My culinary memories begin with my family. My mother’s guidance through global flavors: escargots, gefilte fish, artichokes, caviar, and fondue, for example. My grandmother’s catfish courtbouillon (pronounced couvillion in Louisiana), homemade ice cream, morning biscuits, and baked chicken & rice. My great-grandmother’s cathead biscuits, chicken & dumplings, strawberry pies, steak with rice & gravy, and tea cakes (man, I wish I had that recipe). Then there were the barbecued chicken, sausage, and burgers from the men.
When I was about 16 and recovering from an emergency tonsillectomy, all I could think about was food. Not only of how I remembered it tasting, but also about what I could cook, once I recovered, for my mom who spent her days and nights taking care of me. When that day finally came, I chose to make shrimp fettuccine Alfredo and chocolate éclairs. It was good.
Back then, we went to quite a few fast food and buffet restaurants, and saved the more upscale spots (i.e. Red Lobster and Olive Garden) for special occasions, when budget wasn’t an issue. There were, however, a handful of places we’d splurge on including a magnificent tiki-style restaurant called Port ‘o Call, where the po-po platters and Shirley Temples were the bomb, the food and service were consistent, and it was always a joy to dine.
Throughout the years, I found myself working with and in a variety of restaurants, both front and back of house. In every case, strict guidelines were to be followed in the kitchen and on the floor. But it wasn’t easy. I wasn’t the best server, so I nixed that idea. And rather than slaving over a hot stove and standing for hours in an overly aromatic kitchen, I realized that I prefered having dinner parties for friends. The restaurant industry is fun and insane and not easy. But I have eaten in numerous establishments, from fast food to fine dining, around the world, and would like to think I can offer an opinion or two.
Sometimes I think that my standards today are so high that I’m not able to enjoy dining out as much as I once did. Some of my friends might agree. Some might even call me a snob. And they have. But then again, are my expectations really so high? I would love to think I know what restaurants should be aiming for, and more. Consistency, for one. And lately the conversation about the dumbing down of the service industry, bad restaurants, and culinary mediocrity have come up so often in chats with friends that I’ve decided to list a few restaurant wishes/suggestions stemming from our most-recent disappointed outings. Some diners may disagree. Some diners might disagree, but I’m putting them out there anyway. Here goes:
- Service: Good service should be a given. It’s crucial that managers train their staff. If servers don’t know how to wait tables, then have them trail/shadow a seasoned server until they do. Each table should be made to feel like it’s the only one in the restaurant. Servers, take a deep breath, meditate, and forget about the stress of it all. Yes, some guests can be cheap or douchebaggy. Don’t take it personally. But also … Please refrain from wandering around the restaurant yawning. Don’t pay more attention to your fellow servers (i.e. hang out and gossip) than your tables. Remember to bring silverware and napkins without being asked … twice. Bring water. Don’t bring one guest’s plate to the table, and then wait five minutes to bring the other(s) because it/they (the dishes) weren’t ready yet; bring them all at once. Don’t take one guest’s plate away when others at the table are still eating. Ask before removing a plate; some people like to sop. If people at the table are sharing plates, and one is obviously wiped/licked clean, do remove it. And if they are sharing small plates or tapas, stagger the order; please don’t bring them all out at once, especially if the guests are seated at a small table. During slow times, don’t get lazy. This is not your living room; you’re still at work. Don’t hover, but do be attentive, listen, and be nice.
- Cleanliness: I haven’t run into too many dirt issues lately, thankfully. But taking it from past experience, I’ll add a little something here. Re-read your health inspection info. Don’t place raw beef over the vegetable shelf in the fridge. Wipe down tables and napkin holders, etc. if they’re on the table. Don’t sweep or vacuum when guests are in the restaurant. But of course if a mess was made, clean it up, discreetly. Clean your bathrooms. Wash your hands. That’s all I have for now.
- Food: Be consistent. Don’t overload your menu or your guest; having choices is great, just don’t bite off more than you can chew (so to speak). If you’re going to call your restaurant by a specific food name or have a specific motto (for instance whiskey and wieners), make sure that both whiskey and wieners are listed/highlighted on your menu. Also make sure you know how to prepare both of them, especially if they are being promoted. If you are an “ethnic” restaurant with a specific theme, do your research beforehand. You know what your guests like, but if you’re going international, then please be authentic. Also, don’t think you’re fooling your guests by gradually shrinking portions. Don’t change the recipe of something your guests consistently order just because you, the manager/owner, like it the new way; your guests won’t necessarily and will cease to frequent your establishment. And if you’re going to have set hours, then be there, open and ready, during those hours.
- Acoustics: I know that some restaurateurs purposely generate a higher noise level in their space in order to emulate a lively, crowded atmosphere. But, please, stop it. It’s annoying waking up in the morning with a hoarse voice due to having screamed a conversation to your friends the night before. Ringing ears isn’t fun either. It’s typically considered rude to shoosh the neighboring table of cackling hen partiers/celebrators. But maybe if the acoustics were better in the restaurant, they wouldn’t have to screech so loud either. In any case, loudness doesn’t necessarily add flavor.
- Reservations: In the restaurants I have worked in, it was understood that you don’t allow all tables to be reserved at once; you leave a few extra available for walk-ins. This is important not only for those who spontaneously stop in for a quick meal before an event, but also to ensure the kitchen isn’t slammed all at once. For example, I recently walked into a restaurant I frequent fairly often, and although all seats were taken at the bar (where I would normally sit for a quick bite and drink), there were at least 15 seats available. After waiting for about three minutes for the hostess to finish her phone call, we were told there were no seats available for two (at 5:45pm) even though we said we’d be in and out in about a half-hour. Whether you take reservations via phone, email, or online (OpenTable), make sure you know how many diners your restaurant seats and what your typical seating is per hour, and then subtract a certain amount for reservations leaving the rest for walk-ins. Note: If you’re planning on seating 15+ tables in a small restaurant all at the same time, your food, service and consistency will suffer, and your guests will not be happy diners.
- A few extra tidbits: Train your bartenders to make drinks, and in a timely fashion, before you place them in front of a bar full of drinkers. Stop using straws and styrofoam. They’re bad bad. Be kind to the environment. Pay attention to trends, but also to what your guests like. In the bathroom, restock the toilet paper, keep it clean and provide better lighting. Don’t place abrupt step-ups or -downs near the bar; drunk people, remember? Don’t allow screaming/squealing children in the bar; non-screamers/non-squealers are fine-ish.
Most importantly, if you are determined to open a restaurant, but don’t have the experience or know-how, seek lots of guidance/assistance/advice. And in the end, enjoy what you’re doing. Bon appétit!
A few of our latest culinary endeavors/adventures … some good, some not so much.