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More on the Floor

Good table service isn’t only about showing up with the correct order

By B.A. Nilsson

During the past 20 years, the Capital Region has lifted itself out of its culinary doldrums and explored the kind of menu innovations that distinguish other urban markets. Such notions as fusion, farm-fresh ingredients and hyper-inflated entrée-pricing finally are coming our way.

Where we fall down—where we have always fallen—is in service. Or “front of house,” as the restaurateurs term it. In the back of the house, the cooking staff toils. Their task is to realize the design of the executive chef’s menu. It’s highly focused work that typically is divided into several stations to accommodate the specialized nature of each dish.

Floor staff, on the other hand, act as sales staff, public-relations crew and pack mules. They have to interpret, and sometimes guide, a customer’s requests; convey that information to the kitchen; make timely delivery of food and drinks; correct mistakes or disgruntlements; and ensure that the paid-up party leaves the establishment feeling satisfied.

In any other line of work, each function would have a separate job description with a salary to match. In a restaurant, the server is paid less than minimum wage and must rely on the customer to supplement that pittance.

Yet from restaurant to restaurant, the job is so often performed so poorly that it’s a wonder any customer is moved to leave a tip at all.

In my own salad days, I was hired as a novice (I lied to get my first waitering job) and nervously spilled food on my first customer during my first day of work. The owners were indulgent and I learned on the job, and soon was hired away by a fancy white-linen inn nearby.

There I was fitted with a leather apron, taught how to fold napkins, and turned loose. I was fortunate to have a knack for talking with people, and made it my business to get to know the menu and wine list (for an 18-year-old, the latter was a particularly pleasant pursuit).

Another waiter, whose name was Mark, suggested that our fortunes—and the restaurant’s—would increase if we changed the style of service. He had worked in other fine-dining establishments, and, based on that experience, he preached the gospel of captain-waiter service.

The first thing to go were the aprons. We hit the thrift shops and found tuxedos. Next thing axed were individual tips. Because we’d be working cooperatively, we’d pool what was given. Goodbye to the capitalist approach.

From the customer’s point of view, the biggest change was our dining-room presence. A captain always was on hand. As one mâitre d’hôtel I worked with put it, “Somebody in the dining room needs something at any given moment. You job is to figure out who it is, and satisfy the request.”

We hired a mâitre d’, a friend named Steven who had no restaurant experience but great communication skills, and he quickly became as fine a host as I’ve ever worked with. We brought in busboys. When the system was in place, here’s how it worked:

The restaurant sported two dining rooms, each with seven tables. Each room was worked by a captain, a waiter and a busboy. Steven greeted arriving diners, showed them to a table, gave them menus and took a drink order. (We had only a small service bar, so whoever was nearest to it made the drinks.)

We suffered none of that, “Hi, my name is Ockey and I’ll be your server tonight” nonsense. In fact, Steven learned the customers’ names and we so addressed them whenever possible. We remained transparent.

The captain served the drinks, because that was the first opportunity to schmooze with the table. Like a good salesman, you avoided asking yes-or-no questions because you never want to give the customer the chance to say “no.” Instead, this was a time to extol the specials, discuss a wine strategy or, if returning customers were in the party, murmur something like, “We’ve improved on that duck special you enjoyed last time,” and describe the changes. People go crazy for that kind of attention.

I also came up with I call the “lousy appetizer” technique, best used on a six-top when the chef is out of earshot. As soon as the second customer chose a starter, I’d suggest, sotto voce, that it wasn’t at its freshest. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very good,” I’d explain, “but the chef just made the quiche, and that one is splendid.” I could feel my tip amount swell even as I said it.

The captain took the order and handed it to the waiter (in a larger establishment, this is the “inside waiter”), who presented it to the kitchen—thus allowing the captain to stay on the floor. Which meant that each of us working a room knew what was going on at every table. There’s a rhythm to restaurant service, and you develop a sense of each table’s progress.

All pickups were made by the waiter, who also served the appetizers. Entrées were the captain’s province, although the ideal was a cooperative service by both captain and waiter. While the busboy’s job was to clear courses, anyone—including Steven—would do that when necessary. Similarly, and especially on a hopping Saturday night, we’d cover each other at any task.

The waiter or busboy served desserts, but the check came from the mâitre d’ or captain. And, as Mark predicted, the tip amounts skyrocketed and we had more return business than ever.

So why is it that restaurateurs pour thousands into design and decor, kitchen and chef, and then turn a bunch of untrained kids loose on the floor, each grimly trying to keep up with a half-dozen tables? Beats me. A small investment in training reaps a wildly profitable return. Hour for hour, I don’t think I’ve ever made as much money as I did then.

There’s much more to address on this topic, but I’ll save it for our Master’s Seminar. Meanwhile, here are a few non-fiduciary tips for superior service:

• Never volunteer what items the kitchen lacks. Wait until it’s ordered, then apologize and suggest a replacement.

• Don’t clear the table a plate at a time. Wait until everyone is finished before removing a course.

• You cannot reset silverware too assiduously. Make it a ritual.

• Late-straying deuces hate it when you linger in the dining room. Find tasks to do to keep you there. But don’t start sweeping the floor or upending chairs until the dining room is completely cleared.

• Ladies-first and serve-from-the-left once were the rules of thumb. We eased into a more egalitarian approach, designating a specific seat at each table as number one and working clockwise from there. Thus were the orders notated on the pad, and thus anyone could serve a course without having to ask who ordered what. As to the serve-from-the-left stuff, we did so only if we could avoid going into contortions at tight-squeeze tables.

Good service is an art, but it needs the underpinning of good design. Say what you will about the cooking, it’s the skill of those working the floor that makes a restaurant great.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

In this space last week (May 31), we incorrectly reported that the cost of Nicole’s Bistro’s annual Cucina Sinatra—celebrating the late singer with music and his favorite meal from Jilly’s Restaurant in Manhattan—is $100 per person plus tax and tip. Rather, the $100 includes tax and tip. The event will be on June 14; call 465-1111. . . . Milano (Newton Plaza, Route 9, Latham) features an exceptional winemaker dinner at 7 PM on June 14, featuring Roberto Stucchi Prinetti of Tuscan-based Badia a Coltibuono, a winery in the heart of the Chianti region. An appropriately Tuscan menu will feature a variety of antipasti paired with Badia a Coltibuono Roberto Stucchi Chianti Classico 2005; enjoy duck confit with forest mushrooms alongside a Cancelli (Sangiovese/Syrah) 2004 and a mustard-herb-crusted Berkshire pork rack with a Chianti Classico Estate Riserva 2001 and an acclaimed 2000 Sangioveto. Dinner is $65 per person (plus tax & gratuity), and you can reserve seats by calling 783-3334. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food at banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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