THE RESTAURANT WAS CROWDED AND we needed a quick bite before a late soccer game. On a school night. We should have been eating al home, but I had worked too late to cook, much less shop, and frankly, enchiladas and margar-itas seemed like the only solution to the day. Still, we weren’t the kind of customers I would want to see seated in my station: irritated, dragging a child, and in a hurry. The hostess turned us over to José.
“Hi,” he said, as he handed around the menus. “How are you tonight? Can I bring you some margaritas? Up, with salt, right? And a…” turning to our daughter, Anna. “…Dr Pepper or Sprite tonight?” Could he have said simpler, more magic words? And when we placed our order, he prompted Anna, “You don’t like that chicken too spicy, I remember.”
With that one encounter, José made our evening smooth and pleasant and earned El Nuevo Leon on Greenville Avenue a family of loyal customers. Survey after survey confirms that the main reason patrons select-and more importantly return to-a restaurant is not food, but service. This year, because of the glut of big. upscale restaurants that have opened in Dallas, good waiters are hard to find. Not that they’ve ever been plentiful. In this country, service is not the respected occupation it is in Europe. We’re not comfortable being served, and we don’t want to serve, either. Face it: A good waiter puts all his effort into being unobtrusive. What kind of ego boost is that? It goes directly against social Darwinism. Too many waiters want to remind the diner that we’re really all equals here. Midway through many a dinner I have wanted to take my server by the shoulders and say, “Look at me. It may well be that one day you’ll have a brilliant career on the screen or have a penthouse you designed on the cover of Architectural Digest, but right now, here, your job is to serve me.”
Of course, there are exceptions. Jim Donohue, manager and maitre d’ at the French Room at Hotel Adolphus, is one. He fell in love with a restaurant and now his ambition is simply to serve in it. Perfectly, The service at the French Room is as good as it gets in Dallas because Donohue is a fanatic about it. He’s formulated a whole set of rules and has even written a Goofus and Gallant-style manual, called “Quality Service Training,” full of aphorisms, italicized reminders, bullet-ed lists, cartoons, quizzes, and quotes from Emerson, Seneca, Ruskin, Picasso, and Ben Cartwright (you read it right). This is the Talmud of waiting tables.
José at Nuevo Leon had fulfilled several of Donohue’s rules of service, without knowing it: “Always greet the guest before soliciting any responses.” “Make the guest feel important.” “Be efficient with your actions.” And, hardest of all, “Be psychic.”
I MET WITH DONOHUE IN FRONT OF HIS beloved, beautifully rococo French Room. Dressed in gray slacks, paisley tie, and striped shirt, he was the picture of sartorial care. “Appearance counts,” reminds his manual.
Recently, Donohue was promoted to French Room manager as well as being maitre d’ (an unusual combination of titles), and his overachieving father-in-law’s response was, “Congratulations. What’s the next step?”That’s a typical attitude toward career servers and it’s one Donohue is doing his best to reverse. He’s just what you don’t expect a waiter to be: 38, well-educated, middle-class, well-spoken. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and moved to Dallas because a friend lived here. He worked several months cold-calling in office equipment sales before he decided to try something else and began waiting tables in the meantime. Now Donohue has been working at the Adolphus-as a waiter, captain, and maitre d’-for 15 years.
For him to take over at the French Room was a revolution. First of all, obviously, he isn’t French. “In the old days,” says Donohue, “all servers at this restaurant were French. They were everything the stereotype leads you to expect-condescending and pompous. And they used to leave the floor at the end of the evening and swill wine with the then maitre d’.” Donohue didn’t. He made the waitstaff into a unit with the result that, in a business notorious for turnover, most of them have been with him since the beginning.
