When a customer's big night out finally comes around, it's vital that service meets expectations
You've been planning this meal for a long time, the reservations were made months ago. The food is excellent, the building is beautiful, but you just can't shake a vague feeling of unease.
The waiters strut around like aristocrats – they obviously know far more about food and wine than you – and the overpowering perfume of frosty disdain wafts through the room. You can't help thinking, "Was it all worth it?"
This is a question asked by diners at too many top restaurants.
It doesn't matter how good the cuisine is or how spectacular the setting, it all comes to nothing if the service isn't spot on. Jean- Claude Breton, Manager of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road, agrees. "For a restaurant like this, service is as important as the food."
Diners need to book months in advance to get a table at most famous venues and their expectations are high. Staff have to provide an experience that will match those expectations and they have to do it night after night after night. Jean-Marie Trancher, Manager of Le Meurice in Paris, says every meal is like a performance. "We make sure we find the right balance between serving the food and not being too intrusive. It is a question of understanding what the guests expect."
He also says delivering a great experience isn't just a matter of skill but also of attitude and motivation. "The most important thing for our staff is for them to want to be involved in the life of the restaurant," says Trancher. "The more they are interested in their job, the better for us." Employing staff with the right attitude is the first step, but you must provide them with the right skills and knowledge.
At Nobu London, Front of House Manager Sam Sedecias runs an intensive step-by-step training programme for all levels of staff, from waiter to general manager.
He explains: "Not everybody has the same definition of good service, so communication is very important. First, make eye contact with customers, look at their body language and see how they read the menu. Are they looking around for someone to come and give them a recommendation? You can quickly see what they are like."
Staff meetings before every shift are also crucial to ensure good service. Breton says, "We discuss the customers and any facts that we already know about them – whether they have any special requirements or preferences." Managers need to be on the floor during service, keeping an eye on the bigger picture, while waiters deal with individual tables, on hand to talk to customers and explain anything they don't understand. "There is no such thing as a silly question," adds Breton.
It is important that managers make sure every customer is treated in the same way and that they feel comfortable. If you really want to create a night to remember, you could throw in some extra touches to extend the ‘experience'.
New York's Gramercy Tavern gives its customers muffins, as they are leaving, so they can carry on enjoying the restaurant's hospitality the following morning. Diners at the Fat Duck in Bray are issued with ‘sweet shop' atomizers before they visit the restaurant – as a way of cranking up the anticipation. "People come here who have waited a long time for a booking and want to have a good time," Breton emphasises. "Whether they are drinking Puligny-Montrachet or just a bottle of Evian, people who come here should always be treated the same way."
Diners who have planned their whole trip around a particular meal may be nervous and not used to eating in a top restaurant.
A simple greeting and smile will put them at ease and set the tone for the rest of the meal.
"The most important thing is to smile," says Breton. "We get nervous guests here, but in a very short time they are relaxed and having a lovely time."
How long is service?
It's a given that any service will start with the dining room looking ship-shape. But there are degrees of tidiness. At one end of the scale you simply have freshly set tables, with salt and pepper, flower vase, ashtray and cutlery; and at the other is a nifty trick nothing more than a ball of string. Set rows of tables in exactly the same way to within a millimetre of perfection by lining up all the tableware with a piece of string. It's a simple trick, but it raises standards from merely good to perfect.