One in an occasional series on dining service
Pittsburgh's dining scene is growing and diversifying in compelling directions. It is inspiring to learn how passionate restaurateurs and chefs are about their restaurants.
Yet in many places, service doesn't jibe with what's on the plate. For Pittsburgh to earn a national reputation as a burgeoning food city, restaurants must tend to the details of service.
Service is different from hospitality. Pittsburgh restaurants have hospitality down. Servers are warm and welcoming. Hospitality paired with the mechanics of service enhances diners' experience and ensures they will return.
When I moved here last summer, residents told or emailed me to say that service isn't a Pittsburgh strong suit. Diners (and critics) blame it on servers, but it's as much a flaw of management.
There are strategies for a tight ship. Graceful service requires support and consistency from people in charge.
Teaching points of service can be done through daily staff meetings before shifts to discuss service priorities, past mishaps and kudos. Management should correct habits costly to the restaurant and unpleasant for diners.
Polished service elevates a casual dining experience from good to great. It bumps the reputation of a terrific restaurant to legendary. As the price of a bill rises, so do diners' expectations.
Silverware rolled in cloth napkins makes things easy for servers. It allows for faster place settings when clearing a table for new customers. It also provides one less point of training, lifting the expectation that servers know where the knife goes.
This may seem trifling to expect servers to know the fork is to the left of the plate and the knife lies to the right, blade in.
Why should customers trust servers as spokespeople for the kitchen on where ingredients are sourced and how food is prepared if they don't know the basics of a table setting?
A restaurant conveys it cares about customers as much as the reputation of its chef when it attends to details of the experience, including where the water and wine glasses align.
Auctioning off dishes
"Who ordered the squash soup?" The question portrays a server as harried and disorganized.
When a server knows who ordered which dish, it builds trust and makes diners feel cared for. This is especially true when a server not assigned to a table delivers orders where they belong. When servers number place settings for each table, the correct dish is delivered to the person who ordered it. And, if a server is busy, another can deliver dishes as soon as they're ready.
'Are you still working on that?'
Any variation of "Are you done yet?" (even "Are you still enjoying your meal?") is abrasive. It suggests a server or management isn't tending to a table.
Servers can watch tables to clear plates from the right when every person has finished eating, unless a diner has pushed his plate aside and clearly wants it removed.
A variation on this question is, "My shift is over. Do you mind paying the bill now?" It's understandable if a table is closing the place down.
Otherwise, "Yes, I do," said a friend. "This is basically saying, 'I want my money from you right now and I'm going to interrupt you to ask for it,' " he said. "This is what restaurant/bar managers are for, to make sure that everyone still gets their end."
We can hear you
I recently sat at the bar of a new restaurant during which the bartender and servers spent the hour talking about details of hookups -- unappetizing for patrons eating dinner.
Just as diners carry on about inappropriate topics, so, too, do servers. Ostensibly though, diners are paying for a non-abrasive experience, one in which they are not made to feel like they are unwelcome or intruding on private conversations.
Graceful service also means refraining from yelling or burping. This seems a completely absurd point. Yet at a lauded restaurant I visit every so often, a couple of young staff do both when it's loud.
How staff greets customers makes a lasting impression, too. A colleague recently told me about lunch at a new small restaurant where the manager glumly noted it was 1 p.m. and "you're the first people we've had all day." While the server was upbeat, and the food very good, hearing the management's woes was unappetizing.
Good service can buff the reputation of a restaurant that's merely fine. One of the best service experiences I've had recently was in Florida one weekend, where I least expected it: at a restaurant my parents wanted to visit in a casino.
This was not my first choice.
Then we were greeted by a terrific server team: One took orders and another cleared. One served while another filled drinks, replaced silverware and cleaned place settings between courses. Both servers knew every ingredient, where things were sourced and every detail of how food was prepared. It wasn't just this pair, it was every pair, I'd noticed as I walked around the restaurant.
Even the garde-manger cook was hospitable, explaining as he assembled cold dishes or cut prosciutto in the meat slicer.
My family was ecstatic about the experience. Our straightforward meal was modest: It included a bottle of wine, Caesar salad, mussels and bucatini with ricotta and meatballs.
We were charmed because we'd been taken care of, educated and entertained. It transformed what could have been an ordinary experience into a memorable one.
Good food is important, but good service is the clincher.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or Twitter @melissamccart.