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Restaurant service begins at the door

Published 20 July 2018

The restaurant scene has changed immeasurably in the last decade, with diverse ways into the business and all manner of working practices. But with less formality,are we losing something, asks Adam Hyman

There are two questions that, as a customer, you’re probably quite used to hearing in a restaurant. Do you have a reservation and how is everything? Yet, for me, both of these are the hospitality equivalent of nails down a blackboard. On the face of things, you may ask why. “Do you have a reservation?” seems like an obvious question for a host, receptionist or maitre d’ to ask when you arrive at a restaurant.

But let’s take it a back a step. You walk into a restaurant, a simple, “hello, how are you?” along with a welcoming smile wouldn’t go amiss first. The second, and by far the more infuriating, is the server check back that goes along the lines of, “how is everything?” It may seem the most pertinent choice of question to ask a diner but in fact it is a pointless, opened-ended question. Anyone from the Corbin & King school knows all it requires is a simple, “is there anything else I can get?” when checking on diners.

Two conversations of late got me thinking about this and the London restaurant industry.

Those of us working in it – along with customers – cannot deny that there has been a revolution in the industry over the past decade. Not only what we eat and drink has changed – sharing plates, poké bowls and oat milk in our flat whites – but the way we eat has also changed.

Restaurants like POLPO and Dishoom have made queuing for our supper the norm and lengthy meals in hushed dining rooms with stuffy service have been replaced with the informal option of dining at counters, communal tables and the recent rise in popularity of even being able to do this on your own sofa, thanks to Deliveroo. But with huge growth in the restaurant industry come challenges – most notably staffing and service.

One of the aforementioned conversations occurred at a recent industry drinks party where someone mentioned that the norm in this country is to experience poor customer service – anything better is often a welcome surprise. Of course, it should not be like this. Yet I’m always aware that it’s not the individual in question’s fault – the majority of time it comes down to management, training and attitude.

With the swathe of openings in the capital, it’s no surprise that a lot of the new restaurant and bars are being led by young restaurateurs and chefs keen to make their mark on the London food scene. But that presents a dilemma. Who’s training the people that are now working in these restaurants and how are they being trained?

I’ve always been fascinated by the history of restaurants, especially when it comes to the people involved.

What drew me into this industry was the people. Food can be flawless – but if the service is not on point, it can ruin a meal. Memorable meals are often just that because you’ve been made to feel special by the restaurant while breaking bread.

I remember finding myself on the terrace at the Groucho Club a while back. I was surrounded by some of the best maitre d’s in London. We chatted for hours about the industry and the people involved in it. The one thing everyone had in common in this conversation was that they’d all worked for some of the finest restaurateurs in the industry, including Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, during their careers. It struck me that this group of individuals are a somewhat dying breed – apart from the odd establishment, restaurants are not run like this anymore and people are not trained in this way.

Very few dining rooms are properly orchestrated in the ways they used to.

The skill of seating a dining room – juggling tables for regulars, making sure certain advertising CEOs are not seated near each other and keeping a room from being a boring throng of suits is a dying skill. Much like a Savile Row tailor – it’s been replaced by the more affordable high street option.

Speaking to Matt Hobbs, now managing director of the Groucho Club in Soho, he recalled his time at the Ivy in the 90s. “The internet hadn’t gripped everything like it does now. The result was there was a one hundred percent emphasis on personal relationships. Customers and staff knew each other and especially the maitre d’ team were aware of customers lives and careers. Now it’s far more transient in the wider industry

This article was first published in Issue 15 of CODE Quarterly.

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