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The Gospel of Table Service

by B.A. Nilsson on May 8, 2013


The Water’s Edge Lighthouse, 2 Freeman’s Bridge Road, Glenville, 370-5300, thewatersedgelighthouse.com. Serving 11-10 Mon-Fri, 4-10 Sat, 4-9 Sun. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: Italian-flavored continental

Entrée price range: $14 (haddock Francaise) to $27 (frutti di mare)

Ambiance: handsome

Today’s sermon, fellow sinners, is on the subject of service. It is the consistently most troublesome aspect of dining in the region, if not the country. When performed well, it is an art, and people have built solid careers on providing excellent restaurant service. You’re rarely inclined to notice it when it’s good because transparency is part of its formula.

But when it’s compromised, it can seem as if there are dozens of components going wrong. There will be excuses: “We got busier than we expected.” “Someone didn’t show up.” “The kitchen got all backed up.” While some problems truly are unforeseeable, most of them can be conquered when the right systems are in place. It will always come down to management.

I’m going to have to pick on the Water’s Edge Lighthouse a little, but I don’t want to do so at the expense of the many fine things they have to offer. The food fits a needed niche, being reasonably priced Italian and continental offerings that, as our recent dinner proved, are nicely prepared. An array of dining areas is available, including a lovely outdoor patio (seating for which you’ll nab only if you get there early). The servers are pleasant and ardently wish to be helpful. Yet we spent two and a half hours at a meal that should have been over in half that time.

When Pat and Karen Popolizio bought the place in 2004, it had been a bar for nearly half a century, but it started life as an 18th-century farm and remains the oldest building in Glenville. The Popolizios impressively restored and improved the place, with particular attention to the Tuscan Villa character of the patio. Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters penetrated the basement but spared the rest of it (even as Jumpin’ Jack’s picnic tables—since returned—floated away).

When we reviewed them in 2005, the pace was easygoing and the food, especially the fresh seafood, was very pleasing. The menu has evolved since then, still with seafood and Italian fare at its heart, with the options of small plates and less-expensive casual fare.

Our recent visit was on a spectacularly lovely Friday, with the just-opened patio packed with people and very few seats in the main and side dining rooms. We had a table waiting, but I’d been warned when I made the reservation that the place would be crowded.

Fair enough. What was surprising—and heartbreaking—was to discover that our table was given to the care of a single server. She shared the tables in our side room with another server, but not cooperatively, and we learned that she also was covering tables in another room and on the patio. That’s the surprising part, and it reveals a fatally haphazard approach in assigning tables.

The heartbreaking part is seeing how simply they could solve this. We’ll start with the don’ts. Don’t overbook: That may seem hard on the pocketbook, but nobody who’s turned away on a busy night will fail to return. Don’t scatter your servers. Don’t leave a dining room unattended.

Do train your staff. I mean really train them. They’ll only be as good as your vision of them, so make sure that you understand how good service works. I’m fond of repeating one of the lessons taught by my waitering mentor: “There’s someone at every table in the room who wants something at any given moment,” he said. “It’s your job to find out what it is and deliver it.”

Assigning a single server to a group of tables works, if it works at all, only in the most casual of settings or when business is slow. Even though the tips get pooled when the servers cover one another, the tips are higher than when you strand your customers for hours on end. If you implement good, professional service, your floor becomes an efficient machine that can crank up its speed to cover the busiest nights. Go to a place like Joe Allen on West 46th Street in Manhattan at 6:30 PM on a Saturday. Tell them you have to make it to an 8 PM show. Marvel at how that staff, working together and with infectiously high morale, make it all happen.

When we eventually were able to order, and eventually received some food, we enjoyed our starters of antipasto ($14) and tomato caprese ($10). The antipasto features a delightfully spicy cappicola, arrayed with prosciutto and salami and flavorful provolone, with roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts for contrasting texture. Antipasto is part of the Casual Fare menu, which also includes sandwiches, salads and fish & chips, most in the $10 to $12 range. We also ordered the Black Angus burger from that menu ($11), which carried an appealing char-grill finish.

The caprese’s companions are on the appetizer menu, which is where you’ll find bruschetta ($10), calamari ($12), clams ($12) and more. Although the tomatoes for the caprese just aren’t there yet, they were hearty enough to complete the mozzarella-basil trio.

We found one of the best examples here of chicken saltimbocca ($16), obviously crafted by someone who understands how to pair the chicken and prosciutto for the right balance of meat flavors. (And it was a large enough portion to afford an at-home encore). You can get this dish with veal for $2 more, and both meats are available parmigiana style ($15/$18). Pork ossobuco ($22), Delmonico steak ($24), seafood risotto ($18/$26) and cavatelli with broccoli ($16) are among the other dinner selections.

An extra antipasto and plenty of apologies came our way for the amount of time we sat in a state of neglect, and I’m glad they were aware enough of the problem to offer them. But please, let’s not be helpless about it. The solution is there. Customers need to demand it; restaurateurs need to implement it. End of sermon.