The other day I dragged my wife to my favorite local Chinese place, her first visit. Afterward she said she thought it was one of the best Chinese meals she’s had anywhere, including San Francisco. I mentioned that, good as this restaurant is, some of the local sophisticates had complained about the service on Yelp, saying for example that the waiters weren’t sufficiently fluent in English. She then shocked me by saying she agreed the service was terrible and if the food wasn’t so good she wouldn’t want to go back.
Here’s what I observed during our meal: several waiters hovering near our table (it was a slow time of the afternoon) who were instantly attentive to matters such as refilling water and removing empty serving plates. Prompt response whenever we asked for anything, from packaging our leftovers for takeout to adding another dish to our order. And most important, piping hot food which was rushed out of the kitchen, just as soon as the dish was ready, arriving in a steady sequence over our 80 minute meal.
Here’s what she said: the service was too impersonal. Food was brought out too fast. We were not offered upgrades, such as wine or sodas for our children instead of the water and tea that were brought automatically. She said she likes to linger over the menu and decompress before she starts eating, and she likes the wait staff to engage with her—not on the “Hi, my name is Tiffany, I’ll be your server today” level necessarily but by describing the dishes and the dining experience and perhaps offering advice on what to order.
She continued that this lack of engagement is in fact a complaint about Asian restaurants in general (Chinese and Korean, maybe not Japanese) and the reason P.F. Chang does so well with expensive mediocre food is that they overlay an American dining experience on the Asian menu.
So who’s right? Well, I am, of course, since I’m writing this blog. Food is the foundation and focus of the meal in a good restaurant, and conversation and the overall experience should be around enjoying that food. Since food is generally shared in a Chinese restaurant, that becomes an added sauce to the discussion: taste this, you’ll love it. The kitchen should get the first dish on the table as quickly as possible so the merriment can begin. And absolutely they should send out the food with whatever timing and sequence produces maximum enjoyment.
But on reflection I realized I might be in a minority. If I go out to a business lunch I’d prefer to eat great ethnic food in a hole in a wall than in a chain restaurant with bland ambience, but my clients seldom agree. And I remember wanting to take our hostess out in Provence to a thank you dinner, no holds barred in this region with great cuisine, and she insisted on offering places that were “pleasant”. (Luckily we ended up at a place that was pleasant, but with great food.)
Maybe that’s why I like writing about barbecue so much, and trying the most out-of-the way roadside pits. When the ambience consists in slapping a slab of magnificent meat on a sheet of butcher paper, there’s very little that can be done to dress up the experience and not much that can be expected. But that’s just me. What do you think?