Have you ever noticed how the little things can make a lasting impression? We had an amazing meal this year at Per Se, the food and the service were top notch. Unfortunately the thing that pops into my head when I think of the meal is the jackets. Every server who came to our table that wintery afternoon had a dirty jacket. It was startling and so much more noticeable because every other aspect of our meal was so carefully orchestrated. It was a lone jarring note and yet it's what I remember most about the meal.
We tell all of our servers to assume that guests in the dining room can hear every word they say. That way nothing inappropriate is ever inadvertently uttered in the dining room. When we dine out alone we are an unusually quiet table. Not because we have nothing to say to one another, we are quiet because we are soaking in the atmosphere. We look at every aspect of a restaurant from the view to the greeting to the menu, the service and the food. We prefer to dine alone at places we are intrigued by so that we can get the entire experience. Dining out with companions is a different kind of pleasure which is more about the company than the restaurant. We still go to places we hope will be great but the restaurant takes a secondary role in the experience.
Oddly during our experiences in New York it appeared that servers at many restaurants either felt that diners were deaf or so self absorbed as to be completely oblivious to the conversations taking place around them. We are exceptionally attuned to the staff on a dining room floor but it still amazed me how often I heard conversations about tables, tips, kitchen snafus, managerial upsets and the personal lives of the staff in explicit detail. I suppose to some these tantalizing tidbits adds to the spice of eating out but in an upper tier restaurant it seems out of place. Discussing guests by table number is no guarantee that they won't be recognized, in fact it can spur on the listener to look more closely at the dining room in attempt to see who is being difficult enough to warrant the hissed discussions in the service station.
At Gilt, another of our top dining experiences in the city, the floor staff was curiously unwilling to ask questions of the kitchen. When asked what an ingredient in a dish was comprised of there were educated guesses based upon previous showings of the dish in question. Since the kitchen was doing a modified menu for us there was a bit of scrambling as the courses came out. More than once we were told "I think that was..." but there was no offer to ask the chef directly. Food runners stood at attention on the sidelines with trays of food, casting desperate glances at the captains until they were noticed and relieved. A dropped knife resulted in multiple apologies, the first from the poor soul who dropped it, the others by various superiors who seemed to be making a point more than an apology. The service was generally very smooth and polished to the point of being unctuous. There were a few genuine personalities brimming with a quiet enthusiasm for the chef's creations although overall it felt like a show. It seemed as though upon close inspection the facade would crack revealing an intricately detailed, inexplicably empty shell.
On the other extreme, dining at the bar at Balthazar was a delightful experience in spite of the crowds and the chaos that go hand in hand with that particular restaurant. The bartender in question was professional and friendly without being either cold or overbearing. The food was very good and the people around us were friendly and quite personable. It made the constant buzz all around us fade into the distance and allowed us to focus on enjoying the meal.
The Strip House was definitely theater like with it's dark lighting and red walls. The lady who served us was extremely busy and friendly in the tolerant way of an overworked mother. We sat at a crowded table in the tiny bar seating area, squinting at each other and straining to hear in the club-like setting. After initial misgivings we relaxed into the atmosphere and enjoyed basically well cooked steaks and a surprisingly good chocolate cake. The restaurant made no bones about who and what it was and the experience was straight forward and ultimately quite fun.
I'm sure that these stories are like comparing apples and oranges to some, but the common thread is about personality. Every restaurant has it's own distinct personality woven from the threads of all the people who work there. The style may be dictated by the ownership, the colors chosen by Chefs and managers but the details are filled in by each employee. We often say that a kitchen is only as strong as its weakest cook. A restaurant is only as personable as its least welcoming staff member. As we noted in earlier posts a cold greeting can be a portent of things to come. On the other hand it could just be an unusually tough night for a restaurant that tries hard to generate magic in it's embrace. I can especially sympathize with places in New York City. Rents are so high, hours are long and staffs are so large that it can be difficult to motivate everyone and track all of the details. The places that do on a regular basis are nothing short of amazing. A truly great restaurant can make the world fall away as it cocoons you in it's own inimitable experience.