Donohue loves service and is enthralled by all its nit-picking detail. When he first worked at the Adolphus, he would debate for hours over beer with his mentor, Gabriel Emery, whether soup should properly be served from the right (“It’s a beverage!” claimed Emery) or the left (“It’s a food!” claimed Donohue). He pop quizzes his waitstaff regularly, testing them over the menu and the wine list. He rates the competition exhaustively, writing pages of analysis of his dining experiences at The Mansion, The Crescent, The Riviera, Laurels. But his standard for service, he says, is the same for Tex-Mex as for the French Room. The dining room, according to Donohue, should have a consistent service style, as characteristic of the place as the food. Every restaurant has a distinctive pace set by the waiters. It can be fast or slow, but you can tell as soon as you enter the room if things are going well by whether the rhythm seems right.
Martine Varlet runs her restaurant, Modo Mio, like a ringmaster with an invisible chair and whip. The service is good, but ideally, the mechanism that makes it so should be unseen, unfelt. At L’An-cestral, on the other hand, you’re swept into serenity as soon as you enter. Perfect service is practically invisible. On a recent evening, our waiter (notice, I don’t know his name) was friendly, but not pushy; efficient, but not pushy; knowledgeable, but not pushy We lingered over our meal, but when we needed something, what’s-his-name was right there.
The hybrid haute American cuisine is difficult to match with a service style- prices indicate formality, but the dress code spells casual. AquaKnox, for instance, is swarming with waiters, but on our last visit, a blue-vested young man introduced himself. T.G.I. Friday’s-style-“Hi, I’m Larry. I’ll be your waiter”- and then we never saw him again. All those different uniforms seem to indicate something, but the diner doesn^know what. Who’s the captain? What do all these people do?
At the French Room, the more traditionally hierarchical waitstaff teams are comprised of a captain, a waiter, and a busser. There is a food runner who brings the plates out on geredons. The Mansion, a place with an ego, uses a captain, a front waiter, a back waiter, and a busser. I’ve overheard a Mansion captain saving face to a lower-ranking server at the expense of the diner (me), who had refused the coffee mistakenly delivered. (“She did so say she wanted coffee. She just changed her mind and doesn’t want to pay for it.”) Norma’s uses waitresses, who tend to call you “honey,”
Donohue’s point is that it doesn’t matter who serves or how formal the setup, as long as the result is that the diner feels valued. Most Mexican restaurants have a fast service pacer-they depend on volume for profits. But Mi Cocina turns their tables aggressively. The waiters are constantly nagging you to order and bring the check as soon as they believe the last margarita order has been taken. Contrast Avila’s, a family restaurant, where you are likely to be waited on by Ricky Avila, who is concerned with the impression his family makes. Feel the difference.
It’s not a diner’s problem, but besides coddling you into a return visit, the waiter’s other function is to sell. The waiter is the kitchen’s only point of contact with the diner. If the specials aren’t sold tableside, they’re tomorrow’s compost. I’m consistently amazed that restaurateurs put up with the listless, bored, and ignorant recitations and responses from waiters about the food served.
Not long ago. I asked a waiter what kind of veggie burger was on the menu. He didn’t answer me with a description.
He answered by asking, “Haven’t you ever had a veggie burger before?” Donohue’s book advises that “Poor product knowledge equals poor sales.” At the newly refurbished Laurels. the waiters can’t gel away with that kind of ignorance. They have to be walking encyclopedias. Chef/manager Danielle Custer is enamored of exotica and her menu is full of strange ingredients like sumac, dukka, and matoke. You can’t win “stump the diner” here, and the waiters are called on to explain and define a spelling bee’s worth of culinary vocabulary. No wonder I hear that Custer is having trouble keeping staff. Each waiter is an investment in training, and face it, for an experienced waiter who could make an easier 20 percent selling prime sirloin and potatoes, finding out and remembering what “’crosnes” are is hardly worth the trouble.
Donohue sums up “Quality Service Training” with the quotation, “Selling today is based on the Golden Rule.” Nice thought. You could, actually, say and accurately sum it up: Good service is simply good manners.