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What is good restaurant service?

svL | Jul 19, 200308:42 PM

After reading Nick’s fine report ("5 days of food in the Bay Area," posted on July 17), I was surprised that he found restaurant service to be the weak point even in the best local establishments. Maybe I’m too tolerant, but in the last few years I’ve been to some of the restaurants he mentions and generally I found the service to be very good.

So what is good service?

I tried to think of the service I got at these top restaurants but a funny thing happened. Even though I can recall details about ambiance, food, taste and wine, I had a hard time remembering the waitstaff. All I could come up with was a general sense that we were served well and unobtrusively. I know that the waiters and other helpers were there, but in my memory they are sort of like ghosts without recallable physical characteristics.

And that’s the way it probably should be. After all, good restaurant service should be smooth as silk and almost invisible. In a perfectly functioning restaurant there should be no surprises in service. The entire process of preparing the food and delivering it to the customer is done by a team. The waiter is the most visible part of that team, but if every one does their job then the waiter’s job should look effortless.

A waiter shouldn’t have to go through some heroics during the course of a meal; if that is how we remember that experience, then something went wrong in the service. We have all heard stories of waiters going way out of their way to please a customer (e.g., the restaurant runs out of some ingredient or beverage and the waiter goes to the nearest store to buy it for you), but, aside from it being a warm and touching incident, it really should not be part of the restaurant’s service. If the restaurant were operating "perfectly" there would be no need to fetch ingredients, or somehow try to squeeze four people into the space designed for two, or whatever. Practice makes perfect and a "perfect" restaurant would have gone through whatever minor crises might occur in its previous hundreds or thousands meals served and by now it would have anticipated most potential hitches.

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