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From a warm greeting to recommending perfect wines and anticipating your every need, waiting staff play a huge part in making your restaurant visit memorable. Chris Losh finds out what it takes to deliver great service
Service in a restaurant is like background music: it should add something to an occasion, but be barely noticeable. And while I don’t think anyone would choose to go to a venue just because of the service, a lack of care in this area is one of the biggest bugbears with British diners. So, what should you expect from your waiting staff?
Just as first impressions matter in a job interview or on a date, so too in a restaurant. You should be acknowledged as soon as you come in, even if all the staff are busy serving other customers, and, as Andrea Briccarello of Galvin Restaurants puts it, ‘made to feel special’. Staff need to make you comfortable instantly and supply you with a drink within five minutes of your arrival.
A key expectation of waiting staff is that they know what they’re talking about. Sadly, it’s not always the case. When it comes to the wine list, any restaurant with a dedicated sommelier should be ok. But even in humbler venues, it’s not too much to expect staff to have half a dozen wines they can recommend with confidence.
As important as the actual knowledge itsef is the way in which it is imparted. Sneering or pompous waiters can be giving you the best advice in the world, but you’ll be less inclined to take it if you don’t like them. ‘Introducing dishes or wines should be done with a lot of passion and knowledge, but without patronising the guest,’ explains Briccarello.
In the end, remember that as a customer you are always right, even when you’re wrong. ‘I wouldn’t dream of “correcting” a customer’s order,’ says Garry Clarke, from the Michelin-starred Simon Radley at The Chester Grosvenor. ‘It’s their meal, and if they wish to drink a delicate Loire white with a rich venison dish, then so be it.’
Restaurants will often try to sell you an extra glass or bottle of wine. As well as adding to the occasion for you, it is, after all, where they make their money. But this needs to be done incredibly carefully. Some restaurants pour out the entire first bottle before the starter arrives to encourage you to order a second! These tactics are counter-productive. Any extra sales should be discreet and driven by the customer, with just a suggestion from the waiter.
In London in particular, high rents can put pressure on the number of sittings a restaurant has to take to make a profit, and table turning can be a real issue. Nobody wants to feel rushed, but at the same time you don’t want to be hanging around for 20 minutes between courses.
This, arguably, is where fantastic service shines. Good staff are mentally aware of what stage each one of their tables is at, and can materialise apparently out of thin air to top up glasses, remove plates and offer help even before you knew you needed it. Poor staff hover like Banquo’s ghost or never seem to be around.
It’s also common for staff to relax as the evening ends, though good service, as China Tang’s Igor Sotric points out, ‘ends only when the customer walks out the door’.
As with many things in life, size isn’t everything. In fact an enormous wine list, while it might have the impressive ‘thud factor’ when it lands on your table, can actually make your job harder.
‘I’m here to eat and talk to my dinner companions,’ says Nigel Lister, formerly sommelier at Asia de Cuba. ‘They won’t thank me if I spend the first 20 minutes perusing a tome the size of Leicestershire.’
More important than a 500-bin list is having focus to the selection. ‘I wouldn’t expect to see a list in a seafood restaurant loaded to the gunnels with big, heavy reds,’ says Garry Clarke of Simon Radley at The Chester Grosvenor. ‘It is all about the balance. Likewise, if the cuisine in the restaurant is heavily orientated towards a country, the wine list ought to follow suit.’
As to how the wines are presented, it goes without saying that info needs to be accurate. Most restaurants still divide their wines geographically, but there is a school of thought that it’s better to present wines by style: ‘light crisp whites’, ‘rich oaky reds’ and so on.
Certainly, a wine list is a reflection of the restaurant’s ethos. And this year, in association with Louis Roederer, Square Meal has launched its first ever Wine List of the Year competition. Aimed at finding the best wine lists around the country, it’s expected to attract hundreds of entries from Land’s End to John o’Groats and, of course, London, with the judging being done by an expert panel of sommeliers.
The results will be published in Square Meal Lifestyle magazine and also online – so keep your eyes peeled for the winners!
MAIN PHOTO: ROB LAWSON