What constitutes good service in a restaurant?

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?

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5 Responses to What constitutes good service in a restaurant?

  1. I don’t want my server to “engage with me” unless they have something useful to say — tell me the specials if there are any, sure, but they’re servers, not friends. If I ask them a question, they should be able to answer it, but I don’t want them to be too chatty, ’cause I’m just there to get food from them and eat it.

    What makes good service? Attentiveness without hovering — bringing things promptly, sometimes without being asked (like noticing that your drink is getting low and refilling it), and being available, so if I need to catch their attention and get something from them, it doesn’t take all night. Being able to answer questions if I ask them (or get me the answers) is good. Above all, getting the order right, and bringing things promptly and well-paced (which I know is partly the kitchen, not them, but when the food comes all courses at once, that’s bad, and if I have to wait forever for it, that’s bad, too).

    And sometimes, it’s that extra something, like offering me a sample of a drink I’m unsure of, or bringing over club soda and napkins if you see that someone’s spilled ketchup, that kind of thing.

    I actually don’t like the “offered upgrade” idea, ’cause that can verge on pushy too easily. At a non-Chinese place, I might expect “can I get you something else to drink, or is just the water ok?” But at a Chinese place, most of us (and most Chinese) drink tea and water, and if we want something else, we should ask for it.

  2. mr. dave says:

    This is why we can’t have nice things…

    I have discussed the uniquely American sense of entitlement in terms of “customer service” too, some of my thoughts are here –

    http://www.ridiculousfoodsociety.net/2013/03/you-think-you-are-better-than-me-table.html

    I abhor the need that so many of my compatriots display for these sorts of friendly social displays.

  3. Daniel B. says:

    You are totally right.

    Good service is unobtrusive. The things that you need just happen to appear exactly when you need them. Servers should be efficient, courteous, and knowledgeable. But it’s not their job to massage your ego and boost your sense of self worth. That’s what a Maitre d’ is for.

    Some of your wife’s complaints would certainly be justified if you were in a different restaurant. Yes, the servers should be responsible for the pace of your meal. However Chinese food, as you stated, comes as it does.

    And you know what? I want to go to ethnic restaurants where the staff may not be entirely fluent in English. To me it’s a sign that people of a certain culture are running a restaurant for others in their community. They aren’t trying to make their food accessible to white America. And as a result, one is less likely to get dumbed down versions of the cuisine.

    So, tell your wife that you are not alone.

    Do you want to know the trick to slowing down the pace of a Chinese meal? Bring a newspaper. Sit with it, and don’t even look at the menu until they bring tea. Set your own pace. Order one thing at a time.

    A place with good service will go with the flow. But a newspaper is the universal sign for, “Don’t rush me.”

  4. When it comes to good service, I can definitely see both of your points. Dining out at a Chinese restaurant or any ethnic restaurant, I’ve found this type of service to be very prevalent across the board – The constant refilling of water, the hovering, and even the pressure to make an order quickly upon sitting down.

    For me, there are some things I like about this and some things that I don’t. First and foremost, I drink a lot of water and when a waitstaff isn’t attentive and I have to request a refill, it annoys me. The fact that some restaurants are always observing your water glass level is a positive for me. In terms of the hovering and pressuring, I can agree with your wife that it’s not the type of experience I’m looking for. I like to take my time and really read through the menu options. If I can’t take my time, then I’ll always end up ordering the same menu item that I know I’ve had before and liked.

    When it comes down to it, I think good service includes a perfect balance of attentiveness but also allows you your time and gives your space. I’d also rather have a dinner brought to the table instead of sitting under a heat lamp, even if my order isn’t ready yet.

  5. llcwine says:

    So here is something to contemplate, perhaps we Americans are asking ethnic cultures to bend towards our dining manners….we as Americans order an entire meal when the waitstaff comes to take our order, perhaps in the ethnic culture, that means to bring it all one right after another, but in their culture, you order one or two dishes at a time. I too have experienced what may appear to be rushed service, but the quality of the food served totally outshines any ill feelings of returning to the restaurant.

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