How Do You Define Truly Great Restaurant Service?

When was the last time you went to a restaurant and had service that was so skilled that it made your dinner twice as good?

Every restaurant patron has his or her own unique preferences. Some want detailed food and wine suggestions from the server, others couldn't care less what their waiter or waitress thinks. Some people want dinner quickly, so they can get on to the next thing they have planned that night. Others want to linger.

So it's no wonder that the job of waiting tables can be difficult when customers often want arbitrary or contradictory things. But during our recent stay in Hawaii, we went out for a special dinner (it was for Laura's birthday) where our server really nailed things perfectly. I'd like to highlight a couple of seemingly minor things she did that, to me, defines truly great restaurant service.

Everybody knows the drill when the waiter runs through the evening's specials. And it's all too often that I've had the most expensive appetizer and entree pushed down my throat by an eager waiter looking for a bigger check. But when our waitress went over her specials, she added that she'd be happy to suggest a couple of specific things if we'd be interested. She gave us the option to take her suggestions--or not.

And when we did ask for her suggestions, she highlighted a cheese platter appetizer (of locally grown Maui goat cheeses) that was so good that we spent more than a half an hour slowly enjoying it.

And that's when our waitress came through again. She saw us enjoying our food so much (if I recall correctly, I was so excited that I broke out my adolescent manners and said "this is kick-ass!" to her with my mouth full), that she came back a minute later and told us something that I'll probably never hear in my life in a New York City restaurant:

"I thought you might want to take your time with the cheese platter, so I took the liberty of holding up your dinner order with the chef for a bit. Will that be all right with you?"

Once again, perfect. She gave us the option. It's a great idea if you're in lingering mode, but if you have somewhere to be, you can say, "No thanks! Please bring our entrees out right away."

It's infectious to be served by a waiter or waitress who takes obvious pleasure in his or her job, who is excited to share great food, and who offers flexible customer service like this.

This is how dining out should be. It's the kind of service that makes me recommend restaurants and makes me gladly tip more than 20%.

Readers, let me hear your thoughts! What defines great restaurant service to you?
PS: This post wasn't meant to be a restaurant review, but I'd be remiss if I didn't give out the details of where we had this amazing dinner. If you happen to be in Hawaii, do not miss the chance to try out this restaurant. I recommend it highly. Also, our gifted server's name was Kimberly.

Located in the Chinatown district of Honolulu:
1121 Nu'uanu Avenue
Honolulu, Hawaii 96817
15 minutes by car or TheBus from Waikiki.
Reservations recommended.

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Kira said...

For me, the key to great service is attentiveness without hovering. We dined out at a nicer place (for us) and were very impressed with the service. When I got up, the waiter folded my napkin on the table. He remembered my husband's name, and the pacing of the meal was perfect. Even though we were mainly getting drinks and a few tapas plates (and using coupons), he NEVER made us feel cheap or young or unimportant and gave us the same level of service as the table ordering apps, entrees, drinks, and desserts.

With the way the economy is, if we go out to a nice meal, that's usually our meal and entertainment for the evening, so I hate to be rushed. We also went to a place where my husband and I had ordered a bottle of wine to split. By the time we finished our entree, we still had plenty of wine left, and the server reassured us not to rush and just to enjoy our wine. So refreshing!

Jayle said...

It's all about the details. I totally agree that a great waiter or waitress is one who picks up on your cues about what kind of evening you are looking for...lingering, adventurous, etc. I love recommendations for food/wine. One of the best service experiences we've ever had was at Canlis in Seattle...where the sommelier pasted the wine label onto a card for us to take when we left (obviously we were fans of his suggestion.)

Another great night was at The Met (also Seattle) when our waiter was actually a retired bank VP who had always wanted to be a waiter - he clearly loved, loved his job of making the dinner experience unforgettable. We'd eaten there before and since - but the meal I remember was the one he served us.

I think it's about attention to detail and really reading the diners' cues about what they are looking for. And I do think service is right up there with the visual presentation of the food affects the whole experience for sure.

sire of sam and tali said...

Great, another reason for me to be jealous of your time in Hawaii.
Afghan place in Morristown, or rodizio in Newark when you guys get back?

Amanda @ Mrs.W's Kitchen said...

That sounds like a great way to provide service--I love your description, Dan.

I've had many great restaurant experiences, and many more not-so-great ones. Some of my favorites are:

- not feeling rushed

- attentive without hovering

- knowledgeable about the menu--this is a big one for me, since I have dietary restrictions; I often ask for clarification on a menu item, and inquire of some-or-other sauce can be put on the side. It's helpful when waitstaff can answer questions, but if they can't an offer to ask the chef is also useful.

I'd also like to say that there have been several occasions when I've had terrible service at restaurants--but after going back several times and training the waitstaff to our particular preferences, things do get better. (Especially at those local haunts you love to frequent.) So I would always recommend going back and trying again even when the staff seem to not know what they're doing. It can be worth the investment for future excellent dining (even at casual restaurants).

Daniel said...

These are all great insights.

Both KMAYS and Amanda commented on attentiveness without hovering, but I have to say I actually *like* a little hovering. I like to be able to look up with just a quick a glance and know I'll be able to get my server's attention.

Obviously this is a personal preference issue, since some people might be creeped out by a waiter/tress who might be eavesdropping or entering your personal space.

Jayle, I'd love to meet that former bank VP who's a waiter... as a former wall street analyst, I wonder if I should follow in his footsteps...

And SOSAT: we're back as of today from Hawaii. let us know when you're free!

Thanks for the comments, and as always thanks for reading.


Amanda @ Mrs.W's Kitchen said...

I should probably define what I mean by 'hovering' and 'attentive.'

An attentive waitperson pays attention, watches, refills/clears and does not interrupt frequently. I call it "the ninja move" when a drink refill magically appears or a dirty dish is cleared away and we didn't notice when it happened.

A hoverer asks you if you need anything. A lot. Before you've had your first bite. After you've had your first bite. Between the 3rd and 4th bites. Doesn't clear/refill without prompting--just comes by. A lot.

Daniel said...

Hehe, Amanda, I love your term "ninja move." And I definitely hear you on the interruptions between bites.


Holly said...

We went to a nicer restaurant for a special date night away from parenthood and were seated in a nearly empty restaurant next to a noisy bunch of couples. The server soon noticed the mistake on the part of the hostess and moved us to a quiet niche even though it meant more leg work for her in serving us.

Daniel said...

Holly, great example. I have to say I've never had that experience before. Your server went above and beyond the call of duty for sure. Thanks for your comment.


Anonymous said...

I am jumping in a year later to say that whenever we are given exceptional service, we leave a comment card for the management with our tip detailing the great server/service!I know from working "behind the scenes" that this is usually shared among staff so all can learn!

Daniel said...

Jimlinzee, I like your idea. It always helps if you give specifics so that others can follow. Thanks for stopping by!


Cora Bullock said...

Well, it's hard to find a good restaurant service nowadays. And I have to agree with Kmay, attentiveness is key to a great customer service. Who doesn't want a food attendant who listens and give you the right orders. Actually, it reminds me of this excellent pizza parlor downtown. Aside from the excellent food service and high end restaurant paging system, they do serve scrumptious meals. Now, I'm hungry. I better grab something to eat. Well, you know pregnant women, we're always hungry! haha. Thanks for this post. Great insight!