwilling to provide training. Otherwise, it’s up to management to see that the front of the house is prepared — and it’s a duty often neglected, at the cost of repeat customers.
And while we’re at it, let’s add a standard 20 percent service charge onto restaurant tabs, so consumers can stop obsessing over the tip, and so service employees can make a living wage.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 23, 2011