In the opening chapter of Wine Girl, the hugely entertaining memoir by Victoria James, once America’s youngest sommelier, the author describes a blood-boiling encounter with the kind of customer for whom involuntary euthanasia should be devised. It is a Monday lunch at the glossy Aureole in New York and the host of a testicle-heavy table of four has ordered a $650 bottle of a serious white burgundy (a 2009 Chevalier-Montrachet from Domaine Ramonet).
Having checked at her serving station that the wine isn’t tainted, James returns to the table and pours a small measure for the customer to taste. He declares it corked. “I think she has too much perfume in her nose, this girl…” he says, as if competing for a gold in the misogyny Olympics. There are only two bottles of the wine in the restaurant’s cellar. James does not want to waste a big-bucks bottle when she knows it is perfectly fine. Instead, she presents the unopened second bottle, takes it away, then returns and gets him to taste the original bottle again. And between racist epithets, he declares it perfect, with a fat top note of triumph in his voice. Witness: small penis energy.
Here’s what this story tells us: the customer is not always right. Indeed, sometimes the customer is a total and utter schmuck. In the depths of lockdown many of us talk wistfully about the restaurants to which we would like to return. Often, we frame it around the joys of a certain dish; the slow-cooked, deep-glazed, nurtured and stroked perfect little something that wafts us to our happy place. In truth, however, it’s the whole package we’re after. And front and centre of that has to be service.
We can frame this in purely mercenary terms: I give you money: you make me feel good about myself. But how reductive and grubby is that? There are personal services that work in this manner, but you’ll need a shower afterwards and, anyway, you’ll rarely be offered them in a restaurant, or at least not the sort of restaurants this column has visited. One of the questions I’m asked most regularly, after: “Where can I take my parents for dinner in Nuneaton that will impress them?” is: “How do I get great service?”
To answer that we first have to understand what great service is. It is not about putting up with self-important men being abusive just because they’re buying 75cl of Burgundy’s finest. It’s also not about the placing of a plate on the table from a particular side, or the clearing of dishes in good time, although those are all a part of it. Brazilian-born Paulo de Tarso, owner of the blissfully comfortable, gloriously upholstered Italian restaurant Margot in London’s Covent Garden, where life is always amber-toned and lovely, ran front of house at Bar Boulud and worked at the Wolseley and Scott’s among many others. Margot is one of the places I spend my own money, because I feel not just looked after, but held.
I ask him to define good service. “It’s about being present, noticing what’s happening and anticipating what’s needed,” he says. “You don’t know what’s going on with someone when they arrive. They might be happy or they might be rude in lots of different ways, because of something that’s happened to them that day.” It is, he says, about “taking away the stresses”.
I ask if these skills can be taught. Can anyone be good at service? Yes, he says. “But you need to have empathy.” Here’s a story of great service (which I’ve told before, but it deserves repeating). A friend took a date to Elena’s L’Etoile on Charlotte Street. It was named after Elena Salvoni, the legendary maître d’ who had run the dining rooms of some of Soho’s most famous restaurants, including Bianchi’s and L’Escargot before landing here. She was pretty much still working until her death in 2016, aged 95.
Early on in the date, my friend started surreptitiously patting his trouser pockets. A waiter tapped him on the shoulder. He had a telephone call at the front desk. (Yes, it was that long ago.) The chap was baffled. Few people knew where he was that evening. When he got to reception, he found Elena, perched as always on her stool, watching the room, missing nothing. She said: “You’ve forgotten your wallet, haven’t you?” He agreed that he had. That was what he had been searching his pockets for. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Pay me tomorrow. Go enjoy your dinner.”
Sometimes terrific service is a sleight of hand. It is the magnificent Silvano Giraldin, at Le Gavroche, taking my order with an encouraging grin on his face, his hands clasped behind his back. He is so compelling that I do not notice the commis waiter four feet away listening in and taking my order. Great service is a young woman called Emma at Albert’s Schloss in Manchester who, amid the battering clamour of rowdy jazz and lip-syncing drag queens, still knows exactly when to be there and when not to be there. It is the front-of-house team at Frankie’s Italian Bar and Grill who ’fess up to having run out of buns for a burger, but then pull it all back by apologising, comping the replacement main course and the desserts.
So how, when restaurants reopen for business – and forgive me, but I have to retain the sweet, stubborn, perhaps deluded belief that they all shall – how do we, the customers, get the best service? Here are my tips. First, avoid empty dining rooms. Restaurants function best when they are busy. The fewer guests there are, the slower and more sloppily things move. Secondly, if you really want good service, become a regular. That’s not as onerous as it might sound. Go to a restaurant once and you’re just another punter. Turn up three times in a month and now you are why the business exists. It means you must really like being there. Or as Paulo de Tarso puts it: “If you become a regular, you become part of the family. And that’s what the best restaurants are – families.” And if something goes wrong, don’t sit there fuming about it. Explain gently what’s happened as soon as it’s happened and see if they can put it right.
Finally, first impressions count. “Be super nice when you arrive,” De Tarso says, “because that spreads around the room very quickly. By the time you’re seated, everyone will know.” There’s another way of putting this. Don’t be like Victoria James’s dreary, self-important, high-rolling wine buyer. Don’t be a dick. It’s really very simple.
The closure of restaurants has left a lot of restaurant-grade ingredients with nowhere to go. The group behind Zelman Meats, the steakhouse Goodman and Burger & Lobster has turned to delivery. They are offering high-end ‘feast boxes’. The 2kg box contains a 400g ribeye, a 650g porterhouse, two short ribs (pre-cooked, just in need of finishing), the makings of two burgers plus myriad sauces including their truffle steak and their stilton steak sauces, all for £90. You can also add king crab legs and top wines. It’s delivered across London and the home counties. Visit primefeast.co.uk.
Meanwhile, if you’re after fish Marisco Fish of Penzance are now delivering to homes across the UK. They offer a wide selection including fresh brill, black bream, various sole and John Dory as well as frozen seafood. There’s a hamper at £55, or you can put together your own order, mariscofishltd.co.uk.
Lots of restaurant operations have moved to selling food to eat at home. A reader directed me towards Csons in Ludlow and Shrewsbury. They’re offering a changing range of dishes to be finished at home, both for collection and delivery. The menu includes the likes of asparagus and beetroot with a sauce of wild garlic and jack by the hedge, a lamb tagine, and their locally renowned burger. The website includes videos on how to finish the dishes csons-ludlow.co.uk
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010